Breastfeeding Horrors: Accidental Leakage When “Let Down” Gets You Down
Accidental leakage happens to most breastfeeding mothers at one point or another, and it generally occurs at the most inopportune time, such as when you’re standing in line at the bank, or as you sit down to dinner with your spouse for date night, or during an important work meeting involving the company’s top boss and the entire staff. Even though that embarrassing wet spot on your chest is quite a nuisance, in most instances it is a perfectly normal, albeit annoying, part of new motherhood.
“Some breastfeeding women will leak, and others will not,” says L.E. Wolovits, a Pediatrician at Children’s Medical Center and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “It is more common in the first few months of breastfeeding, and most common to leak from one breast while you are nursing from the opposite breast.”
“Let down” is the common term for accidental leakage, occurring when the cells around the alveoli contract, pushing milk into the ducts. Let down is both a physical and emotional response that happens for a variety of reasons, including:
- changing clothes,
- taking a warm shower,
- having intercourse, and
- hearing another baby cry.
Engorgement is the top reason for let down, and it happens when the milk has not been emptied from the breast frequently enough. Too much milk builds up, and then leaks, due to the increased pressure. This may happen when baby has missed a feeding or begins to nurse less due to growth. Moms separated from their baby for long periods of time may also experience engorgement. This can be painful and, when the breast is not completely emptied on a regular basis, can lead to a serious condition called mastitis.
Prevent leakage caused by engorgement by “frequently nursing or pumping,” says Wolovits. “Sometimes the leaking is not from a stimulus let down, but from a sort of pop-off valve to release the pressure from the engorgement.”
At times, another mother’s baby’s cries can start the flow of milk. This physiological response occurs without warning and generally happens in the first few months of breastfeeding. The La Leche League International writes that, if leakage occurs from another baby’s cries, it could actually be around the time the mother was supposed to feed her own baby. Also, mothers and babies develop strong bonds, and the leakage could simply be an emotional response to hearing another baby cry. This phenomenon is completely normal and will probably subside after several months of breastfeeding.
Because let down can occur anywhere, learning to reduce the chance of it happening is key. If you are out and about and hear another baby cry, triggering the let down response, Wolovits recommends that you “cross your arms over your chest and gently squeeze to apply nipple pressure.” This will stop the flow of the milk.
Breast pads catch any leakage before it hits the clothes. Worn between your breast and bra, these small pads are either disposable and tossed after each use or washable and worn over and over again. If you experience a lot of leaking, change the pads often to avoid irritation to the nipple and possible bacterial growth. Many new moms wear breast pads around the clock, until the breasts begin to regulate the production of milk. When the chance of leaking lessens, you might use only them when out in public or away from baby for an extended period of time.
Wolovits suggests patterned tops to camouflage leak stains better than light colored, one-hue clothes. Also, she says that “some mothers will wear bras when they are having sexual intercourse to prevent accidental let down,” during times of intimacy.
While accidental leakage is a normal part of breastfeeding, Wolovits does say that some medicines and medical conditions can cause excessive milk production and let down. “If it is out of proportion, or extraordinary, they should see their doctor.”