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Baby holding hand breastfeeding

There’s a whole lot going on behind breastmilk production – here’s a little more about it

Getting started

After a straightforward natural 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 should stimulate your baby to search for the breast to feed. 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.

Despite the science behind it, each mum’s experience of breastfeeding is different and it doesn’t come easily for everyone. If you’re struggling its important to ask for help. There are lots of people who can offer support, and they’ve seen and heard it all before so don’t be embarrassed. The most important thing is to make sure your baby is getting enough milk, so contact your health visitor or midwife as soon as possible if you think there’s a problem. There’s more on that below.

The let-down reflex

Back to the science! Once breastfeeding is established, 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 more than 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.

Fuel for breastfeeding

When you’re breastfeeding it’s important to make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, protein from lean meat, dairy and slow-release carbohydrates. To keep your energy levels up, especially during those night feeds, it’s a good idea to have some healthy snacks to hand to keep you going. 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 during hot weather.

Breastfeeding twins and multiples

Lots of mums breastfeed their twins or multiples, and it is possible to breastfeed more than one at once. Because of the supply and demand system it is possible to make enough milk for multiple babies. You may even find yourself breastfeeding siblings if they are quite close in age. If you discover you are having twins or multiples it may be worth joining a local support group so you can meet other parents in the same boat. The Twins and Multiple Birth Association (Tamba), is a good place to look for a local group. If you can’t find one that suits you, online forums or social media support groups can be a way of sharing concerns and receiving advice.

Getting support

If you are finding breastfeeding difficult or experiencing pain during feeds, you’re not alone – many women struggle to breastfeed at first so do keep trying if you can. It’s recommended that you breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and then up until two years or beyond as part of a balanced diet, so it’s important to ask for help if you are struggling. Your health visitor or midwife is your best first port of call as they will be able to advise you on different positions to try and make sure your baby is latching on correctly – if you’re between visits you can find their phone number in your red book so you can talk to someone straight away.

If you need further help there are also lots of support groups who can offer advice and counselling. The National Breastfeeding Helpline (0300 100 0212) is open from 9.30am to 9.30pm every day or you can contact your local Children’s Centre to find a local breastfeeding group. The NHS website also has a useful service where you can search for a breastfeeding drop-in near you.

It may also be worth checking that you baby does not have tongue-tie, when the thin piece of tissue that connects the underside of the tongue to the base of the mouth is abnormally short. Some tongue-tied babies are able to breastfeed normally but if they can’t, tongue-tie can be fixed with a relatively simple procedure. If you have concerns about this or anything else be sure to speak to your health professional as soon as possible to confirm that your baby is getting enough milk and ensure that you are both healthy and happy.

For advice on different breastfeeding positions, read our feature to find one that works for you and your baby. Alternatively, here’s more information about attachment and latching on.

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