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Breastfeeding and Human Lactation


By Kristi Patrice Carter

Nursing is one of the most powerful bonds between a mother and child. Furthermore, it is proven that breast milk is best for baby, providing high levels of nutrition so the child can grow and thrive, and providing important antibodies to protect your infant from illness and disease. Most women choose to breastfeed for many reasons – financial, emotional and health. However, most of us have no idea how the milk production works naturally and understanding the process will help during times of issue, such as when milk production slows.

While you are pregnant, many hormonal changes take place that cause branching structures inside your breasts to grow. Resembling a tree branch with bunches that are called alveoli. These growing structures are preparing for lactation. The alveoli clusters are milk making cells that will drain into the branches (or canals) that you probably know as breast ducts.

Following the birth of your child, your breasts only produce Colostrum for the first few days. This is important as the Colostrum is thick and helps your newborn infant learn to feed. It is nature’s way of ‘breaking in’ the child, is only initially produced in very small amounts and prevents choking. The other miraculous aspect of Colostrum is that it contains potent immune properties and protects your infant from infection, as well as acts as a natural laxative, allowing your little newborn to pass the Meconium (the first black bowel movements).

Usually about 3 to 5 days after the birth of your child, your milk will come in and your breasts will become engorged. Naturally, your milk production will adjust based on the needs of your baby, the feeding schedule and the amount taking at each nursing session. This stage leads to mature lactation which is generally when mom begins to experience latch-on issues and perhaps sore nipples. From this point forward, your milk supply is completely controlled by how often the breasts are emptied of milk.

As soon as you finish nursing your baby, the alveoli will begin to replenish your milk supply and fill the ducts with breast milk, waiting for the next breastfeeding session. Your breasts will become firm and heavy, especially just before nursing. As your child feeds, the breast will drain and become soft and empty.

During breastfeeding, it is the sucking action of your child that stimulates the nipple and triggers the pituitary gland to release Oxytocin. It is the Oxytocin that causes the muscles around the alveoli to contract and sends the milk through the breast ducts and to the nipple.

If you have breastfed another child, you are probably aware of MER which stands for Milk Ejection Reflex. Simply stated, this is the involuntary milk release that can occur from either emotional stimuli such as anxiety, stress and anxiety, or it can be hormonally induced. It is perfectly natural when it occurs infrequently. If it is occurring on a frequent basis, you should discuss this with your doctor or lactation consultant.