Oxytocin

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Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland in the brain. It increases relaxation, lowers stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and causes muscle contractions. Oxytocin, also called the mothering, cuddle or love hormone, is involved in social relationships, bonding, trust, and love. Breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin from your brain.  When your baby latches on to breastfeed, the nerve cells in your breasts send a signal to your brain to release oxytocin. The oxytocin causes the muscles around the milk-making glands in your breast to contract, squeezing the breast milk into the milk ducts. The milk ducts then contract to push the breast milk through your breast, out of the nipple to your baby. This is called the let-down reflex. As baby continues to breastfeed, more oxytocin is released and milk continues to flow. You may experience 2-14 let-downs in one breastfeeding session! The release of oxytocin while you're breastfeeding may make you feel sleepy and relaxed. It can raise your body temperature and is one of the reasons you may feel so hot while nursing. It might also make you feel thirsty or even give you a headache!

Oxytocin can cause your milk to let-down when you're not breastfeeding. Hearing a baby cry, thinking about your baby or even smelling something that reminds you of your baby can trigger oxytocin flow and make you leak!! While oxytocin is responsible for the let-down reflex and the release of breast milk from your body, it has nothing to do with the amount of breast milk that you will make. Prolactin is the hormone that does that. 

Some people feel the oxytocin release (aka Let-Down) and others don’t. Both are totally normal!

Signs of let down include:

  • Tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation in your breasts. It could be a light sensation or even an electrical shock feeling.
  • Hearing baby swallow while at the breast.
  • Leaking milk from the other breast
  • Uterine cramps when breastfeeding, especially the first week.
  • Feeling happy and relaxed after you feed your baby.

Factors that inhibit oxytocin release and let down include: pain, breast surgery or trauma, stress, illness, fatigue, fear, embarrassment, drinking or smoking. 

Some mothers may breastfeed and let-down milk just fine to baby but struggle to release milk to an electric pump. A quality double electric breast pump will have two modes: a quick cycle/light suction or "stimulation" mode, and a slow cycle, hard suction of "expression" mode. By alternating several times between these modes in a pump session, you can trick your body into thinking baby is feeding to stimulate more let-downs of milk. When pumping, you can also help stimulate your body to let-down more often by:

  • Watching videos or looking at pictures of your baby
  • Smelling something that reminds you of your baby (a onesie, your baby shampoo or soap, lavender)
  • Listening to calming music
  • Using heat before and during pumping
  • Massaging your breasts before and during pumping
  • Eating a snack or drinking water while pumping

 

Breastfeeding advice from social media: Buyer beware

Asking for medical advise from social media forums, especially mommy groups, is like asking a mother who’s had a baby to deliver yours. Just because she has experience in the field does not make her qualified to give technical advice in that area. She can give you her opinions or share her experience, but she did never be relied on as a trustworthy source when providing care to YOUR child.

 

Breastfeeding is especially one of those areas that we need to tread wisely into when asking for help and advice. Or culture has hidden breastfeeding from the norm and made it this mysterious, murky action where myths and misunderstandings abound. So much of the information found in quick Google searches are anecdotal, antiquated, or based off formula feeding data which is completely distinct and sometimes totally opposite of true breastfeeding. We should be seeking community support for breastfeeding, but not when medical advice is being solicited.

When mothers give out advice on social media platforms, they are not taking into consideration the whole breastfeeding picture and may inadvertently give advice that could care harm or actually negatively impact breastfeeding. For instance, when a mother of a two month old asks for advice on increasing her breastmilk supply and mother start giving advice on herbs, lactation cookies, or teas, they may not be considering WHY she is needing to increase her supply. Is her baby in the NICU? Is she going back to work and stressed with the pumping process? Does she have. History of sexual abuse that she actually needs to work through? Did her pediatrician have her supplement which impacted her supply? Is she trying to sleep train and sabotaging her own supply? Is she ALLERGIC to the herbs in those teas and supplements? How often is she feeding? Does she have a metabolic or hormonal disorder impacting her supply? Does she have enough glandular breast tissue to even produce sufficient milk supply? Does her baby have a tongue tie? Does the baby simply have a poor latch? These are the questions that are crucial in giving appropriate breastfeeding advice to protect the breastfeeding relationship. The best advice a mother can give on the social media platform is to have the questioning mother contact a lactation consultant.

The gold standard for breastfeeding advice is the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). There are other forms of lactation consultants that teach and serve out of a variety of backgrounds. The IBCLC is the top most coveted professional because of the extensive education and rigorous testing they need to go through in order to be able to assist lactating mothers. In order to sit for the FOUR HOUR board exam, candidates must have extensive education in specific health science subjects, like nutrition, psychology, and childhood development; 90 college level credit hours of education in human lactation and breastfeeding, and hundreds to thousands of clinical practice in providing care to breastfeeding families. They must also maintain a high level of continuing education courses and continue to sit for the board exam every 10 years.

So when you see moms with questions related to breastfeeding in social media forums that are beyond opinions or personal experience, the best advice is professional advice.