What is the let down reflex during breastfeeding?

When you breastfeed your baby, your body releases hormones that draw your milk towards the ducts behind your nipples. This release is called the 'let down reflex'. The let down reflex happens every time you breastfeed and means your milk is ready to flow.

How long does let down take?

The let down reflex is a natural, ‘automatic’ action. It may take a few minutes when you first start breastfeeding but as you go on it will become more efficient and only take a few seconds to happen.

Sometimes the let down reflex can happen in response to your baby’s crying. For some women, even the cries of other babies can stimulate the let down.

What does the let down reflex feel like?

You may feel some or all of the following physical sensations when the let down reflex happens:

  • A few seconds to several minutes after you start breastfeeding, you may feel a tingle or ‘pins-and-needles’ sensation that starts under your arm then travels across and down your breast.
  • Squirting or dripping milk from the other breast.
  • Cramping in your uterus in the early days after giving birth. The hormone related to your milk flow (oxytocin) also causes the uterus to contract. Breastfeeding is part of the process that will help your uterus return to its original size.

How can I stimulate the let down reflex?

To encourage the let down process, try these tips:
  • Breastfeed in a quiet environment where you won't be disturbed.
  • Prepare for a feed by gently massaging your breasts. Breast massage helps stimulate your let down reflex and it will help prevent blocked milk ducts which can lead to more serious problems. Wash your hands and use the opposite hand to your breast. Start your massage in the armpit and move across and down your breast.
  • If you're having problems getting a let down, try leaning forward and letting your breasts hang so that you can feel their full weight. Then swing gently from side to side.
  • Cuddle your baby. The skin-on-skin contact helps stimulate oxytocin which is the hormone involved in let down.
  • Make sure that you're comfortable and that your baby is correctly positioned to achieve a good latch.
  • Have a glass of water near by - breastfeeding can make you thirsty too!
  • Look at your baby while feeding. This stimulates oxytocin and builds your bond.
  • Wear comfortable clothing and a nursing bra that fits well.
  • Don’t get stressed about breastfeeding – stress can inhibit your let down reflex so try to relax when you breastfeed and remember that making and delivering milk is one of your body's natural functions.

If you continue to have problems with let down, don’t hesitate to ask your lactation specialist, midwife or physician for advice.