Breast milk production is hormonally driven, and hormone production is influenced by mom's mood and emotions. Feeling relaxed and comfortable before and during a pumping session is important. Will your milk supply naturally increase by itself? What if it doesn't? These are some of the questions that might be worrying new moms. Here's our guide to milk production and what to do if you are pumping less than you'd like.
How does milk come in?
Milk production is driven by hormones, prolactin and progesterone in particular.
Prolactin is the primary hormone involved in milk production, and is produced in the pituitary gland. Progesterone is produced in the ovaries, and is important in the maintenance of pregnancy.
Throughout pregnancy and in the first few days after birth, prolactin and progesterone levels are high. While your body begins to produce milk, production is low, because progesterone keeps it low. At this stage, your body produces a very small amount of a very concentrated form of milk, colostrum. This amount is just enough to fill your baby’s tummy, which is about the size of a cherry and can barely hold a teaspoon of milk at each feeding.
After birth, progesterone levels drop quickly - which leads to milk production increasing two or three days postpartum. Your milk is said to come in at this point, but what is happening is your colostrum is transitioning to mature milk and starting to increase in volume.
The first 6-12 weeks after birth
During the first 6 to 12 weeks after birth, prolactin levels reduce. Milk supply begins to be regulated on a 'supply and demand' basis. Although prolactin helps milk production during these first weeks, milk needs to be regularly taken (either by pumping or breastfeeding), in order to stimulate your body to produce more.
Baby's milk intake is often high during their first month of life, as they're usually close to the breast more often and taking more milk - increasing your supply.
However, if you are pumping exclusively, rather than breastfeeding, your body might not be getting the same 'make more' signal. You might need to increase your pumping sessions. It is recommended you pump for 20 minutes from 5 to 8 times a day, which is in line with the number of times your newborn can feed (between 8-14 but usually 12 times in 24 hours).
Is it normal to get only 1 to 2 ounces of breastmilk per bottle when I pump?
First, check whether there's a problem with milk removal, either by a breast pump or your baby. Sometimes, milk not being taken is the issue, rather than a lack of milk in your breasts. Here are some potential problems with milk removal.
- Poorly fitting breast shields. Using the wrong size can reduce the amount you pump and be painful. Limerick breast pumps use unique silicone breast cups, which are soft and adaptable to mom's breast shape - the one-size-fits-all design guarantees a proper and comfortable fit each time you pump, freeing you from the stress of finding the right breast cup size.
- Consider a gentle massage. Some women find that gently massaging the breast helps drain the breast when the baby is nursing or when they’re pumping. The best techniques are light strokes from the chest wall to the nipple or in a circular motion (similar to a monthly breast exam).
- Ensure you're pumping often enough. If you're exclusively pumping, you'll need to pump as often as your baby is feeding. Most newborns feed between 8 and 12 times per day. We understand that exclusively pumping adds an extra step to the feeding process, but you can still provide a good milk supply by pumping for about 20 minutes, 5-8 times per day, for the baby's first few months.
If you're struggling with a low milk supply and you've ruled out milk removal as the cause, consult your healthcare provider and consider these other potential factors:
How can I increase milk production?
Mood and emotional state
It's important that mom feels at ease during a pumping session. Oxytocin is produced when women breastfeed or express milk - it’s a hormone that can cause feelings of affection and make us feel relaxed. It plays a key role in milk let down, which is when the milk is released and starts to flow. You may hear your baby gulping and should hear lots of swallowing when the milk is released. Feeling comfortable is an important part of oxytocin production, so taking 2-3 deep breaths, in through the nose and out slowly through the mouth, can help relax you for feeding or pumping. If you have questions about pumping or how your pump works, reach out to a lactation consultant who can reassure you and offer answers to any questions you may have.
Seeing or thinking about your baby affectionately can encourage oxytocin production. Some women find that looking at a photo or video of their baby helpful during a pumping session, along with gently massaging the breast.
To produce milk, your body needs extra calories from nutritious foods. Eating healthily and staying hydrated is particularly important for new moms. Protein is essential for breast milk production as part of a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Check the suction levels on your breast pump
Make sure you're using the right breast pump setting for you. The vacuum strength should be at the highest level that is comfortable for you. If you feel uncomfortable, then reduce the level. With the Limerick pump you have a faster cycle setting of 30. It is recommended to have the vacuum set between 15 and 35 (the vacuum level goes up to 80) – whatever is most comfortable.
Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk for Your Baby
It's important to pump often enough and long enough to increase or maintain your milk supply.
The right frequency of pumping sessions depends on the baby's age. More sessions are usually needed during the baby's first few months, often 7-10 sessions per day. As the baby gets older, you can reduce the number of sessions. Seek advice from your lactation consultant if you're unsure.
In terms of how long you should pump for overall, it's often said that a total of 2 hours a day spent pumping is necessary to maintain demand for milk production.
Does milk supply increase by itself over time?
Milk supply is regulated by demand, so your supply will increase if there is increased demand from your nursing baby, or from increased pumping sessions.
There isn't usually an automatic increase in milk supply without the demand for it. If you aren't producing as much milk as you'd like, then you may need to increase your pumping sessions.
If you try all of the tips above (pumping frequently enough and for long enough, ensuring you are relaxed during sessions) but still have problems, then contact your lactation consultant or another healthcare provider.