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How your body makes milk

Colostrum and the first week

Colostrum is the first milk you have for your baby. It is thick and yellowy in colour and comes in very small amounts. Some people have described it as ‘liquid gold’ because it is packed full of all the good things your baby needs after birth.

If you have reason to be concerned about a difficult start to breastfeeding because of premature labour, or you are expecting you or your baby to need medical care soon after birth then you might want to consider expressing and storing colostrum. Do please speak to your midwife or healthcare team about how to do this and whether it is appropriate for you. See the  ‘support’ section for more information.

Hormones and breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is controlled by the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, and by FIL (Feedback Inhibitor of Lactation).

Both oxytocin and prolactin increase when your baby’s mouth stimulates your nipple.

Oxytocin causes milk to be released from the breast tissue, often called the ‘let-down reflex’. Oxytocin is also the ‘love hormone’ and can make you feel relaxed, happy and loving. It puts you in the perfect mood to have a lovely cuddle with your baby. Oxytocin may be inhibited if you feel very tense or stressed. If you are having difficulty breastfeeding it can sometimes help to stop trying to breastfeed and comfort baby (and you) another way. Then try feeding again when you are both calmer. Having skin to skin contact can help stimulate oxytocin before a feed. 

Prolactin and FIL control the production of milk – they respond to how full or empty the breast is. So when milk is removed from the breast (when baby feeds or you express milk) these hormones report back to start-up milk production.

This means that frequent feeding or expressing milk means that your body will produce more and more for next time.

Breastfeeding at night

Prolactin levels are highest at night so it is important to breastfeed at night, especially in the early days, to promote milk supply.

Keeping your baby close to you –in the same room – at night can help reduce the disruption from night feeds.

Did you know? Research shows that breastfeeding mothers on average get more sleep than those who are bottle feeding! The hormones involved in breastfeeding help you both get back to sleep more quickly.

Positioning and attachment – why it matters

Your baby needs to breastfeed with a large amount of breast tissue in his/her mouth, not just the end of the nipple. This allows milk to flow freely, meaning that your baby gets all the milk he/she needs and the breasts are stimulated to produce more milk for next time. Sometimes achieving this optimum ‘attachment’ is a little tricky to master for mum and baby in the early days. This is why being able to access support from trained breastfeeding supporters can make a big difference to your breastfeeding journey. 

How you hold the baby can make a difference to how well they are able to attach. The main principles are:

Further information about this is available in our positioning and attachment section.