Wet, sticky breasts rarely appear on a breastfeeding mother’s wishlist. When in fact they should top the list in the early weeks. Milk production, milk release, and milk transfer are the three ingredients mothers need to breastfeed. Leaking is a clear sign of milk production and milk release—two down, one to go! You’re making plenty of breast milk; it’s exiting the breasts; now all you need to do is get the milk into your baby instead of onto your shirt.
What causes leaking?
Blame it on the let-down reflex. When babies breastfeed, the nerves in the nipple carry a message to the brain—“Hungry baby.” The brain responds by releasing two hormones—prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin tells your breasts to make milk and oxytocin tells your breast to release milk. This sudden release of milk is called a “let-down.”
Some mothers feel a tingling sensation before their milk starts to drip or spray. Others simply notice an unwelcome wet spot on their clothing.
While leaking is common, not all mothers leak. It occurs more often during the early weeks when a baby’s feeding schedule is constantly changing. Once your baby has developed a more consistent feeding schedule (around 6–12 weeks of age), your breasts will know how much milk to make and when to make it, and leaking will occur less often or stop altogether.
Many moms are surprised to learn that leaking can occur when you think about your baby, when you hear your baby (or another baby) cry, when you delay or skip a feeding and your breasts overfill, or when you take a warm shower. Even an orgasm can trigger the let-down reflex! (An orgasm, much like the sound of a baby crying, stimulates oxytocin release, which in turn can cause milk release.)
How can I stop the leaking?
Leaking reinforces the fact that you are making milk, which is a good thing. For many, leaking can give a new mother confidence in her ability to breastfeed. But, if you find leaking to be uncomfortable, excessive, or even a bit embarrassing, here are some tips to stop your breasts from leaking milk:
- Press firmly against the nipple of each breast with the palm of your hand or your wrist or fold your arms tightly across your chest to stop the leaking long enough for you to make a discreet exit. You might want to limit this practice in the early weeks when you are establishing a milk supply, since efforts to prevent leaking can cause your milk supply to dwindle.
- Use breast pads for short-term protection. They come in all shapes and sizes—disposable as well as reusable. You can make your own breast pads using cloth diapers, cotton fabric, or men’s handkerchiefs. Change breast pads frequently, and avoid using pads with plastic liners that trap wetness against the skin.
- Choose clothing with light colors and small prints that cover up a multitude of mishaps.
- Place a bath towel on top of your bed sheet. This will protect the mattress and keep the sheet beneath you dry.
- Breastfeed your baby before going to bed. This will minimize the amount of milk in the breasts (but remember that breasts are never truly empty) and allow time for sex or sleep, whichever comes first.