How Breastmilk is Made
When you know how breastmilk is made, it is easier to understand why breastfeeding
babies nurse frequently. At first, the hormones that change after you give birth are
responsible for milk production. After your baby is about 1 or 2 weeks old, your baby's
ability to empty the milk from your breasts fully and often plays a greater role in
the amount produced.
While you are still pregnant and just after birth, your breasts make colostrum. It
is often dark yellow or orange, so people call it "liquid gold." This is a thick,
rich food that is small in volume but rich in nutrients. It is important to remember
that your baby's stomach is very small and does not need a large amount of milk to
be filled. If your baby seems satisfied and is making the correct number of wet or
dirty diapers, you can feel confident that your body is making everything that your
baby needs. Keep nursing when your baby is telling you that they are hungry, and your
body will respond to the signals to make more milk.
Hormones and breastmilk
After your baby is born and the placenta is delivered, a drop in the pregnancy hormones
allows the hormone prolactin to begin to work. Prolactin "tells" the breasts it is
time to start making large amounts of milk. A mother feels the result of prolactin
when her milk "comes in," usually when her baby is about 3 to 5 days old. Increased
milk production typically occurs at this time even if a baby has not been breastfeeding
well or often. But frequent breastfeeding can speed up the process of establishing
increased milk production. Occasionally, a mother may have a delay in the production
of large amounts of milk.
After milk has come in
Ongoing, long-term milk production depends mostly on milk removal. The more often and completely
it is removed, the more milk the breasts make. The opposite is also true. When milk
is removed less often or not enough is removed, the breasts get the signal to slow
milk production and make less.
To fully empty the breast, a baby must have a good latch. A baby must latch deeply
onto the breast and use the structures in their mouth to create intermittent suction,
compress the breast with their mouth, and swallow. When your baby does this, your
body will respond to the signal by releasing the hormone oxytocin. This leads to the
release of larger volumes of milk—a process known as milk "let down."
You can use milk expression to fully empty your breasts if your baby cannot or you
are separated from them. You can express milk by hand by compressing the breast tissue
with your hands. You can also express milk with a breast pump.