As a new mother, there are so many things to learn and remember. You know that your body is going to go through changes, both during pregnancy and after, with the rearrangement of your insides and your milk production. Suddenly you have become a student again, reading all of the books and talking to all of the experienced moms, trying to best prepare yourself for every challenge that this little human will throw at you.
Material on wet shirts and leaking nipples are probably not something you will run across unless you’re actually looking for it. So, here’s some info to help you understand and be best prepared for the inevitable spotting you will experience form your excess breastmilk.
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The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is a hormone in women that plays a major role in the female reproductive system. The release of this hormone triggers uterine contractions, both during the menstrual cycle and labor during childbirth. The synthetic form of this hormone, Pitocin, is also utilized when trying to get labor started (1).
This hormone is what is responsible for your milk letdown, or milk ejection reflex (MER). There are many things that can trigger its release. The most common are when your baby nurses, which causes your milk to be released in preparation for her next meal, but even hearing a baby cry (even if it’s not your own) or thinking about your baby can cause letdown, depending on how sensitive you are (2).
Sometimes letdown can be very forceful. I’ve known mothers who have felt every time their milk came in, describing it as a warm, almost burning sensation. They would get very uncomfortable and would need to find relief as soon as possible in order to avoid engorgement and a wet shirt. However, this was not the case with me. I felt it only a handful of times. It seemed like my milk just came in more gradually.
The Leaky Faucet
No matter how forcefully or gently your milk lets down, you are bound to experience leakage to some degree. For some mothers, this lasts only a few weeks, while for others it may last months. Your body is adjusting to your adorable new addition. It’s trying to figure out how much milk it needs to make to satisfy your baby’s needs, and it also works to adjust as your baby grows.
For those, like me, who only experienced gradual letdown, your leakage is exactly that: leakage. There is a slight trickle, perhaps only during feedings (on the side you aren’t feeding from). It’s so subtle you may not notice it happening. That is, until you realize your bra and shirt are wet. It lasted close to six months for me, and because it was so subtle, I wouldn’t always be prepared for leakage. I would think that the leaking phase was done for me, only to discover that I was still ending up with a wet bra.
Forceful letdown can have a very different effect. Some may describe their “leakage” as more of a spray. These mothers may need to put a bit more planning into their outfit, or take other precautions before going out in public (we will talk more about this later). They are likely to have more wet clothes and may notice their babies sounding like they are “choking” or “gagging” when nursing, trying to adjust to the force of milk coming out. Nothing to be concerned about, though. Your body (and baby) will eventually adjust.
Did I Wet the Bed?
One of the worst things about leakage is wet bed sheets. Depending on how often your baby feeds during the night, you are likely to become “full” at some point while you are sleeping, and, of course, experiencing leakage.
Some mothers, like myself, co-sleep with their babies. This can be very convenient, since you don’t need to get up when the baby awakens to eat. However, it can lead to uncomfortable nursing, as you are laying on your side and feeling milk running across your skin.
In order to avoid wet sheets, you can take a couple of precautions. The best way it to sleep in a bra. There are great, comfortable nursing bras made for sleeping in. However, if you don’t want to invest in yet another expensive nursing bra, you can use whatever you already have. This isn’t the most comfortable option, though.
For those who prefer to sleep without a bra, you can choose to sleep on a towel that can soak up that milk and save your sheets. If you are co-sleeping, a towel can be a good thing to have handy as well. You can hold it over the breast that is not being used while you are nursing to ebb the flow and prevent you from feeling an uncomfortable stream of milk flowing down your stomach.
A Nursing Mother’s “Breast” Friend
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I immediately started thinking about all of the clothes, diapers, wipes, and blankets I would need for the baby. I did not put much thought into what I would need (besides some bigger clothes eventually). I knew I wouldn’t need much since I was planning on breastfeeding. Just thought about nursing bras and a cape.
One weekend I went to visit a friend of mine (who already had one child and was pregnant with her second), and she hands me a box of nursing pads. She then proceeds to tell me how much I will need them and be thankful for them later. At the time, I took her word for it (since she obviously was more experienced than I was at the time) and set them aside for after the delivery. Boy, was she ever right!
Nursing pads will be your best friend. They will save many bras and shirts, as well as help you avoid discomfort and embarrassment. I will never forget one time that I forgot them and I narrowly escaped having a big wet spot on my shirt being noticed by someone (thankfully I was just at home at the time).
I highly recommend investing in reusable pads. In the earlier months, you will likely soak through a set every day, making them a more cost-efficient choice over disposable ones. A box of reusable nursing pads will get you through the week, and then you can wash them over the weekend and have them ready to go again by Monday.
I also find that reusable ones tend to be more absorbent and comfortable than disposable pads, since they are made completely of cotton and do not have any vinyl or plastic components. There is also less risk for certain fungal infections. The plastic lining keeps the nipple and areola damp, increasing your chances of developing thrush, which can be passed to your baby and only be cured with antibiotics (3).
Showing Your Face in Public
No matter what type of flow you have, you are probably going to be thinking about how best to prepare for your next outing. You want to avoid the embarrassment of having a wet shirt in public, and you want to spare your favorite top from milk stains. There are a few things you can do to be best prepared, both to avoid leakage altogether and to deal with it.
The best way to avoid leakage is to prevent your breasts from getting super full. You will eventually be able to figure out your baby’s feeding schedule, and this will help you to anticipate and work around it.
If you are always prepared to nurse when (or right before) your milk lets down, you can reduce your chances of getting your shirt wet. If you are unable to nurse at that moment, you can also subtly cross your arms across your chest, applying slight pressure, to help stop the flow.
Choosing the right shirt can also be helpful. Just like when you try to camouflage sweat marks, choosing a dark or patterned top can minimize the appearance of milk spots. You also want to choose cotton over silk or rayon, since your milk will likely stain those fabrics. And, of course, you can always add an extra top and nursing pads to your diaper bag in case of an accident.
Breast milk leakage is unavoidable, and it happens to every nursing mother and even to some long after they stop nursing. Thankfully, there are ways you can minimize or avoid it. You may have an accident or an embarrassing moment (or ten!) along the way, and it may be an inconvenience, but just like everything else associated with your little one, this is just a phase. This, too, shall pass.