A newborn’s hands are a tool that the baby uses to find and latch on to the nipple, rather than something to be restrained and held out of the way. In utero, babies often bring their hands to their face in preparation to swallow amniotic fluid, which helps them practice swallowing for after birth. Young babies use their hands to push and pull the breast to shape the breast and provide easier access to the nipple. Their hands on your breast releases oxytocin and also helps the nipple erect and evert. Newborns and young infants also use their hands to push the breast away, possibly to get a better visual sense of the location of the nipple as it is a darker color than the breast. They may feel the nipple with their hand, and use the hand as a guide to bring their mouth to the nipple.
Kneading, squeezing, patting, twiddling, pinching, biting, touching your face and pulling hair and so many more behaviors. Older babies, especially around 5-6 months, do this for two reasons: to help stimulate a let down/increase the flow of milk AND because they’re exploring the world around them. Much like the early days, touching the breast and even twiddling the other nipple help release oxytocin to send more milk or increase the flow of milk. You may notice baby does this more often when you’re on your period or in the late afternoon and evening when supply naturally dips. Many breastfeeding behaviors are a phase, older babies or toddlers like to experiment with what they can do while breastfeeding. If a specific behavior is only mildly annoying, then one option is to wait and see if the novelty wears off on its own. If you don’t like the behavior, give baby a toy or something else to hold while at the breast or cover the other breast with a blanket or your shirt. Wear a necklace or scarf they can play with. Sing a song or read them a book to distract them. Don’t be too quick to hide baby’s hands. They do serve a purpose.
Did you know that you will ALWAYS be able to make milk? You’ve had the milk making glands in your breasts since puberty. They’re like little empty clusters of balloons at the back of the breast. Pregnancy activates your milk making hormones, allowing the glands to expand and start filling with milk between 16-20 weeks gestation. In the early days after birth, the more stimulation the breast has (from feeding or pumping), the more the milk making glands and their corresponding hormone receptors multiply. The milk balloons fill and empty milk multiple times per feeding.
After at least 40 days of not expressing any milk, once you completely wean, your milk making balloons deflate and become dormant, like before pregnancy. But they aren’t dead. Pregnancy and breastfeeding hormones caused a permanent change in your body. Your milk making glands will FOREVER remember how to make milk. They can ALWAYS make milk again, no matter how long it has been. They just need enough of the right stimulation to turn on and start filling again. Some times years after breastfeeding a mother may feel the tingle of let down if she hears a baby cry. Or she may leak if her partner does enough nipple stimulation. There are grandmothers in other cultures who bring back milk to breastfeed their grandchildren! Our bodies are AMAZING!! Now you know!
Weaning blues. If postpartum depression weren’t enough, it’s also possible to have depression and mood shifts from weaning from breastfeeding. During breastfeeding, oxytocin, the cuddle or love hormone, is released every time milk lets down. This feel good hormone helps reduce the risk of post partum depression and aids in bonding with baby. Prolactin, the hormone that actually makes the milk, also brings a feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation. There is very little research on the subject, but it’s hypothesized that when you wean, the decrease in prolactin and oxytocin can make some feel moodiness, sadness or even anger. The faster the weaning process the more abrupt the shift in hormone levels, and the more likely that you will experience feelings such as being tearful, sad or mildly depressed. Some also experience irritability, anxiety, or mood swings. These feelings are usually short-term and often go away in a few weeks. Dropping no more than one feeding per week is a gentle way to wean and adjust to shifting hormones. People who are forced to wean before they are ready (or for reasons beyond their control) and those with a history of depression are also more likely to experience depression after weaning. Even for those who are ready to wean and doing so gradually, there may still be a sense of loss and sadness. Your breastfeeding relationship has been a major part of your parenting journey and it is understandable that you’ll feel a wide range of emotions.