The sensation of breastfeeding
When asked to describe what it felt like to breastfeed, women often found it hard to put into words. Some focused on the physical aspects and others focused on the emotional feelings associated with breastfeeding. Some of the women who spoke about the physical sensation of a normal breastfeed talked about a warm, tingling feeling in the whole breast at the beginning of a feed and at other times as the milk let down (or was made available to the baby by the action of a hormonal reflex). Others did not feel the tingling that they had been led to expect. One woman felt it for the first six weeks or so only (see Interview 30 below). The women also described the sensation of breastfeeding as pleasant or pleasurable, enjoyable, satisfying and relaxing. Several said that it made them sleepy. Some even talked about it being a relief, especially if their breasts were feeling full. One woman, who had experienced engorgement, said that she almost felt euphoric after a while when she got the milk flowing. (The baby's suck stimulates the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin in the mother. It is oxytocin that is responsible for the let-down reflex and the feeling of relaxation. Prolactin is responsible for milk production.)
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 26 year old, White British woman had a 2 year old daughter whom she had breastfeed for 2 years. A Peer Counsellor Programme administrator, she was married to a head waiter/plasterer.
Did you feel your let-down?
I thought that I had felt my let-down a couple of times I felt tingling especially in the early weeks I felt a tingling and then I could watch my milk come out as soon as the tingling had like passed so, I'm convinced that that was my let-down happening. I never felt any pain with the let-down and that was, it was literally only, up till about, up till she was about six weeks, and after that I just didn't feel anything. I mean it didn't hurt I could always feel her feeding I think you always feel you should be able to feel, it's not, you know, you've got nerves in your end of your nipple as well so.
Can you describe that feeling at all?
The feeling of her feeding was, almost like a pleasurable feeling sometimes especially if you had got slightly engorged especially in the first couple of weeks, it was a relief when she fed it felt like she was, kind of emptying what needed to be emptied and it felt natural and that's what she was there for and it wasn't just something that benefited her which I knew it did, it benefited me as well.
Most, but not all, of the women were aware of their let-down reflex when the milk began to flow, either because of the tingling feeling and being able to see their milk or because their baby began to suck and swallow in a rhythmical manner (see 'Positioning & attaching/latching the baby at the breast'). Many women also noticed that milk began to leak or even spray from the un-suckled breast. Some collected this milk for storage and later use while others simply used breast pads to absorb it. Some women said that their let-down was so intense that it was almost painful. Several women spoke of having a let-down even when they were not with their baby or about to breastfeed. Sometimes thinking about their baby, hearing another baby cry or seeing a photograph of a baby was enough to trigger a let-down (see 'Emotional and psychological aspects of breastfeeding'). A few women spoke of having a slow let-down, showing that the time to let-down can vary between women.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 31 year old, White Scottish woman was breastfeeding her 8 month old daughter. A research Project Manager, she was married to an off-shore engineer.
So tell me then about this other sensation, this let-down that you're talking about?
The let-down, I would say, it doesn't happen every time but I would probably about ninety-eight percent of the time when my daughter's feeding she'll be latched onto the breast and, sort of suckling away, within maybe a minute, minute and a half, you'll start to feel a sensation sort of coming from the underarm? and it's just sort of like a tingling sensation sometimes it's more painful than others, but I wouldn't say that it's ever, 'Oh' really, really painful or anything, but it, it's just a, to me I find it quite a nice sensation because I know then that the milk's flowing through and my daughter's getting what she needs. I mean I know she'll be getting it anyway but when that sensation happens, you know, that's my sort of trigger to say ah okay, you know, she's happy enough, she's feeding properly, and I can sort of relax and [laughs], well, you don't read a magazine like you think that you can in the beginning when you're feeding [laughs] because you don't have a spare hand because you're still unsure that you're holding your baby and you're holding your breast or, you know, you don't have a spare hand until much later on. I mean now, and my friends laugh at me, I can be feeding and expressing from the other breast at the same time [laughs] so.
When that let down happens did you notice the change in your daughter's feeding or what she was doing, how she was behaving at the breast?
No I can't.
