Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for making milk eject or “let down” during feeding and pumping. Milk is constantly being made and collected in little sacs (alveoli) at the back of the breast. When the breast and nipple are stimulated during feeding, oxytocin makes the cells around the alveoli contract in what’s called the milk ejection reflex (MER). This makes the milk that is already in the breast flow for baby.
You can train yourself to have MER through your senses and feelings, such as when you touch, smell or see your baby, hear baby cry, or think lovingly about them. If you are in severe pain, anxious, or emotionally upset, the oxytocin reflex may become inhibited, and milk may suddenly stop flowing well. With support, and recognition, once you feel comfortable and baby continues to breastfeed, the milk will flow again.
Signs that the oxytocin reflex is active:
• Tingling sensation in the breast before or during a feed
• Milk starts to drop when you think of baby or hear crying
• Milk flowing from the other breast when baby is sucking
• Milk sprays from the breast if baby unlatches
• Slow deep sucks and swallowing by the baby, indicating milk is flowing
• Uterine cramping in the first week after delivery
• Thirst during a feed.
If one or more of these signs are present, the reflex is working. However, if they are not present, it does not mean that the reflex is not active. Not every one feels or is aware of these sensations.
Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to get a dose of oxytocin. If you can feel milk in your breasts but are having trouble letting the milk down, try this:
◦ Keep baby in skin to skin contact for 1-2 hours prior to feeding or pumping
◦ Do yoga. A small 2013 study found after 1 month of yoga, people had higher oxytocin levels
◦ Listen to music. Multiple studies have found that listening to music naturally boosts oxytocin. This can be especially helpful when pumping at work
◦ Meditate. This helps reduce stress which increases oxytocin
◦ Touch. Physical touch releases oxytocin. This can be from cuddling, hugging or touching another person you love or getting a massage
◦ Laugh! Laughter really is the best medicine
◦ Sex. This is a hard one depending on where you’re at in your postpartum journey, but orgasm is a key way to boost oxytocin
◦ Pet you pet! Animal touch can release oxytocin just like human touch can
◦ Oxytocin nasal spray. Struggling with severe anxiety and nothing else is working? A prescription for an oxytocin nasal spray can help trigger let downs