For a breastfeeding mom with a hungry baby, let down can’t come soon enough.
That tingly, pins and needles feeling in your breasts – then there it is. Your milk is flowing.
And that baby can finally fill his teeny tiny belly and mom can chill for a minute.
But what if it just isn’t happening? You’re nursing or pumping but no let down. What gives?
That’s when breastfeeding your little one becomes stressful and frustrating – which just makes everything worse.
Nothing in this post or anywhere on this site should be taken as medical advice. See your medical professional if you need advice on the topics discussed here.
What does let down mean?
Ok, so maybe you KNOW what let down is already – but bear with me here for a second because understanding the whats and hows and whys is really going to help you.
If you know why let down DOES happen, you’ll know what to do when it DOESN’T.
Let down is when your breasts release milk and it begins to flow on its own.
There’s often a tingling or prickling sensation in your breasts just before the milk starts to flow – and it can be quite an intense feeling – though some moms never feel it at all.
If you’re pumping, you’ll see milk start to flow into the breast-pump with very little effort from you and if you’re nursing, you might see milk dripping or even spraying from the breast you’re not using.
Your little one might begin to suck and swallow very quickly if your let down is fast and intense – or even gag.
But because it’s a reflex, you can’t help it – so it can also be the moment when your baby gets a milk shower in the face or you find yourself wearing a wet shirt in public.
Boob circles, not so great.
How and why breast milk let down happens
Usually, let down happens because your breasts are being stimulated by your baby’s nursing.
When baby latches on and begins to suck at the breast, they stimulate your nipple and breast and that stimulation sends a signal to your brain to release milk.
It might take a minute after you begin to breastfeed for this process to happen and let down to come.
But it doesn’t have to be a suckling baby that triggers your let down reflex
Using a breast pump, accidentally brushing your nipples against something, taking a bath or shower – all these can stimulate your nipples and bring milk pouring out. Often when it’s not really what you want at that exact moment – there it is – that nipple tingling that tells you milk is on the way.
That nipple or breast stimulation combines with your hormones to tell your breasts to make milk, release milk and actually eject it through your nipples. Et voila, breastmilk.
For a lot of moms, let down also comes as an emotional response – without any physical stimulation to the breasts at all.
You hear your baby cry and right away there’s that prickling feeling in your nipples.
It might not even be your baby that’s upset – and, as we’ll see in a minute, the emotional response can be very useful when you are trying to encourage your milk to let down.
If you know that there are physical and emotional ways to get your milk to let down, you can use that knowledge to encourage your milk to flow when it seems like it won’t.
Now let’s think about how.
How can I get my milk to let down?
OK great. But what about when let down is NOT happening? How can you trigger a let down to help you get the milk you need?
We’re going to tap into all those physical and emotional stimuli we saw above to find ways to get your milk flowing.
Let’s start with the hands-on physical tricks you can try – but don’t ignore the emotional side. You need to be in the right emotional place to get the results you want.
#1 – stimulate your nipples
Nursing is all about nipples so get stimulating.
You already know how sensitive they are to the touch so you get results quickly.
Gently roll your hands over your nipples or rub and twist them to simulate a nursing baby.
Pull them, tap them with your fingertips – try lots of different ways of touching them and whatever you find is working, keep doing that.
Or try gently rubbing your warm flannel over each nipple or applying a cold metal object like a spoon for contrast.
#2 – massage your breasts to encourage let down
Massaging your breasts is also a great way to get milk to let down. Try massaging one first and then the other or both at once to see what’s most effective for you.
Use circular movements or squeeze gently with your hand in a C shape as though you are beginning to hand express – but really, the right movement is just about what works for you.
If lifting your breasts and massaging them in circles works, do that.
If squeezing them together or pressing them inwards helps, that’s what you should do.
You could even try gently pinching them like a baby grabbing a handful of mommy during a feed.
If you’re using a pump, switching to manual expressing for a minute or two might also help because the way you remove milk by hand is very different from the pump’s stimulation.
And if you have multiple pumps, try switching to see if one will give you a let down when the other isn’t.
It’s all about finding the type of stimulation that will bring a let down now – and it might not always be the same.
#3 – apply gentle heat to your breast
Have you noticed that you sometimes get a let down in the shower?
Out of nowhere, just standing, relaxed under the hot water, milk begins all on its own.