I can't say that I did.
She didn't start sucking faster or gulping or swallowing, sucking less or?
Now that you mention that a couple, more than a couple of times obviously because she's, she's now eight months old, but maybe from time to time, probably in the beginning, it's usually when the, when the let-down, probably milk was flowing faster she did probably suck a bit quicker, or sometimes come off and cough a bit, and then that's quite fun because just as the, the let-down the milk is coming out quite fast so you can get sprayed [laughs] and your baby can get sprayed but I just, I laugh at it, you know [laughs], and it, you know, again that's just another way to show that your milk's there [laughs].
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 34 year old, White British woman was breastfeeding her 7 month old son. Previously a mortgage administrator, now stay-at-home mum, she was married to an energy assessor.
Something that mystified me [laughs] and I found it got much easier once I understood how it worked was the whole thing, I kept reading about, let-down, and I was like well what is that? What does that mean? How does that work? And I finally figured it out and then it made expressing easier, it made feeding easier once I figured out that the baby sucks for a little bit and then the milk is let down and then they do the big long sucks, because you read, I read stuff about the baby does short sucks and then long sucks, and I was like oh why, what's this all about? And once I figured it out, that to me was the key and if I'd known about that earlier on it would've made it easier for me.
So can you describe that for me again clearly'
'how you understood it eventually? As, what is the let-down?
Well [laughs], if I explain it, it might be all wrong [laughs].
Well my understanding of it is the baby does short little sucks and then the milk is forced from the back of the breast to the front and the baby then starts getting big glugs of milk, in my particular case I think I have quite a slow let-down the baby has to suck and suck and suck for ages and then I can feel the milk letting down, so when I was trying to express I'm pumping and pumping, it said on the pump, do six short pumps and then do long pumps, and I was like doing this and nothing was happening, nothing was happening, nothing was happening, and then when I figured that out, I was like right you need to make your pump mimic the baby, and then I was much better, able to do it because the baby had to suck and suck and suck for a long time because of my slow let-down, and once I figured that out I could start expressing, and once I could start expressing I could have like one feed off, you know, my husband could do a feed, and I could just sit and watch [laughs]. You know I got one feed off but then I got very wise to having my husband do the feeds because when he was doing the feeds [laughs] I had to go and wash the dishes [laughs] so I would much rather sit and feed the baby myself [laughs]'
So there was method in your madness [laughs].
'than wash the dishes [laughs] yeah so.
Could you feel your milk letting down?
What's it feel like?
Just sort of tingly, quite tingly and my breasts feel like they're going harder, I don't know if they are or not, and sometimes if I'm very, very full, it's actually almost a little bit painful. Oh, I've got a text message and sometimes when I get a strong let-down I'll leak milk out the other side but now that I know what's happening it doesn't bother me at all.
In terms of emotion, the women talked about a normal breastfeed as a nice time of comfort and closeness with their baby. They felt that they were doing something for their baby that no one else could do and that was very special to them. One woman said that the feeling of a breastfeed was:
“Amazing, you've got this baby that knows what it wants and it reaches for you, it knows when it needs a drink”.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 25 year old, British Bangladeshi woman was breastfeeding her 14 month old son. A Breastfeeding Support Worker, she was married.
He doesn't like water much he prefers his breastmilk than anything, he still does to be honest and he's fourteen months old, he prefers his breastmilk, he'll come running to me instead of, you know, he'll, his dad will be chasing him with water in a mug but he doesn't want it. Mother-in-law, when I'm at work I'll sometimes I go home I'll see she's got fresh milk in a glass and he doesn't want it he'll come running to me start stripping my clothes off [laughs] even though he's one, he can have fresh milk but he doesn't like it, doesn't like it. But I'm happy, I'm more than happy because I have that time, I have that moment to sit with him and, you know.
How does that feel?
Wonderful. Well I, I don't know if there's any words to describe how that feels it's beyond, unless you go through it you wouldn't know, and it's just something so special that you cannot, even you can't have that with your husband, or your mum, or your father, even your best friend and you think that's your soul partner, breastfeeding is something so remarkable and so special that no one can take it away from you. And it's when I'm feeding him and he, the way he just glares at me, the way he just looks at me it's like, you know, he knows, 'Mummy I'm, you're giving me the best and there's nothing else I want more than, in this way'. First when I was doing that, it gave me tears because, you know, the thought of the bondness, the closeness I have with him. First of all I took six months maternity leave and I had one year, I mean one month annual leave then I came back to work then I think I was getting baby blues, because I used to think, 'Oh my gosh I'm going to work what if he forgets about me?' and I used to speak to my, one of my colleagues, you know, they said, 'No don't worry he should be fine' and also breastfeeding and what made it special was when I used to go home and breastfeed him we used to still have that connection because I used to think, 'What if I lose that connection?' because it's my first baby I used to think, 'I don't want to lose that connection it's my first child' and still sometimes I used to think, 'Oh forget work, forget work I don't need to work, I don't need the money', it's just, you know, time to, because I love the breastfeeding job [support worker] that's why I'm doing it, otherwise if it was anything else I wouldn't have bothered, I would have stayed home with my baby. And I used to sometimes in the evening I used to cry. My husband used to say, 'What's wrong?' I'd say, 'I don't, I feel like he's moving away from me and the only time he comes to me is because he wants milk otherwise he's more with you or the family' he said, 'No don't think like that because he cries when you go to work' and now I see that it's like when he sees me he's got the most beautiful smile on his face and he comes running to me and I would, I wouldn't never even if you paid me millions like that, that lot that Euro Million one hundred and fifty million I would never replace my baby over that, and the feeling I have with him, the bonding it's beyond, it's beyond words, I have no words to describe it I just love every moment and I think I will miss the moment I stop breastfeeding him, but hopefully but then I'm going to try for the my next one [laughs], so hopefully I wouldn't miss out too much.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 26 year old, White British woman was breastfeeding her 4 month old son. She also had a 10 year old son, not breastfed, and a 2 year old daughter who was. Both she and her husband (Interviewee 20) were self employed.
All I'd say is I've had a really good experience and I'd love to carry on doing it forever really, it's brilliant, it really is lovely and I really do enjoy it, it is hard, but for me it, the hardness outweighs it, it's lovely.
Can you describe the physical sensation of a breastfeed?
It's not real physical, it's just love, you just feel love, that's it, you just feel an overwhelming urge to love and that's about it. It's just there, the love's just immediately around you and you have that closeness and it, also very close, if you're not used to being close to something you will feel very, very close to something if you breastfeed, so yeah, it's amazing.
- Age at interview:
- This 39 year old English woman was breastfeeding her 13 month old son. She also had a daughter (11) and a son (5), both breastfed. A home educator, science tutor and sing & sign teacher, she was married to an estate agent (Interviewee 26).
What it feels like, what it does to you.
Yes, well it's been different with probably with each of the children I would say because I think the, once you've got more children unfortunately breastfeeding's much, probably more hurried than when you have your first and perhaps even the second. With the first I can remember it taking a very long time, you know, and remembering sort of thinking, 'Oh right I've got to feed', and then sort of, 'I have to go to the other side' and try to remember which side I'd finished with and having to sort of swap over and, you know, sort of again doing it all a bit, you know, by that, the book but now it's much more natural if, you know, if the baby just wants to feed he signals to me I, you just, I think, I've just known as a very tiny baby you just have that knowledge and now he's a little bit older he, he then sort of puts his hand down my top and you know it's quite convincing that he wants his feed. But it's a very, it is a, it's always a very special time, you know, it is a time when you can just sit down because you have to, and you just have to, you know, just do that really so it's a very nice close time and I tend to sort of stroke his head and just sort of talk to him, and look at him very a lot and get that contact. And with all my children it has often been a time when they have fallen asleep so it's also been a very sort of relaxing time for me as well and if they've been a little bit unwell or something it's always been something that I've thought, 'Oh I've, I've got that, you know, I've got that closeness, they've got that comfort' and it has actually been very important sometimes that, you know, I've actually had that in times of sickness so, so it's been good that way too.