What does a let-down feel like?

breastfeeding letdown let-down

I spent hours and hours this week searching for a term in another language- a term for a feeling that sometimes occurs when you’re breastfeeding a child or pumping milk.  A feeling that, itself, doesn’t have a term in English.

Can I explain it in English?  Let’s give it a shot.

Breasts don’t sit around full of milk all day long like the water dispenser in your fridge door.  Your breasts store a small amount of milk from feeding to feeding, but most milk is made on demand when a baby nurses or your breasts are stimulated with a pump or your hands. Your body says “oh hey, that’s a hungry kiddo out there- let’s make some milk RIGHT NOW and get it into baby THIS VERY SECOND.”  The nerves in your breasts signal oxytocin, which makes milk squirt into your milk ducts and then out through pores in your nipple.

accurate representation of what a let-down looks like

In English, we call this process a “let down” or “let-down”.  Technically it’s referred to as the milk ejection reflex, but when I’m working with a family I’ll say things like “oh, do you hear baby gulping quickly?  That’s a sign that you’re having a let-down!”

Still with me?

Cool fact- some nursing parents can actually feel when this is about to happen.  And it’s a very, very hard feeling to describe in words… sort of “you’ll know it when you feel it” kind of thing.  People say it feels like

  • tingling
  • itching
  • burning
  • tickling
  • buzzing
  • a sneeze in your breasts
  • “hnnnnnnng”

I never felt even one let-down in the year I nursed my first child.  With my second child, I started feeling it when I went back to work and was pumping full-time… and for my third child, I felt it starting in the first week after birth.

So imagine a parent coming to you and saying “I feel something strange when the baby is nursing”.  You explain the let-down reflex and you list all these weird feelings that people have compared it to- and then you say “does that sound right?” and they look at you sort of funny and say “um, maybe” and then you come up with a few more verbs, and you wave your hands around in the air, and they say “I guess so” and change the subject because you’re freaking them out a little.

this is what I do with my hands… hopefully I don’t make this face.

Then imagine the same scenario, except that you and the person you’re helping have differing native languages and you’re quite certain they have no idea what the heck you’re going on about- they just think something is wrong with their body and all of your flailing about is not even remotely reassuring.

What do you do?

You can’t really google- because “let down” isn’t a synonym for a tingling itching burning tickling buzzing boob-sneeze.  Google just translates it as “disappoint” and that sure as hell isn’t the point you’re trying to get across.

… no.

You reach out to a few people you know who speak the parent’s native language and ask them for help.  But because there’s no word in English for that feeling, it’s near impossible to describe it to your bilingual friends in a way that they understand exactly what you’re asking for.

You start posting randomly on some large Facebook groups you’re in, hoping you can find anyone who just happens to know the other language and also has some sort of knowledge about breastfeeding.  And then people try to help you and you keep (kindly and politely, I hope) saying no, that’s really not what I’m talking about… no, not that either…

Ehh… kinda, but… I mean… that’s not really… well… umm…

And finally, FINALLY you find someone who is also an IBCLC in the country where the parents you work with are from, and she knows EXACTLY what you’re talking about.  She writes out the term for you, and you thank her profusely and immediately write to the family you’ve been working with, convinced you’re providing such amazing service and they’ll immediately say “oh Rachel, that’s what you were talking about, that makes perfect sense, yes that’s exactly what I’m experiencing!”

And the parent says “… I don’t know if that’s what I’m feeling.”

(I still love my job so, so, so much.  But I’m on a mission to give that tingle itch burn tickle buzz boob-sneeze a real name.  Actually… maybe it’ll just be boob-sneeze.)

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6 thoughts on “What does a let-down feel like?

  1. Thank you so much Rachel!

    I was feeling itching like needling feelings and I had no idea what was going on. I did a mistake to google it and unfortunately I read some wrong information and about to cry or worry that something was wrong with me until I found your blog!

    Thanks again, you made this so easy to understand. It’s not something wrong or I am not having any problems, it’s just a signal for food time 🙂

    I cannot appreciate more, I hope more people reach out to you!

  2. I like your comment, because this is also how I describe it, it’s time to feed or she is calling my breasts because the buzz feels like the food is ready, your order is at your door ☺️ i mostly feel that on both breasts when it happens but sometime i may not feel it at all and get surprised by the leakage. Total Mystery. Babies can communicate with the boobs via boobtooth!

  3. Loved this read! I think boob sneeze it fitting! I could never describe the feeling at first until it kept happening, and realized that’s not the sensation of my nipples becoming erect from cold weather (in Florida so it’s never cold lol) but let down! And my arm pits would itch/sting/tingle at the same time lol. It’s definitely an experience only nursing moms can understand (if they feel their let down) but can’t coin a term for! After reading this (and laughing through most of it) I quickly found the word I’ve been looking for to describe what I’ve been feeling! I’ve sneezed before and got that tingly/warm sensation in the nips before so BOOB SNEEZE IT IS!!!!

  4. I’m so happy I read this. I got the new hands free, works with an iPhone app, newest, latest, greatest, ridiculously expensive, willow breast pump. It automatically senses let down to change from a stimulation to pumping phase while using the pump. After spending all this money on it I started to panic thinking- I’ve always heard of “let down” but what does that feel like? If I can’t feel it, then how does this pump know what to do? I don’t recall ever having a “feeling” with my first child. What I spent all that money for nothing?! It was so relieving to read that you don’t always “feel” it.
    And you are hilarious, btw..?

  5. I always said “Oh my breasts think it’s time to feed – so that’s my milk coming in my breasts and going out to (the baby)” when someone asked me why the front of my shirt was all wet.

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