Are you unsure if your baby is getting anything when they’re feeding? Are you worried because you no longer feel the let-down sensation after your baby latches on?
Don’t feel discouraged! Only an estimated 1% to 5% of moms lack the ability to breastfeed their babies successfully. But 92% of new moms report having troubles with breastfeeding in the first few days after giving birth (1). So, rest assured, you’re not alone.
There are ways you can tell if your let-down reflex is happening adequately. There are also ways to improve it — just keep calm and read on.
What Is Your Let-Down Reflex?
When your baby latches on during feedings, your brain releases the hormones prolactin and oxytocin (2). Prolactin helps you make more breast milk for future use, and oxytocin creates the let-down reflex to send milk to your baby.
When the let-down starts, some moms feel a tingly or itchy feeling in their breast. Others feel a warm sensation when let-down occurs.
Some moms think let-down is not happening when it really is. As your body adjusts to the breastfeeding process, the physical sensations of let-down can fade. Don’t worry — there are other ways to tell this process is occurring.
You can tell let-down has occurred if you experience a change in your baby’s sucking from short, small sucking motions to longer, more rhythmic gulps (3). You may also be able to see leaking or spraying from the opposite breast once the let-down reflex has started.
What Causes a Slow Let-Down?
Some women experience a slower let-down than their peers. This can result in difficulty and frustration for both mother and child. A baby may cry, get fussy, try to unlatch and relatch from the breast, bite down, or even begin to refuse to nurse completely.
Several things can cause your let-down reflex to slow, including:
- Alcohol consumption.
- Cold temperatures.
- Caffeine consumption.
- Pain, such as that from sore and cracked nipples.
- Certain medications.
- Nerve damage from previous breast surgeries.
- Baby is not latched correctly or is not nursing effectively.
If you’re pumping, let-down might also be slower than it is during nursing.
How Can I Solve Slow Let-Down?
If you are having issues with slow let-down, don’t be discouraged. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure in any way. It also doesn’t mean you’re out of options.
There are several things you can do to encourage the process.
1. Focus On Latch
If your baby doesn’t latch well, they won’t be able to stimulate the nerves in the breast responsible for initiating the let-down reflex. A shallow latch is also painful.
Make sure your baby’s mouth is wide open when they come to the breast and their lips are flanged out on the breast as they’re eating. A deep, asymmetric latch is comfortable and effective.
When you feel tense or stressed, it affects your entire body and can make let-downs happen slower. Try taking a few calming breaths, nursing in a quiet room, or even humming along to your favorite song to ease your tension.
The nerves in your nipples and breast send a signal to your brain when it’s time to let down milk. You can help stimulate these nerves by massaging your breast before and during nursing sessions. By stimulating the nerves, you also increase your oxytocin levels and can improve milk production.
4. Pump Occasionally
Pumping before a nursing session can stimulate your let-down reflex and get it going before your baby ever latches on. This means it will let down sooner for your baby. Pumping and nursing more frequently have also been known to help.
5. Heat Helps
You can use the heat from a warm compress to help stimulate let-down. Heat encourages the blood vessels in your breast to open, making it easier for your milk to flow. You can also combine this with massage for even better results.
6. The Marmet Technique
This technique was created when a mother found her let-down reflex was not working as well when she hand-expressed breast milk compared to when she nursed. Today, it’s often used by moms who need to hand-express their milk, especially those who pump often and find their let-down is slower when they do.
The technique involves a mixture of manual expression combined with massage for the best results. You do it by making your hand form a C-shape around the breast, with the thumb positioned on the top of your nipple and your pointer finger on the bottom (4).
You then push straight into the chest wall and roll your fingers forward all at the same time. You repeat the three steps until your breasts are completely drained of milk, which usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.
7. Use Your Senses
Looking at your baby can make your body release oxytocin, the hormone needed for let-down. Looking at your baby also makes your body release dopamine, “the happiness hormone” that can help you bond with your baby (5). Smell your baby’s head or nuzzle their neck right before latching. Listen to the little noises they make as they’re eating.
If you’re having problems with let-down when pumping, listen to a recording of your baby or bring along a blanket they use regularly. The sound and smell of your baby will help to induce let-downs. And who doesn’t have hundreds of baby pictures on their phone to look at while pumping?
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Skin-to-skin, or kangaroo care, is a method that has been used for years to promote the health of premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. It helps your baby thrive and can also help get your let-down reflex going.
Skin-to-skin care is one of the best ways to produce oxytocin for both you and your baby. It will help you feel more connected with your little one, and it will calm and relax your baby. When your baby is relaxed, you can be too — which will help your let-down reflex.
9. Get In the Bath
When I was nursing, I found that getting in the bath with my baby to nurse helped my let-down reflex a lot. The mix of skin-to-skin, relaxing water, and heat from the bath made a great environment to get used to breastfeeding. Just make sure your bathwater isn’t too hot; you want your baby to be comfortable, too!
If baths aren’t your thing, don’t fret! A hot shower directly before nursing can also help promote let-down.
Fennel contains phytoestrogens, but while it’s good for stimulating the let-down reflex, you should use it with caution. If taken too frequently, fennel may reduce your milk supply. It’s also used as an appetite suppressant, so make sure you’re eating enough calories while taking it.
Other herbs, like goats rue and fenugreek, also act as galactagogues, helping increase your milk supply. Working with your lactation consultant or an herbalist will help you find just the right herbs for your needs.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
11. Lean Forward
Let gravity do its job by leaning forward so your breasts are not restricted by clothing or your bra. Some even suggest shaking your breast from side to side while letting them hang down to stimulate your let-down reflex.
12. Consider a Lactation Specialist
It’s easy to feel discouraged when you’re having trouble breastfeeding, but it’s important to know you’re not alone. That’s why La Leche League International was founded in 1956 — to provide practical support for moms who want to nurse.
La Leche League International is now in over 80 countries and helps women with breastfeeding-related issues like engorgement, latching, weaning, positioning, and even increasing milk supply. Find a chapter near you here.
Find a board-certified lactation consultant in your area if you need more help than a volunteer breastfeeding counselor can supply. An IBCLC is trained specifically to help with more difficult breastfeeding issues. You can find local IBCLCs here.
13. Talk to Your Doctor
Your doctor might not be able to help you make your let-down reflex activate faster, but they can help with the underlying symptoms causing it — especially if they are rooted in mental health.
If you think anxiety or postpartum depression might be the culprit, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor. They can direct you to a therapist and possibly even prescribe a medication to help with your symptoms.
Up to 80% of new moms experience the baby blues, and about 10% to 20% will experience more severe postpartum depression or anxiety. Remember, you’re not alone. It’s OK to get help.