Mothers are often confused and upset when they switch from one breast pump to another and find they suddenly express less milk. Why is this so common? The short answer is because conditioning is an important part of milk expression.
Some mothers get great results with any breast pump, but for many, milk flow is slow until they practice with their pump. Why? Because pumping is not just about suction. Great milk yields only happen with milk releases, otherwise known as “let-downs.” Milk release happens when a hormone (oxytocin) is released from a mother’s brain. Without it, very little milk exits the breast, even if it’s full. With milk release, the milk just gushes. During a milk release, muscles around the milk glands squeeze, the milk ducts widen, and the milk is literally pushed out of the breast.
Breastfeeding triggers this hormonal release, but not just due to baby’s suckling. Other aspects of breastfeeding cause milk release, too: the feel of the baby’s soft skin, the baby’s warmth, and the mother’s feelings of love. Just hearing another mother’s baby cry causes some women to leak milk. Because breastfeeding involves many senses and feelings, milk release is almost never a concern. But when a mother puts her pump’s plastic pieces to her breast, it’s just not the same.
With time and practice, most mothers get more and more milk as they pump. Over time their body becomes conditioned to this new feel and responds as though their baby is at the breast. But when she switches to a new pump, all bets are off. The new pump will not feel the same as the previous pump, and the mother’s body response differs, too. She may not have as many milk releases (the average is 3 to 4 per breastfeeding) or she may not have any milk releases at all, which may lead her to think there’s something wrong with the new pump.
If you have a new pump and are worried about reaching your former milk levels, don’t despair. With time, practice, and some of the tricks mentioned above, you body will become conditioned to the feel of the new pump and milk will flow freely again.
Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA, Lactation Consultant, Ameda Breastfeeding Products
Coauthor of Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers