If you pump breast milk, understanding how letdowns work is really important for your milk supply. Here is everything you need to know about how letdowns work, including what a letdown looks like, how to boost milk supply when pumping by getting more letdowns, and what to do if you have a hard time getting a letdown when you’re pumping.
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What is a letdown when breastfeeding, and why do I care?
A letdown is when your breasts release milk for your baby (or, if your case, your pump) to eat.
Obviously, you don’t go around spraying milk all the time (leaks notwithstanding). Most of the time, the milk stays in your breasts until the breasts are stimulated, by a baby or a pump. This then signals the milk letdown hormone, oxytocin, to release the milk from your milk ducts, which is called a letdown.
What does a letdown look like while pumping?
If you’ve just started pumping, it’s not always clear why sometimes you spray milk and sometimes you’re not getting anything. Here’s how letdown works:
- When you start pumping, most pumps will begin in the “letdown phase” – which is lighter and quieter – for about two minutes. During this time, before you letdown, you might see milk dribbling out your nipple, and just a few drops going into the bottles.
- When you have a letdown, you will see milk start to spray into the flange and flow more quickly into your bottles. What does a letdown feel like? A lot of moms feel a sort of pins-and-needles sensation in their breasts. Some women experience something more painful. If your baby is very young, you may also feel cramping in your uterus.
- After some time (in my experience, 5-10 minutes), milk flow will stop, and you’ll be back to just a dribble, if anything.
Letdowns and how to boost milk supply
So how are letdowns related to how you can boost your milk supply when you pump?
One way that you can pump more milk is to try to get second or third letdowns during your pumping sessions. How many letdowns you should aim for depends on the length of your sessions – if you’re pumping for 20 minutes, many women are able to get two; if you’re pumping for 30, you might be able to get three.
How much more milk will this get you? Everyone is different, but my output for subsequent letdowns was generally about half of the previous letdown. So, for example, if I pumped 3 oz in my first letdown, I might get another 1.5 oz in my second letdown, and .75 oz in my third. That’s an extra 2.25 oz than if I had thought I was empty, and just stopped pumping after the first letdown!
Another reason that letdowns are important for milk supply is that if you’re waiting and waiting for a letdown, you can end up either wasting a lot of your pumping time waiting for a letdown (so that you’re not able pump long enough to get a second or third) or you end up pumping for an unsustainable amount of time. Some women I’ve talked to have had to pump for 40 minutes, and they were doing that eight times per day!
How to get a faster letdown
If you struggle with getting a letdown quickly enough, you’ve probably read a lot of strategies like looking at a picture of your baby, holding something that smells like him or her, etc. These will often work much better for nursing women than for exclusive pumpers, because letdown is a conditioned response.
Nursing mothers are conditioned to let down when they are looking and smelling at their baby; exclusive pumpers – especially those who switched to pumping early – do not have the same conditioning.
So, what might help you get a faster letdown instead?
- Hand Expression. Some women have much better luck getting a letdown with hand expression versus a pump. What you can do is get everything ready to pump and hook yourself up on one side, then try to hand express on the other until you get a letdown. Then, you can quickly hook yourself up to pump on the other side and let the pump take it from there. (Here are some videos on hand expression to help you learn how to do it.)
- Lactation Massager. Some women find that the vibration from a lactation massager will help get milk flowing and get you a quicker letdown, especially when you are dealing with engorgement. Some women who have painful letdowns have noted that it helps with that, too. Additionally, if you find that hand expression works for you, the lactation massager* might also be effective, but with the added benefit of not tiring out your hands!
- Relaxing. If you don’t really like pumping (does anyone really like pumping?), it can be stressful. Try to make pumping as fun as possible for you. Make sure you’re warm enough (versus being topless and freezing), and try to do something that you enjoy, like watching Netflix or reading a book. If you get anxious about supply, cover up the bottles with a blanket or nursing cover and try to focus on something else if you can.
- Heat. Sometimes heat can help trigger a letdown, so a warm compress might help. Either a warm washcloth or Booby Tubes (use the code PUMPING20 for 20% off) are good options.
(*Note: LaVie makes two lactation massagers – a smaller one with just vibration and a warming massager that has heat AND vibration. They are both super helpful – use the code EPUMP on their website for 10% off!)
Do you find that milk flows slowly once you get a letdown? Here are some tips for how to pump faster.
If you have any other tips for getting a faster letdown, definitely add them in the comments!
Updated to add: This reddit post is hilarious and illustrates the conditioned response thing really well:
You also might like:
- Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Lactation Cookie Bars
- Chocolate Malt Lactation Milkshake
- Domperidone and Increasing Milk Supply
- Australian Breastfeeding Association. “Let-down reflex (milk ejection reflex).” https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/early-days/let-down-reflex
- Perles, Karen. “Coping with Painful Letdown.” https://www.care.com/c/stories/4411/coping-with-painful-letdown/
- Cherry, Kendra. “What Is a Conditioned Response?.” https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-conditioned-response-2794974