Breastfeeding: How Does Milk Production Work?

Breastfeeding: How Does Milk Production Work?


When you have a new baby, chances are you are excited to start breastfeeding. It is important to understand how milk production works in order to make sure you produce enough to meet the nutritional needs of your baby. This is extremely vital if you need to increase milk supply.

Producing Milk – Supply and Demand

Keep in mind that milk is produced on a supply and demand basis. Basically, it is “use it or lose it”, meaning that the more often your baby breastfeeds, the more milk you will produce as a result. For those wondering why breasts produce less milk when they are not emptied frequently, there is a simple explanation. When the breast remains full, the hormone prolactin can not bind to the receptors that trigger the release of more milk.

How Does It Start?

Although milk production is based on supply and demand, it does not begin like that. The endocrine control system produces colostrum during pregnancy and in the first few days of baby’s life. The endocrine control system is hormone based and begins at about the 20th week of pregnancy, known as Lactogenesis I. The Lactogenesis II stage begins 30-40 hours after the birth of the baby, when milk supply increases.

During pregnancy, the growing placenta stimulates the release of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These hormones stimulate milk production.
Once the placenta is delivered during the birth, the estrogen and progesterone levels significantly drop and prolactin levels rise. It is this that signals the body to increase milk supply enough to feed the baby.

After the first few days of birth is when milk supply depends upon milk removal from the breast. Milk production slows down and eventually stops in the first few days of breastfeeding if milk is not regularly removed from the breast.

What Happens Between Feedings?

Between feedings, milk production does not stop. Many people mistakenly think that a baby can completely empty the mother’s breasts, which is not true. In reality, a woman’s breasts are never completely empty. Research has shown that the baby only consumes about 75-80% of the volume of milk in the breast. As the baby is consuming milk, more milk is constantly flowing in.

Connective and fatty tissues inside the breast protect the milk producing areas. Milk is produced in the alveoli and then flows through the ducts to the nipples. Contrary to popular belief, breast size has nothing to do with milk production or breastfeeding. A woman with larger breasts will not have an easier time getting the baby to “latch on” properly, or vice versa. The size of the nipple has nothing to do with the success of breastfeeding either. A baby will not get more or less milk depending on whether his mother has large or small nipples.

What Causes Production?

When a newborn baby “suckles” on the breast, it causes milk production by stimulating the nerve endings in the breast. The hormones prolactin and oxytocin are then released, signaling the “let down” reflex to begin, when milk starts to flow. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for the release of milk from the breast.

Milk production is usually higher in the morning and decreases throughout the day. Emptying your breasts as frequently as possible signals to the body that more milk needs to be made.
Milk is constantly being produced, both during and in between feedings. Foremilk refers to the first drops of milk that are expressed from the breast. Hindmilk follows, and it is the milk that is further back in the alveoli and milk ducts. This milk tends to be richer in fat content. In order for the baby to receive this more nutritious milk, it is important the mother is emptying breasts as much as possible before switching sides.

It is possible for the mother to choose to feed exclusively from one breast. Each breast works alone to produce milk.

How Can The New Mother Stimulate Even More Production?

If the new mother is finding that her baby is having trouble latching on to the breast effectively, she can use a breast pump to stimulate more milk production. If the baby is not effectively feeding, production will certainly slow down. The mother can help this by pumping each breast for 15-20 minutes after each nursing session to increase supply. Drinking water also plays an important role in milk production. Breast milk consists of mostly water, so if you are constantly dehydrated, you will slow down your production.

What Affects Milk Production?

Storage capacity can also affect milk production. Storage capacity refers to how much milk a woman’s breasts can store in between feedings. This is not determined by breast size. This varies from woman to woman and sometimes, the mom can have a different storage capacity in each breast.


Milk production can be confusing for some new moms. The important thing to remember is to keep your breasts as empty as possible. Breasts will feel heavy when they need to be emptied, so act accordingly. Enjoy the time spent bonding with your baby as you breastfeed.

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