Your breasts start breastmilk production even before your baby is born. Your body prepares itself for breast feeding right from the early stages of pregnancy.The produced breastmilk changes its composition to meet your baby's nutritional requirements as she grows.
During the initial stages of pregnancy, the breasts become tender and dry. The Montgomery glands in the areola produce a lubricating and cleansing substance to protect your dry nipples and keep your skin soft. Half way through the pregnancy, the areolae become larger and darker. The veins around the areolae become more visible. All these changes prepare the breast for lactation.
Around the sixth week of pregnancy (first trimester), the placenta releases high amounts of estrogen, progesterone and other hormones into the body. Another hormone called oxytocin also increases during pregnancy. This contracts the breasts and moves the milk from the milk ducts towards the nipples. This is called the letdown reflex.
The placenta provides the nourishment for the baby before she is born. Around the sixth month, the placenta releases a lactation hormone called prolactin to produce a yellow sticky fluid called colostrum. Prolactin also increases the size of the alveoli. The release of colostrum marks the beginning stage of the lactating process.
After her birth, the secretory system provides the milk needed for the baby. The milk ducts branch into clusters at the end to produce sack like structures called alveoli. These alveoli contain a lining of milk secreting cells and are responsible for the increase in breast size.
Lactating is the process of producing and feeding milk to the baby. Breast milk produced by lactation contains just the right set of nutrients for your baby. The lactation process takes place in three stages - Lactogenesis 1, Lactogenesis 2, and Lactogenesis 3.
Lactogenesis 1 occurs around the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy when your breasts start producing colostrum. Lactogenesis 2 takes place when the baby is born and the placenta is discharged from your body. This stage is influenced by many hormones in your body. When you are expecting, the estrogen levels in your body get lower to stimulate the milk ducts. The estrogen levels continue to remain lower for a few months after you start breast feeding. After your baby is born, oxytocin helps to contract the uterine muscles to their pre-pregnancy form and squeezes the milk produced into the milk ducts. Oxytocin is also essential for triggering letdown reflex. Progesterone levels in your body decreases after child birth and enhances the milk supply in your body. Progesterone also increases the size of the alveoli and lobes on your nipples. Lactogenesis 3 happens when the milk supply in your breasts is regenerated after the baby empties them. Once the letdown reflex is established, lactation is stimulated by a combination of two activities:
Lactation has been known to help women fight against breast and ovarian cancer. It also minimises the chances of osteoporosis. Studies have shown that consuming alcohol has an adverse affect on lactation. Your milk supply may reduce and some amount of alcohol makes its way into the breast milk.
If lactation does not take place properly, a mother may suffer from various problems such as engorgement of breasts, thrush, mastitis, leaking and spraying.
Throughout the lactation period, the composition of breast milk changes continually to satisfy your baby's nutritional requirements.