Disclaimer: In this article I discuss the ideal situation of breastfeeding, however each mother baby dyad is different and, for many moms a wide range of challenges can come up which is why it is advised to see an IBCLC in your 3rd trimester of pregnancy to help give you and your baby the best start.
Since the moment you saw the double pink line stating that you were pregnant, the anxiety and excitement about how to feed your baby has already been flooding your head. There is a lot of pressure nowadays to breastfeed, and you may feel that if you don’t breastfeed you may be judged. Yet you may be thinking, “I think so…I mean, I’ll try it…but what about all the horror stories I hear? What about the women who say they had infections and sore nipples and that it was the hardest thing they’d ever done. Is it really worth all that? What does it feel like to actually lactate?” We know scientifically that there are health benefits for both mom and baby to breastfeed, but how do you know if it is the best choice for you, and if you don’t like the physical experience, is that okay?
How Your Body Changes
To really understand the process of milk making, and what it physically feels like, it helps to see how each part of our body works together. When you first become pregnant, your breasts immediately begin the process of prepping for the full-time job of being the ultimate “breastaurant”. The reason our breasts get tender in the first trimester is because the inside of our breasts are beginning to change and double in size. The inside of the breast looks like broccoli. Think of the nipple as the “stem” and the “flowerettes” as the milk ducts. Between ten weeks of pregnancy, your body begins creating colostrum in the milk ducts. Colostrum is the very first milk your baby will receive and there is a reason we call it “liquid gold.” This thick, sticky, nutrient-rich substance coats the baby’s gut to protect against bacteria and infections. It immediately boosts the baby’s immune system and reduces inflammation. You may also notice your breasts getting bigger and darker. Your areola and nipple will often double in size and or shape. Nipples are elastic by nature and are capable of stretching up to three times their resting length. So if you were born with flat nipples or inverted nipples, the baby’s sucking and the pump will cause them to protrude.
The bumps that are forming on your areola are called Montgomery Glands which release a sebaceous oil that sterilizes the breast, cleaning any bacteria, so no need to use soap on your nipples, just water. They also secrete the same scent as amniotic fluid, so to your baby, it literally smells like home. The familiar scent helps guide the baby to your breast.
The Bond After Birth
Babies cannot see clearly when they are first born. In fact, they primarily see in black and white. You have probably noticed the dark line forming on your belly known as the linea nigra. It runs vertically along the midline of the abdomen from the pubic bone to your belly button. When a baby is first born, providing all goes accordingly, the baby is placed on the mother’s abdomen. The mother’s body will instantly react, causing a surge of oxytocin (the love hormone), which is responsible for bonding and is crucial in the milk-making process. The mother’s body temperature will increase to warm the baby and stabilize their blood sugar. When the baby is placed tummy to tummy, they literally get on all fours and crawl up the abdomen, seeking out the breast. Essentially, the dark line on your belly is the “treasure map” that leads to the “targets” (darkened areola) to where the “baked brownies” are (Montgomery glands). Your baby will use their sense of smell and the contrast in colors of the skin to guide them as they crawl up to the breast, where they root on the nipple and latch onto the breast all by themselves. When the baby latches, the saliva absorbs into the breast, signaling to the mother’s body what the baby specifically needs. Our bodies can decipher based on your baby’s saliva, the difference in enzymes and tweak the consistency of the milk to match the baby’s nutritional needs. The first few days post-delivery you may feel cramping when breastfeeding. The nipple stimulation is causing the uterus to involute to your natural size.
Things to Watch For
Breastfeeding should never hurt. Now I say that and most people look at me like I am crazy, but it is true. If a baby is latched correctly, and there are no issues with mom or baby’s anatomy, there should be no pain. However, there often is, which means that something needs to be adjusted. Mother’s unfortunately assume that it should hurt for the first few weeks of breastfeeding, and that is the furthest thing from the truth. Latching should feel like a gentle tug, and elicit a feeling of euphoria. Pain, pinching, cracked nipples, clogged ducts and engorgement from lack of milk removal are not normal. Seek out the help of an experienced IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant). You should not have to grin and bear it. Most pain is caused from a position issue.
The most comfortable way to latch a baby is in the biological nursing position, known as laid back breastfeeding, Mom is on her back, reclined, and baby is lying on her chest, using his/her reflexes to allow a deep latch. It may seem awkward at first, but you will soon find that this is truly the easiest way to rest, bond, and feed your little one.
Your mom brain will “think” it is best to bring the breast to the baby, with the baby on their back, however that goes against everything biological. The baby’s airway, eustachian tubes, palate, and sinuses are very close together. If you try to latch a baby on their back, the tongue will pull back and block the airway, which can cause choking, gulping air, and gas. Baby has no control over the flow of the breast on their back and if you have a fast letdown, they are going to get overwhelmed, which will cause major discomfort for both of you.The goal is to get the nipple past the soft palate in the baby’s mouth so that the lips can flange out like a fish, compressing the ring around the areola, where the nerves rest that signal the brain to release the hormone to make milk.
Understanding Your Hormones
Last but not least in our anatomy lesson are the hormones that make this all happen. Prolactin and oxytocin are the two hormones that directly affect breastfeeding and how milk is made. The minute the baby (or the pump) stimulates the nipple, the brain receives a message to begin the process. Prolactin has the awesome job of secreting milk from the cells of the alveoli. Levels of prolactin rise significantly in pregnancy to prepare for breastfeeding after birth. However, the hormone is blocked by progesterone (the pregnancy hormone), powered by your placenta. Once the placenta is delivered, the brain is signaled to bring down the progesterone wall and let prolactin do its thing. This tremendous hormone shift is why you get the baby blues in the first few days postpartum. You are on an emotional roller coaster. Postpartum is grand!
The Feeling of Breastfeeding
As your milk composition shifts and your mature milk transitions, mothers will feel more “full” or engorged depending on the time of day and milk removal. Oxytocin is also responsible for making the cells around the alveoli contract, allowing the milk ejection reflex to occur. This reflex is also known as your milk “letting down.” Some women describe the milk ejection reflex as feeling like pins and needles. Others claim it feels like a warm, heavy, rushing feeling. Most women feel nothing but pressure. You may simply just notice that all of a sudden the baby is gulping or having strong rhythmic jaw movements. You may also feel sleepy, calm, thirsty, or euphoric. If you instead experience feelings of dread or anxiety when your milk lets down, this could be a sign of a condition called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, otherwise known as D-MER. There are many reasons for this response, but usually it means that there is an increase in cortisol (stress hormone) or your body is lacking in B vitamins. It does eventually go away, but consider seeing an IBCLC if you experience even 30 seconds of feeling melancholy while breastfeeding.
The Journey of Breastfeeding
Ultimately, breastfeeding is a mother’s choice. You have to do what is best for you and your baby, but also what is going to make you a better mother in the long run. If this is your first time breastfeeding, be sure to surround yourself with women who support you. It takes a village. Be proud of what you have accomplished. Each drop of breast milk your child gets is a gift. But if it isn’t for you, know that you are still making a positive impact on your child by providing them with the next best thing. You are powerful!
This site is intended for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice. Please consult your physician or other health-care professional.