What Does Let Down Mean and What Do I Need to Know About It
What They Are and How They Happen
Let down is a term used quite often in breastfeeding. Essentially, a let down is a reflex that happens, causing your milk to flow. Another name for this is a milk ejection reflex. Most let downs occur as a result of a baby suckling at the breast. The suckling stimulates nerves, and this causes the body to create certain hormones which signal the body to express breast milk.
Babies suckling isn’t the only trigger for a mother’s let down though. Sometimes touching your baby, or even being in the same room as your baby can cause a let down. Other times, moms might hear a baby cry and experience a let down. It really depends on the individual person.
Do Both Breasts Let Down at the Same Time
It might be hard to feel but yes, a let down happens in both breasts simultaneously. If you are breastfeeding your baby on one side, and are losing breast milk on the other side there are a few things that you can do. One option is to use a nursing pad or cloth to absorb the milk. If you don’t want to waste this breast milk though, you have a few options. Some breast shields or shells help to collect milk. These slide into your nursing bra or tank and are easy to use. Another option is a Haakaa, a silicone bottle and flange that suctions to your breast to collect any expressed milk. Some moms also use a breast pump, and actively pump on the other side. We suggest speaking with a lactation consultant about using a pump while nursing and how to best manage your breast milk supply.
How Does a Breast Pump Work Then?
These natural stimuli are not the only way to encourage your body to experience a let down. You can also manually encourage a let down either by using your fingers to gently squeeze your nipple, or by using a breast pump. Breast pumps vary in their functions and these functions determine how you can achieve a let down.
Manual breast pumps generally have a lever that you squeeze to cause suction. When starting a pumping session with a manual pump, start gently by squeezing the lever a little bit at a time. Repeat this gentle suction at a quick pace. This will mimic the suckling of a baby. As the milk starts to dribble out you can start to increase the duration and strength of the suction.
Double Electric Pumps
Many double electric pumps have a setting on the pump called “let down mode” or something similar. This is a great mode to start your pump session with. Spectra has a mode called “Massage” which is their way of mimicking the suckling of a baby. This is indicated by three wavy lines on a button. Some moms think these lines look like a bacon emoji and refer to this mode as “Bacon Mode”.
Can You Have More than One Let Down in a Pump Session?
Yes, you can! As the amount of milk you are expressing starts to decrease, you can try switching back to the let down mode, or shorter, more gentle suctions. This can encourage a second let down. If you are trying to increase your milk supply or build a freezer stash this can be an effective way to stimulate your body to produce more breast milk. However, if you have enough or are producing too much breast milk, encouraging additional let downs might not be in your best interest.
Heat Is a Breastfeeding Mama’s Best Friend
Need help encouraging your let down? Heat can be highly effective in helping your body achieve a let down and encouraging your breast milk to flow. In fact, because heat is so great at encouraging a let down, many moms experience let downs in the shower. There are a few different ways that you can use heat to help with your let down.
First though, we do want to mention that if you are using heat, it should be gentle heat as your breast tissue is sensitive and might be a bit irritated or raw from nursing or pumping. Whatever method you use, try the heated item on the inside of your wrist before applying it to your breast.
Second, also make sure that the aid you select is clean. You are applying this to a place that will be close to your baby and could potentially come into contact with your milk.
Pro Tip: If you are experiencing a let down in the shower and are frustrated about the lost milk, try using a silicone breast pump like a Haakaa to catch the milk.
The easiest way is to take a cloth and dampen it with warm water. Then apply the cloth directly to your breast. If the cloth cools down, simply run it under warm water again as needed. This can also catch any milk that might leak out before you are able to latch your baby.
Microwaveable Heat Packs
There are products that moms can buy to help harness the power of gentle heat. There are a few different types of heat packs available. Most of them are round or slightly conical or “U” shaped so that it fits your entire breast and can easily be inserted into your bra or nursing cami. Some options are cloth packs filled with organic material such as rice or beans. Lillemer is a great example of these natural options. Others might be silicone and filled with a colored gel-like substance like these from Lansinoh.
Massage can be another really impactful means of helping to encourage our let down reflex. There are a number of massage aids for breastfeeding, but our friends at La Vie have made a massager that incorporates the heat we just mentioned above.
Can You Have a Forceful Let Down?
The amount of milk expressed in a mom's let down varies from person to person. Some moms experience more of a dribble, and others have quite a bit of milk expressed. The challenge is when you have a stronger or forceful let down. Your baby might have a bit of trouble keeping pace with the amount of milk expressed.
How to Tell if you have a Forceful Let Down?
Your baby will give you clues that will help you determine if you have a forceful let down. Coughing, choking, or sputtering can be a sign that they are getting more milk than they are able to swallow safely. Other babies will pull away from the breast when they are getting too much milk. If your baby continuously pulls away from the breast when you initially start breastfeeding you might have a forceful let down. Another sign of a stronger let down might be that your baby is clamping down on your nipple. This is one way that they sometimes try to manage the amount of milk flowing. Sometimes babies of parents with a forceful let down will be gassy or spit up more frequently.
What Can I Do If I Have a Forceful Let Down?
Having a forceful let down doesn’t mean that your breastfeeding journey is over. In fact, there are many ways you can manage it. After the initial let down, the flow of milk will generally slow down. So it's just this initial stage of nursing where you might need to work at it a bit.
You can try expressing some milk before bringing your baby to your breast. This will help to manage the amount of milk your baby is receiving. You can express your milk onto a burp cloth, or use a collection method so that this milk doesn’t go to waste.
Nursing positions can have a big impact on your baby and their ability to breastfeed. Try positions where the baby is more upright or where you are more reclined. This will help use gravity to slow the flow of milk and give your baby a better chance of swallowing safely.
The longer you go between feedings generally means that more milk is stored in your breasts. When your breasts are fuller, your let down might be stronger. Nursing more frequently might mean that there is less milk that will be expressed all at once.
If nursing with a forceful let down is difficult for you and your baby, pumping is a great option. You can express breast milk at any rate and use a bottle for paced feeding. Pumping is a good deal of work, but for many moms pumps enable moms and babies to make breastfeeding less painful or stressful. If you have previously tried pumping and found it difficult or painful, please consider reaching out to us as our innovative breast pump cushions might help you achieve a more accurate size with your pump flanges making pumping more effective. Our cushions also help to alleviate painful friction that some moms experience. Our Mommy Care Team can help you troubleshoot whether these two situations might have affected your pumping experience.