How does breastfeeding work?

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After a straightforward birth, most babies are ready to feed within the first hour. If you can have skin-to-skin contact with your baby during this time this will stimulate your baby to search for the breast to feed. This early first feed can really help to get breastfeeding going well.

As the baby feeds at the breast, the stimulation sends signals from the breast to the mother’s brain. In turn, the mum’s brain releases a hormone that tells the breast tissue to make more milk. This hormone is called oxytocin.

'After pains'

The action of breastfeeding helps your uterus to contract back to the size it was before your pregnancy. You may be able to feel this happening and these contractions are called ‘after pains’.

The let-down reflex

Even thinking about your baby will trigger oxytocin to be produced and this can stimulate your let-down reflex. This reflex causes all the muscles in your breast to squeeze and push milk down towards the baby.

The let-down reflex feels different to different mums; some mums feel tingling or cramping and other mums don’t feel anything at all but the milk just comes down.

How is breast milk made?

As with all mammals, our breast tissue contains glands that secrete milk. Human breast milk contains over 100 ingredients including important fats (for brain development), proteins and sugars. The milk also contains hormones, growth factors to promote optimal growth and antibodies to protect the baby’s immune system.

The milk collects into ducts and when the baby starts to feed the milk is pushed down towards the nipple where the milk can be transferred to your baby’s mouth. Your breasts can even make milk as your baby is feeding!

During the first feed you will produce a very rich milk called colostrum, which though small in amount, contains everything a newborn baby needs. After about two days mature milk comes in, which is thinner and produced in greater volume.

Supply and demand

Breastfeeding works on supply and demand. Your body calibrates how long your baby feeds for and then produces the appropriate amount of milk for the next feed. This feedback system has evolved to make sure that mothers do not produce too much or too little milk. As your newborn baby grows, your milk supply should increase to match your baby’s nutritional needs.

If you are worried that you are not producing enough milk for your baby speak to your health visitor or a breastfeeding counsellor at your drop-in clinic.

Breastfeeding is hungry and thirsty work

Breastfeeding a baby requires an extra 500 calories a day. In the West, it is not really necessary to try and eat more food, though you may feel like your appetite increases.

Many mums also report feeling incredibly thirsty when they begin to breastfeed so always have a cold glass of water to hand and keep your fluids up during the day, especially in hot weather.

Breastfeeding twins and multiples

Lots of mums choose to breastfeed their twins or multiples. Indeed, La Leche League has reported that it saves mothers of twins both time and money to breastfeed them (as the time making up and sterilising bottles is even higher with twins and multiples). Because of the supply and demand system it is possible to produce enough milk for your babies. If you find out you are having twins or multiples it will be worth joining a local support group.