Whether you can or you can’t, it doesn’t matter.
Let-down, or the milk ejection reflex, is a popular topic of conversation among breastfeeding mothers and even healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, whether or not you feel your let down is entirely inconsequential to breastfeeding. Feeling your let-down does not mean you are making enough milk, or vice versa.
What is let-down?
In order to be sure lactating mothers don’t walk around with wet shirts all the time, the body has devised a nice holding system for breastmilk. That is, you don’t get lots of milk unless you ask for it. The technical term for this is milk ejection reflex or MER. Between feedings, your milk is synthesized and stored in alveoli.
You can find more information on the anatomy and physiology of a lactating breast here.
When your brain gets the message, it releases oxytocin, which makes the tiny muscles of the alveoli contract, squeezing the milk out, down the ductwork and into the baby or pump.
Yes, oxytocin. The love hormone. The same hormone responsible for orgasms and labor contractions also makes your milk flow. It also tends to make you thirsty and sleepy.
Here is a fun example of what a forceful milk ejection reflex looks like. Some alveoli are a little over zealous when they contract; most babies are not a fan of this because the milk hits them hard.
How does your body know to let down?
There are two main ways your body knows to let down. The obvious trigger is nipple stimulation. The sensory neurons in your areola identify that there is either a baby or a pump sucking, so they releases milk. Sometimes it is instantaneous, sometimes it takes a minute or two. Some women even have a delayed let-down of five minutes or longer.
Your body can also be triggered to let down with a simple thought. If a lactating woman hears a baby cry, she can be triggered to let down. This is also why some women need to think about their baby when pumping in order to express well.
This is actually the let-down women usually feel. I like to call this a “false let-down,” meaning that your breasts want to let down but can’t because there is pressure on your nipples from your bra. I think this is comparable to when you need to pee really badly and you are right next to the toilet but you can’t get your belt undone.
What does a let-down feel like?
You tell me! I am always interested to hear how women describe their let-downs. A few say it is painful, like a sharp stabbing pain in their breasts. Others say it is tingly or “like lightning.” Some describe it as a muscle cramp. Some say it is itchy. Others say it feels like a pulling sensation deep in their breasts.
Some women have no idea when they are letting down; others can literally tell me the second it happens.
I personally never felt my let-down. I would have false let-downs when I was away from Lucy for longer than about two hours.
So, can you feel your let-down? Whether or not you can feel it, know that your breasts are communicating with your brain through a complex and intricate system. Whether or not you can feel it, being able to sense your let-down is not a reliable way to know if breastfeeding is actually effective.