Did you know using a breast pump to express milk for your infant can be a learned skill? One of the challenges pumping mothers face is to elicit a let-down or their milk ejection reflex in a reasonable amount of time.
Breast pumps and your baby do not remove milk from your breast by suction alone. Compression and stimulation to your breast, and specifically to the areola and nipple, causes a message to be sent to your body to cause the muscles within the breast to contract, ejecting the milk in what is commonly called “the let-down.” Even with all the recent innovations in breast pumps, your body can tell the difference between an infant feeding and a breast pump at work.
If you can associate your let-down with an action you can control–a stimulus or a cue–you can reduce the time it takes for let-down to occur with or without your baby’s help.
You may remember the research of Dr. Ivan Pavlov, who would ring a bell every time food was presented to a dog. In time the dog would salivate on cue at the mere sound of the bell.
How does this translate to breastfeeding and breast pumping? You can use cues to program your milk to let down.
You can choose cues that are more meaningful than a bell ringing and that can serve a double purpose such as keeping you hydrated, comfortable, or relaxed. Your chosen cues can incorporate your five senses. Their effect is more potent if used before let-down and at the beginning of when your milk lets down while you are nursing your baby. Then you can repeat these same cues in an entirely different setting when you are using your breast pump in the absence of your baby.
Use your breastfeeding pillow the kind worn around your waist–with your baby, and when you use a breast pump, you can also use it to support your back or the collection bottles.
Have the same thing to drink, like herb tea or water, in the same cup or
sports bottle. Avoid excessive caffeine, which can increase baby fussiness and anything hot enough to scald the baby. Accidents happen. Hum or sing a favorite song. Make up a “milk-letting-down” song. Sometimes silliness can be effective.
Mentally record this program to playback in your mind when you are using your breast pump. Watch your baby nursing. Mentally note the changing sucking pattern and the jaw movements. Note the quick bursts at the start followed by longer draws as the milk lets down. Observe the tingling sensation in the breast if that is what you experience. Watch the little muscle wiggling in front of his ear. Hear and feel the little puff of air from his nose as he swallows.
Make a sound recording of your baby fussing before nursing, followed by the settling in noises and feeding sounds. Use a portable player with headphones to listen to it privately when you are breast pumping. You could also try a playlist of relaxing music.
Touch and smell clothing or a blanket with the baby’s unique scent on it. When using your breast pump, have the clothing ready in a sealed plastic bag and open it, touch it, and smell it
Looking at a picture of your baby is some common advice. Have you seen how the top-of-the-line breast pump kits will have a transparent pocket for your baby’s picture? More helpful perhaps would be to have several pictures of your baby including some taken from your point of view, over your shoulder, while nursing.
Sit in the same chair and the room where you do most of your breastfeeding when you are breast pumping at home.
Knowing that you can improve your breast pumping skills is good news. By associating your let-down with cues you can reduce the time it takes to express your breast milk. Typically mothers will find they get better with practice and repetition without making any conscious effort to improve at all.
Disclaimer: None of the content above should be construed as medical advice and all breastfeeding mothers should strive to educate themselves as much as possible from multiple sources and consult with doctors and lactation specialists as needed.