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Let-down reflex

7-minute read

Key facts

  • The let-down reflex is a response from your body that causes breastmilk to flow.
  • It can take time and practice for your let-down reflex to become consistent.
  • Your reflex can be impacted by stress, tiredness or discomfort.
  • You can encourage your let-down reflex by relaxing and distracting yourself.
  • Your reflex might happen outside of breastfeeding, such as if you hear a baby cry.

What is the let-down reflex?

The let-down reflex, or milk ejection reflex, is what makes breastmilk flow. It's an important part of breastfeeding and what happens when your baby suckles.

When your baby sucks at your breast, tiny nerves are stimulated. This causes the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain to release 2 hormones into your bloodstream:

  1. prolactin
  2. oxytocin

Prolactin helps make the milk, while oxytocin causes your breast to push out the milk. Milk is then released, or let down, through the nipple.

Illustration showing the flow of the let down reflex. Starting with the baby sucking the breast, which stimulates tiny nerves. This causes the brain to release hormones prolactin and oxytocin into your bloodstream.
The let-down reflex is what makes breastmilk flow.

How do I know that my let-down reflex is working?

Each person feels the let-down reflex differently. You may not feel anything when your let-down reflex happens. However, you might notice that:

You'll also notice a change in your baby's sucking pattern when the let-down reflex happens. As the milk begins to flow, their small, shallow sucks will become stronger and slower.

Your let down reflex can be affected by stress, pain and tiredness. It can take time and practice for your let-down reflex to become consistent.

When does the let-down reflex occur?

Your let-down reflex can occur:

The let-down reflex generally occurs 2 or 3 times a feed. Most people who breastfeed only feel the first let-down.

The let-down reflex can also occur with stimulation of your breasts, such as by your partner.

What can I do to encourage my let-down reflex?

The let-down reflex is not always consistent, particularly early on in breastfeeding. It takes time for you and your baby to practice and get used to feeding.

It can help to get into a breastfeeding routine. A routine will help establish cues that your body will recognise. This will help to encourage your reflex. It takes around 2 weeks after birth for your milk supply to become established. After a few weeks of regular breastfeeding or expressing, your let-down reflex should become automatic.

Try to breastfeed in a comfortable familiar place. This is not always possible — but there are things you can do to help feel more comfortable.

If you are near others, it's okay to ask for some space. It may be easier to breastfeed without other people looking on. If you are with family, friends, your partner or other support, they may also be able to:

You can distract and relax yourself during breastfeeding by:

You can also have a warm shower or place a warm cloth on your breast for a few minutes before you breastfeed.

Encouraging milk let-down by hand

You can also encourage your let-down reflex by hand:

This can be helpful if you find your baby's suckling too painful to trigger the let-down reflex.

Why has my milk let-down changed?

There are some things that can affect your let-down reflex, such as

Stress hormones can interfere with oxytocin. There are many things to try if you are having trouble breastfeeding. Try not to think about the let-down reflex.

How do I manage a fast let-down?

You may also have a fast let-down reflex. This is when your milk let-down is forceful. Milk might spray out if your baby is not latched on. This doesn't necessarily mean that you have oversupply of breastmilk.

You can manage a fast let-down reflex by:

How do I deal with an unexpected let-down?

Many sensations and thoughts can trigger your let-down reflex. Leaking breasts should usually stop once breastfeeding is fully established, or once your child grows older.

To manage leaks, you can:

Change your breast pads when they are wet, so your nipples don't become irritated.

Resources and support

If you need help and advice, or are having problems with breastfeeding, you can contact:

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

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