Stress & Breastfeeding: How to Protect Your Milk Supply

Is it just me, or has the past year been a lot more stressful than usual? When I sit down with my breastfeeding support group families or talk with parents at their home visit, I find that I’m spending much more time discussing stress and anxiety than I used to. Stress and breastfeeding have become a conversation topic during most of my consults.

I have a lot of talents as a lactation consultant; I can help you end a nursing strike, determine if your baby is consuming enough milk and gaining proper weight, and I can guide you through ditching a nipple shield.. but I probably can’t make your life stress-free- that’s my father in-law’s specialty :) (

What I CAN do, though, is help you to protect your milk supply during times of stress and anxiety. First up, let’s discuss just how stress affects lactation:

stress and breastfeeding: what’s the problem?

When you are scared, stressed, or anxious, the adrenaline released by your system can inhibit oxytocin. And since oxytocin is what causes your milk to “let down”, or flow freely from your breasts, that adrenaline messes with your milk delivery system. Simply put, stress and breastfeeding just don’t mix well.

I explain it to my clients this way: you’re a cavewoman and you’re about to feed your baby. You sit down and latch the baby on when suddenly a sabre tooth tiger jumps out behind you. Is your body going to make milk right then? Heck no! Your body wants you to GET UP AND RUN! Now would be a STUPIDLY DANGEROUS time to just sit there and nurse that baby! No milk for you!

So the delayed/repressed let-down is actually protective of the baby, though in most cases our stress isn’t actually life-threatening (even if it feels that way at the time). While this shouldn’t affect the amount of milk you make in the long-term, there are certainly steps you can take to encourage the let-down reflex and keep that milk flowing!

Sara’s tips for encouraging oxytocin release and let-down
  1. Warmth. Even a little warmth goes a long way in encouraging let-down and milk production. Products like Earth Mama Angel Baby Booby Tubes or Lansinoh TheraPearls (or yes, even rice in a tube sock) can be quickly warmed in the microwave and applied to the breasts for a minute or two before nursing to promote let-down.

  2. Music or white noise. Put on sounds that relax you… either quite, happy music or any form of white noise that you find soothing. The more relaxed you are, the sooner you’ll be able to have a let-down. Singing or humming can also speed the process along.

  3. Touch (my favorite). Lay your baby lay skin-to-skin for a few minutes or gently rub your collarbone and your shoulders before you start nursing or pumping. Any positive skin-to-skin contact will help your body to release oxytocin.

  4. Scent. Ever have the urge to take a big, deep whiff of a newborn’s head? Yes, scents can help you to release oxytocin! Smell your baby, or a piece of clothing that baby wore recently. If there are particular scents you find soothing, like lavender or vanilla, keep them nearby. Take a few sniffs as needed.

  5. Laughter. Have you ever seen a good joke diffuse a tense situation? Laughter decreases your body’s adrenaline levels, and many have found that watching a funny movie while pumping can increase their milk output.

above all, protect your milk supply

Finally, remember that milk production is almost entirely driven by supply and demand. Empty breasts make milk, and full breasts don’t. Make sure your breasts are being emptied frequently (8-12 times a day depending on your baby’s age and your breast milk storage capacity) in order to make the milk your baby needs.

Listen, anxiety happens. Stress happens. I’m not going to give you any platitudes like “this too shall pass” or “you’re too blessed to be stressed!”. Stress and breastfeeding are a real, ongoing part of our lives- but these tips should help you to make the best of a rough situation and make sure that your milk supply stays plentiful.

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