Stress and Breastfeeding: How to Protect Your Milk Supply

stress and breastfeeding: how to protect your milk supply

The past year has been incredibly stress-inducing for many people.  When I sit down with my breastfeeding support group families or talk with parents at their home visit, I find that I’m spending much more time discussing stress and anxiety than I used to.  Stress and breastfeeding have become a conversation topic during most of my consults.

I have a lot of talents as a lactation consultant; I can help you end a nursing strike and I can guide you through ditching a nipple shield, but I probably can’t make your life stress-free.

I’m sorry.

stress and breastfeeding

What I CAN do, though, is help you to protect your milk supply during times of stress and anxiety.  First up, let’s make sure we understand just how stress affects lactation.

stress and breastfeeding: what’s the problem here?

When you are scared, stressed, or anxious, the adrenaline released by your system can inhibit oxytocin.  And since oxytocin is what causes your milk to “let down”, or flow freely from your breasts, that adrenaline messes with your milk delivery system.  Stress and breastfeeding just don’t mix well.

I explain it to parents this way: you’re a caveperson and you’re about to feed your baby.  You sit down and latch the baby on when suddenly a sabre tooth tiger jumps out behind you.

Is your body going to make milk right then?  Heck no!  Your body wants you to GET UP AND RUN!  Now would be a STUPIDLY DANGEROUS time to just sit there and nurse that baby!  No milk for you!

breastfeeding woman scared and stressed
Lady, it’s a TIGER!  Put the boob away and RUN!

So the delayed/repressed let-down is actually protective of the baby, though in most cases our stress isn’t actually life-threatening (even if it feels that way at the time).  While this shouldn’t affect the amount of milk you make in the long-term, there are certainly steps you can take to encourage the let-down reflex and keep that milk flowing!

Rachel’s tips for encouraging oxytocin release and let-down

  1. Warmth.  Even a little warmth goes a long way in encouraging let-down and milk production.  Products like Earth Mama Angel Baby Booby Tubes or Lansinoh TheraPearls (or yes, even rice in a tube sock) can be quickly warmed in the microwave and applied to the breasts for a minute or two before nursing to promote let-down.  For pumping parents, these are especially useful when wrapped around your pump flanges.
  2. Music or white noise.  Put on sounds that relax you… either quiet, happy music or any form of white noise that you find soothing.  The more relaxed you are, the sooner you’ll be able to have a let-down.  Singing or humming can also speed the process along.
  3. Touch.  Lay your baby lay skin-to-skin for a few minutes or gently rub your collarbone and your shoulders before you start nursing or pumping.  Any positive skin-to-skin contact will help your body to release oxytocin.
  4. Scent.  Ever have the urge to take a big, deep whiff of a newborn’s head?  Yes, scents can help you to release oxytocin!  Smell your baby, or a piece of clothing that baby wore recently.  If there are particular scents you find soothing, like lavender or vanilla, keep them nearby.  Take a few sniffs as needed.
  5. Laughter.  Have you ever seen a good joke diffuse a tense situation?  Laughter decreases your body’s adrenaline levels, and many have found that watching a funny movie while pumping can increase their milk output.  Just… maybe skip the political cartoons in case they have the opposite effect on you!

above all, protect your milk supply

Finally, remember that milk production is almost entirely driven by supply and demand.  Empty breasts make milk, and full breasts don’t.  Make sure your breasts are being emptied frequently (8-12 times a day depending on your baby’s age and your breast milk storage capacity) in order to make the milk your baby needs.

stress and breastfeeding- emptied breasts make milk

Listen, anxiety happens.  Stress happens. I’m not going to give you any platitudes like “this too shall pass” or “you’re too blessed to be stressed!”.  Stress and breastfeeding are a real, ongoing part of our lives- but these tips should help you to make the best of a rough situation and make sure that your milk supply stays plentiful.


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7 thoughts on “Stress and Breastfeeding: How to Protect Your Milk Supply

  1. Thank you so much for this I have anxiety and depression, and mom guilt because of all of it, and now I feel like I’m not producing enough milk. Thank you!

  2. Oh my goodness, thud issue is so real. It’s like a man being unable to hold an erection or ejaculate when he’s stressed. Certain bodily functions just require you to switch off and let your body so it’s thing and any thought or worry about if and when it will happen interferes with it. Sleep is the same. It amazes me there isn’t more said about this or training to get yourself in the zone to let down. I spent so much time stressing about if i would let down and in the end it just runs what could have been a beautiful nursing session and the poor baby gets annoyed because his milk is taking too long.

    Thank you for acknowledging this problem x

  3. Thank you for writing about this. I’m curious on your thoughts about the nasal spray that I hear people speaking about that is meant to either stimulate the release of oxytocin, or is oxytocin itself (I’m not sure which…). I was VERY tentative to begin using such a thing myself, fearing that my body would then, in time, potentially be unable to produce oxytocin on its own, which would be… well… a big bummer. After months of no explanation from a vast array of professionals, I ended up spending many months attributing my chronic low supply to my personality itself, which is over achieving, perfectionist, prone to anxiety, etc. Though obviously my breastfeeding problems were massively exacerbating all of those issues. I feel as though there really needs to be some research done into this, so thank you so much for bringing up the discussion.

    1. Hi Johanna! I absolutely agree that we need more research on the effect of oxytocin nasal sprays on the breastfeeding process. I am very reluctant to suggest these sprays to clients (in fact, I never suggest them) but if a client were to do their own research and come to me asking my opinion I’d be very hard-pressed to provide evidence-based information. Some have used these sprays with success; is that anecdotal “evidence” good enough? Not in my eyes but I certainly understand people who do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to help their milk production! I wish I had an answer for you… I just don’t.

    2. This is a very late response, but I figured I would write it anyway just in case someone else finds this thread and has the same question.
      I struggled with low supply and could never get let downs from the pump when at work because of the anxiety of not making enough milk for my baby. I tried EVERYTHING to get my supply up and to have let downs while pumping. (To be clear, I had zero issues having let downs when baby was nursing.) My IBCLC finally suggested the oxytocin nasal spray. I’m typically not the type to take medicine or try a new protocol without research, but I was desperate. Let me tell ya… the spray WORKS and it saved my breastfeeding journey. I used it for about 8 months every single time I pumped. I had no side effects and no issues creating oxytocin on my own (other than when pumping). Im 2 weeks post part I’m with my second baby and no issues with supply, but already feeling the anxiety associated with pumping because of my low supply and inability to let down previously. I hope I don’t have to resort to the nasal spray again, but I will not hesitate to if I need to. Like I said, it saved my breastfeeding journey. I ended up nursing until my daughter was 16 months and only stopped because I was pregnant and it hurt toooo bad to continue.
      Best of luck to anyone reading this. You’re doing an amazing job!!

      1. Hi Lindsay! Thanks so much for sharing this! Can I ask what the spray was called? How many MG of Oxytocin did it deliver? I’m having a heck of a time right now. Things were fine, then suddenly the day before Chriatnas it was like my supply just dropped majorly, and I wasn’t getting anything with the pump either. I wonder if it’s an issue with anxiety about not having enough milk inhibiting production and Oxytocin for letdowns. I’m interested in researching these sprays! Thanks so much!

      2. Thank you for this reply about the oxytocin spray! I am trying to get some because I have hyperthyroidism (probably postpartum thyroiditis) and the anxiety is killing my breastfeeding journey. I’m glad to hear it works and hasn’t affected you in any negative way. Makes me excited to get it and give it a try!

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