Lactation: Mother’s Milk

So, since we talked about conventional cow milk a couple of days ago as well as soy and organic milks, I thought we should spare a thought for human-produced milk.  I have no firsthand experience with human lactation, so please feel free to jump in with your two cents!  Many new mothers will tell you, though, that they did not realize how difficult breastfeeding would be.  Babies, unfortunately, don’t just attach themselves naturally to a woman’s breast and easily begin to suckle.  It is a skill that must be cultivated.  (No wonder wet nurses came to be.)

During a woman’s pregnancy a woman’s breasts become enlarged, to varying degrees, due to a chemical released by the placenta called human placental lactogen (HPL).  The first stages of lactation begin during the latter part of a woman’s pregnancy.  During this period a woman’s breast begin to produce “first milk” called colostrum that can be yellow in color.  Progesterone during this time is too high to allow true milk production.

When the placenta is delivered following birth, the woman’s body experiences a sudden drop in progesterone, HPL, and estrogen.  This shift causes the breast tissue to begin to produce real milk.  Milk will usually be produced within a day or two of birth, though it is not uncommon for it to take longer.  Colostrum production will slowly cease over a two week period as mature breast milk as steadily produced.  Colostrum is an important part of breastfeeding, though, because it contains larger amounts of antibodies and white blood cells helping to protect the child from germs and food allergies.

After the breasts become more accustomed to producing milk they begin to function on what I call a “made-to-order” system.  A woman’s breasts produce milk as the milk is removed from the breasts (through direct latching, breast pumps, or otherwise.)  Breasts will continue making milk so long as it is being removed.  The only other reasons that would inhibit continued milk production are maternal endocrine disorders, maternal malnutrition, breast hypoplasia, and in some cases lack of sexual activity, as sexual activity increases milk production.

When actually breastfeeding, the mother may experience milk ejection reflex though it is not unusual to not have this experience.  Essentially, the muscles in the breast push out the milk which may result in pain or a tingling sensation.  Another cause of pain due to lactation is contraction of the uterus.  The same hormone that causes the muscles in the breast to contract and express milk also cause the uterus to contract helping it return to its original size.  These contractions may range from mild and menstrual-like to severe and labor-like.  I shudder to think what they would feel like following a c-section.

That, in a nutshell, is the basic biology of lactation, though it does not begin to touch on the enormous issue of breastfeeding (perhaps in later entries).  But here are a few interesting facts about lactation you might not have known:

*Men can lactate, it’s true!  They have mammary glands just like women, and it can result due to a hormone imbalance.

*A woman can lactate without ever having given birth.  It is a phenomenon known as galactorrhea and happens either due to a specific hormone imbalance, continued stimulation to the nipples, and in rare cases is caused by prescription drugs.

*New born babies often lactate, colloquially called “witch’s milk,” as a result of the mother’s hormones just before birth.  It generally only lasts a few hours.

Questions?  Comments?  Don’t be shy.

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One thought on “Lactation: Mother’s Milk

  1. The breast muscles pushing out milk that results in pain is very often called “let down”.

    The contractions following birth that are related to breastmilk are also very beneficial for getting rid of the lining that has become quite thick during pregnancy. Most women don’t experience horrible pain during these contractions as it has become routine to massage the uterus directly after birth. Women who have C-Sections won’t experience as much contractions as during the section, the lining can be vacuumed out.

    Witch’s milk is also only colostrum as babies won’t produce mature, nourishing milk.

    If anyone is interested in helping their baby get a better latch faster, there’s a technique known as the breast crawl. Immediately following birth, the baby is placed on the mother’s abdomen with her breasts exposed. The baby will squirm until it reaches the breast and most often immediately establish a good latch. While suckling for the first time, within minutes of birth, the baby will kick it’s legs which acts to massage the mother’s uterus.

    Getting a good latch is the real secret to successful breastfeeding. Issues with supply are out of the mother’s control, but contacting a lactation consultant from the hospital where you delivered is the best way to help establish a good latch. Many women assume that the nipple is all that needs to be in the baby’s mouth, when in fact you should attempt to get as much of the nipple and areola in the baby’s mouth as possible. This establishes a good latch and prevents a lot of pain for the mother.

    Another way to avoid pain is to make sure to break the baby’s suction before pulling the baby away. Sliding your thumb between the breast and the baby’s mouth is the best way to do this. If you just pull away, you could end up with a severely bruised nipple.

    For other information about breastfeeding, kellymom is a great source of support and resources. You can find everything from recommended medications and food to pump recommendations.

    And as always, lanolin is your very best friend.

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