Warm + wet + relaxed is a great combination for encouraging let down.
If you apply gentle warmth to your breast it will often help to encourage let-down (like the shower). Be careful not to press anything to your breast that is actually hot to avoid injury. Warm is what you are looking for.
Here are a couple of easy ways to use heat to get your milk to let down:
Use a warm pump flange
Putting the pump flange to your breast while it is still warm can help – maybe because it’s more like a warm mouth latching on.
Make sure it’s not actually HOT though – check that it has cooled down enough after sterilising or it may burn your delicate breast tissue.
I test the temperature by lightly touching the flange to my belly skin once I think it’s about the right temperature.
Apply heat to your breast
Some kind of heat pack like a warm flannel or warm hot water bottle pressed gently against your breast above the pump can also help.
Again, be careful. Warm, not hot.
Try simply lying your heat pack on your breast and relaxing for a moment.
If that’s not helping, massage your breast with your warm pack or press it in gently.
I recommend also trying the breathing tips in this post at the same time for maximum relaxation and best results.
The shower always made my milk let down. Sometimes even a quick spray was enough to get my breastmilk flowing – worth a try if you are like that too.
If you’re trying to get your milk flowing so you can express some to ease engorgement, a warm shower or bath’s the perfect way.
#4 – find a way to relax
It’s really important to relax when you want your milk to let down.
It’s frustrating when you’re trying so hard to give your baby the milk they need but let down won’t come.
And if that’s happening, you can start to feel tense and upset – maybe even angry with yourself and your body.
That’s when you need to try to relax because when you feel stressed, it’s even harder to get the milk flowing.
Let me just take this chance to remind you that you’re doing a great job.
Breastfeeding is hard work and exhausting so just take a second in your frustration to feel proud of what you’ve achieved so far.
So how exactly are you supposed to relax?
Firstly, take your mind off what you are doing.
I usually pumped standing up in the kitchen because everything I needed was right there and I had plenty of space for my pump and stuff.
But, if I couldn’t get my milk to let down and it was getting stressful, I would move to the lounge and put the TV on while I pumped.
The distraction of whatever I was watching really helped me to relax and took my mind off my frustration.
And then the milk would flow again.
#5 – have your baby – or a photo of your baby – nearby
Remember how we said earlier that even hearing a baby cry can set off your let down reflex?
Maybe that doesn’t happen for you – but you can still use your emotional attachment to and love for your baby to help you get your milk to flow.
A baby’s nursing gives you the hands-down best stimulation.
If nursing while pumping isn’t an option, being able to see your baby usually helps.
Looking at them and feeling warm, loving mommy thoughts helps your breasts to do their thing.
Even photos help – have one to hand that you can look at while you pump if you can’t be with them.
This is a great tip for moms who have to pump at work but it’s also great for night time pumping if that’s what you need to do and your baby’s asleep.
To stay relaxed, a cute photo to coo over is probably better than a grumpy baby who won’t give mama any peace!
#6 – have a warm drink
The heat from a hot drink will warm you from the inside and help you to de-stress – so it’s a double benefit.
This is so easy and a great thing to try if you are struggling to get your milk to let down.
Any time I have a cuppa in my hand, I immediately relax a little.
And I found that the warmth of the cup of tea had the same effect as a warm flannel on my breast.
If I am able to relax and add a little heat, let down usually follows.
#7 – breathe
No kidding – you need to breathe. This is not earth shattering news but it’s THE best way to relax and let go of frustration and tension in your body.
When you feel stressed – or even better – before you get stressed – sit down. Lean into a comfortable chair and press your shoulders back into it. Wiggle your fingers and toes and think about how it feels while you take ten deep breaths.
While you do that, focus your mind on releasing, letting go and breathing out with every part of you. Yes – even your breasts.
Sounds silly? Just give it a shot – no one will know.
#8 – switch up your technique if let down isn’t happening
Different types of stimulation work on different occasions – and you never know what will work when, so try a few ideas until you get your milk to let down.
Some days the pump is all you’ll need, but others you might need to try massage or grab a warm flannel or go look at your baby – or even all these things.
Next – build your breastmilk supply
Now you’ve got a bunch of ideas for getting your breastmilk flowing – so let’s talk about your milk supply next.
If you’d like a more detailed explanation of how let down reflex works, read this article from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.