A lot of first-time mothers-to-be may be wondering how it feels like to produce and release milk from their breasts. How do you know that you are lactating? Does it hurt? Why do some women find lactation easy and why do others have a tough time? These are legitimate questions considering the combination of horror stories and inspiring tales they must have heard surrounding lactation and breastfeeding.
If you are one of these expectant moms who wish to know what lactation feels like, the key is to first understand how the process works, what to expect when you lactate, and the remedies you can seek when things don’t work as smoothly as you would have wished. Educating yourself about these things will help you have a good experience lactating and nursing your newborn.
First Things First: What You Need to Know About Lactation
The lactation process starts during pregnancy, when your hormones change, signaling your mammary glands to produce milk in preparation for your baby’s birth.
Lactation involves various parts of the mammary glands, including the alveoli, milk ducts, areola, and nipple. The alveoli are tiny sacs that are responsible for making and storing milk, while the ducts have the task of carrying the milk from the cluster of alveoli to the nipple.
Meanwhile, the areola is equipped with sensitive nerve endings that inform your body when it needs to feed or pump. Needless to say, it helps to stimulate the areola so that expressing milk from the alveoli to the ducts to the nipple becomes easy.
The nipple, on the other hand, is the part that secretes food for your baby. Your nipple has several pores and its nerves respond to the suckling of a baby, a breast pump, or your hands.
What to Expect During Lactation
Lactation comes in three stages. The first stage takes place during the second trimester of your pregnancy and ends a few days after giving birth. During this stage, your estrogen and progesterone levels rise, causing your mammary glands to have more and bigger ducts.
The growth of ducts will make your breasts fuller. You’d feel them getting bigger and heavier and you’d start feeling uncomfortable and constricted in your old bras. You would feel more discomfort the more your breasts and belly increase in size and converge.
The second stage takes place two or three days after you give birth. During this stage, milk production dramatically increases and intensifies, thanks to the hormone prolactin. Prolactin takes over the estrogen and progesterone, which both drop after delivery.
During this stage, your breasts become engorged. When they are very full of milk, you will feel soreness, tenderness, and even pain. However, once your body gets adjusted to regular pumping or nursing, the engorgement will subside.
The third stage is lactation which happens the rest of the time. An example is when you are breastfeeding your baby for a year. Lactation continues until you fully stop nursing. That’s because the more milk you release, either by nursing or pumping, the more of it you will also produce.
Sensations and Emotions Related to Lactation
Different women may have different experiences relating to lactation. That’s mainly because women’s bodies work differently, and babies also have different suckling behaviors. Some babies have a hard time latching and have slow suckling and swallowing rhythms.
Some women may feel a tingling sensation and soreness in their breasts when their milk is flowing. The sensation is akin to your breast being pricked by pins and needles. Some women simply feel fullness or swelling of their breasts.
It’s also not uncommon for one breast to leak while you are nursing your baby with the other one. Firmness or tightening of the skin around the areolas, as well as flattened nipples, are also common.
Lactating and nursing could also make you thirsty all the time.
Moreover, you can expect the production and flow of your milk to be affected by your emotions. If you have anxiety or are experiencing stress, exhaustion, or even embarrassment, you may find your supply slowing down. That’s why it is important to just feel relaxed for as long as you are nursing.
Can you lactate even if you are not pregnant?
It is possible to lactate even if you are not pregnant if you have elevated levels of prolactin due to medication, tumor, underlying medical issues, or over-stimulation of your nipples.
How can a lactation consultant help lactating women?
A lactation consultant can help you nurse your baby more effectively and overcome challenges with breastfeeding such as poor milk supply, latching difficulties, breast pain, engorgement, and your baby refusing to feed, among others.
What happens if you are lactating but don’t nurse or pump?
Missing or delaying pumping or breastfeeding can cause a breast infection called mastitis. Your breasts may have a hard area that feels painful or tender, they may become red, and you may have a fever or experience chills.