Stimulating a let-down or milk ejection reflex in a reasonable amount of time is one of the biggest challenges facing moms who pump. It might come as a surprise to learn that effectively using a breast pump to express milk can be a learned skill.
It helps to understand the physical science of expressing milk. It takes more than just suction alone for breast pumps and your baby to remove milk from your breast. Stimulation to your breast and breast compression, particularly around the areola and nipple, send a message to your body that causes the muscles within the breast to contract, thereby ejecting milk in what’s commonly known as “let-down.”
The technology behind breast pumps is constantly improving, but your body can still tell the difference between a breast pump at work and a nursing baby. If you can develop associations between your let-down and external stimuli and cues (things you can control), you can improve your body’s ability to initiate the let-down reflex even when your baby isn’t nursing (in other words, while you’re pumping).
Essentially, you’ll teach your body to develop a Pavlovian response to certain cues. Dr. Ivan Pavlov conducted research involving the ringing of a bell every time food was presented to a dog. After experiencing this a number of times, the dog would eventually salivate on cue at the mere ringing of the bell. You can develop a similar practice of using cues to essentially program your milk to let down while pumping.
Of course, you’ll want to choose cues that are far more meaningful to you than the running of a bell. You can also choose cues that will serve additional purposes like helping you stay comfortable, relaxed, and hydrated. Incorporating your five senses with your cues of choice will help you too. If you can associate your cues before let-down and at the beginning of your milk ejection reflex, you’ll find their effect to be much stronger. Once you’ve established those cues, you can develop a habit if repeating them in different settings while you’re pumping away from your baby.
Ways to Stimulate Your Let-Down Reflex While Pumping
Here are a few examples of cues you can use to help stimulate your let-down reflex:
Look at your baby’s picture.
This is a common piece of advice for pumping moms. Some breast pump kits even have a transparent pocket for you to put a picture of your baby. You can also have pictures of your baby framed and placed around your regular pumping area. Or just look at the many pictures of your baby you’ve taken on your phone. You know you have a lot!
Use your senses of touch and smell.
Have a blanket or article of clothing nearby that has your baby’s scent on it. You can keep the blanket or clothing in a sealed plastic bag. When you’re ready to start pumping, simply open the bag and touch or smell the clothes to get a reminder of your baby’s scent.
Have a healthy drink, like water or juice, in the same cup or sports bottle whenever you nurse. But watch out for caffeine, as it can increase fussiness in your baby.
Associate the same space and location with breastfeeding and nursing.
If you’re pumping at home, do your pumping in the same room and the same chair where you most often breastfeed your baby.
Use your breastfeeding pillow.
Bring out your breastfeeding pillow (the kind you wear around your waist or simply place in your lap) when you’re feeding your baby. When you decide to pump, use the breastfeeding pillow to support your back or help support your bottles.
Observe your baby while he or she is nursing.
Take mental pictures of your baby’s jaw movements as they nurse. Pay attention to his or her fast suckling pattern at the start of the nursing session and the longer draws as the milk begins to flow. Associate these images with rhythms of your breast pump while you’re expressing milk.
Enjoy some music.
Listen to music while you nurse. Create a breastfeeding playlist. Or you can even sing or hum a tune.
Experiment with different cues and determine which one (or more) works best for you. Through practice and repetition, you may find that it gets better and easier over time. Eventually your ability to initiate your let-down while pumping may become second nature.