Let down by my let-down

pramIn theory, I am a strong supporter of nursing in public: it is the perfect way to demystify and promote breastfeeding, and the only realistic way to feed your baby when you’re on the move. In practice, I have always struggled with it. In the first few weeks, when it was excruciatingly painful, and the latching on ‘dance’ (as it is optimistically termed) C and I performed actually resembled a boxing match, my reticence was understandable. Three months later, with a finely-honed technique, I had run out of excuses.

One weekend, I decided to get some much needed public nursing practice in on a trip to a family-friendly department store. Previously, I had fed C in the car, or in the specially provided breastfeeding area. One trip to this part of the store was enough, however (it was an open-plan extension to the nappy changing facility) and I decided to feed C in the cafe, where I’d previously seen lots of other women breastfeeding.

To set the scene: this particular store is packed with the kind of educated, middle class parents who understand the importance of breastfeeding, and wouldn’t dream of raising any objection. My husband J went off to get some drinks, and I settled down to feed C. She was peckish, but not overly so, and was happy enough to spend some time performing the short suckling movements that help initiate let-down. Ten minutes later, she was starting to get frustrated. What was going on? Nothing was coming out! I hadn’t nursed for several hours, so had plenty of milk on board, but for some reason my let-down reflex was failing to function.

After another five minutes of suckling, and a bit of time reassuring a very confused C, my milk finally kicked in. I’m not quite sure why my let-down deserted me on this particular day, but I can only put it down to the noise and stress of feeding in a public place. In situations which other mothers find problematic, such as expressing milk when their baby is absent, I have no problem at all. When I think someone might be watching, however, I often end up in a vicious cycle of stress->no let-down->more stress.

As time has gone on, I find it easier to relax, and haven’t yet had a repeat of this particularly serious let-down failure. Although I can still suffer from performance anxiety from time to time, I try not to let it put me off completely, and as ever, things are improving with time.

Can stress affect the let-down reflex?

cartoon of person with numbers flying round their headOne piece of advice you might have heard from midwives (and well-meaning friends and family), is to make sure you breastfeed in quiet and relaxing surroundings. Given the choice, this is probably what you’d opt for (who wants to feed in noisy and distracting surroundings?), but could it actually cause a problem if you’re not able to do this?

Well, there’s a possibility it could. For some time, medical evidence has existed that indicates temporary stress or distraction can interfere with the let-down, or milk ejection reflex, meaning your baby has to wait longer for milk to start flowing freely.

Normally, cues that indicate your milk will soon be required (such as your baby crying before a feed, or suckling at the start of one1) trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin, which enters the bloodstream in ‘pulses’ a few minutes apart, forcing milk to flow from the ducts and out of the nipple (see ‘Breastfeeding and Human Lactation’ by Jan Riordan for a full description of this somewhat complicated process.)

In 1948, an experiment conducted with a single breastfeeding woman indicated that distractions can inhibit the release of oxytocin, delaying the start of milk ejection2. This effect was confirmed in a more recent study, which monitored the oxytocin levels in the blood of three groups of breastfeeding mothers who had given birth five days previously3. The first group was asked to perform difficult verbal arithmetic problems whilst nursing their babies (the stress condition), the second was subjected to the noise of a building site through earphones (the noise condition) and the third breastfed without these distractions (the control group).

Oxytocin release occurred significantly later and less frequently in the noise and arithmetic groups than it did in the control group, indicating that these temporary stressors impaired the mothers’ let-down reflexes. The amount of milk the babies consumed (measured by weighing them before and after the feed) did not differ between the groups, however, so although stress affected the frequency of let-down, it did not appear to prevent babies from consuming an adequate amount of milk.

These results demonstrate that mild temporary stress, such as trying to perform difficult arithmetic problems (five days after giving birth!) or being exposed to the noise of construction work can delay the let-down reflex, both at the start of a feed, and throughout its duration. This may explain why in situations where you feel under pressure or distracted (for me, this certainly applies to feeding in public), it feels like your milk takes forever to appear – not great when you’re trying to deal with an angry baby. Fortunately, this problem doesn’t appear to affect the amount of milk your baby consumes overall, so it isn’t necessarily anything to worry about (this would probably only make it worse, after all…) Nevertheless, it is an irritation that both you and your baby would probably prefer to avoid, and therefore the perfect excuse to insist that your surroundings whilst breastfeeding are as chilled out as possible.

  1. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 1983 Jan 22;286(6361):257-9.
  2. J Pediatr. 1948 Dec;33(6):698-704.
  3. Obstet Gynecol. 1994 Aug;84(2):259-62

When should mastitis be treated with antibiotics?

pillsMastitis – inflammation of the breast tissue – is a common problem for breastfeeding women. Although it can be associated with bacterial infection, this is rarely its primary cause (see milk stasis – not infection – is the main cause of mastitis). Many doctors nevertheless choose to treat it with antibiotics, ‘just in case’ infection is present. Given the uncertain relationship between bacteria and mastitis, what are the benefits – and drawbacks – of taking antibiotic medication?

There are disappointingly few properly controlled studies looking at the antibiotic treatment of mastitis. A recent Cochrane Review analyzing all the research in this area found only two studies that were sufficiently well designed or reported to provide unbiased evidence1. One study looked at the effects of two different types of antibiotic (Amoxicillin and Cephradine), and found that they were equally good at relieving symptoms. Unfortunately, as the study didn’t have a control group of women who did not take any medication, it is not clear whether the antibiotics actually helped them recover, or whether the mothers would simply have recovered over time anyway.

In the second study, mothers who had ‘infectious mastitis’ (diagnosed when both bacteria and white blood cell counts were higher than normal) were assigned to three groups. In the first group, the women were advised to treat the mastitis by emptying the affected breast every six hours (feeding their baby as normal and then expressing any remaining milk); in the second, mothers were asked to follow the same breast emptying routine, and were also prescribed a course of antibiotics (Penicillin, Ampicillin or Erythromycin); in a third control group no treatment was recommended. The results showed that antibiotics did indeed have a beneficial effect: whilst women in the breast-emptying group recovered more quickly than those who weren’t treated, those taking the medication recovered fastest of all.

This single study does appear to show that antibiotics can help treat mastitis associated with bacterial infection. Does this provide adequate evidence for treating all cases of mastitis in this way? Well, not really, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the antibiotics were shown to be effective when infection was present. In many cases of mastitis, infection is not present, so antibiotics wouldn’t be any use. A risk of prescribing antibiotics without diagnosing infection is that it may not treat the root of the problem. As mastitis is more commonly caused by milk stasis than infection, it is vital to tackle this issue to ensure proper recovery and avoid reoccurrence.

Inappropriate antibiotic treatment is also problematic as it increases the chance that the bacteria may become resistant to the drug. Staphylococcus aureus is the bacteria most commonly associated with mastitis, and a well-known strain of this – MRSA – is already resistant to antibiotics, so this is potentially a serious problem2.

There is also the possibility that antibiotics taken by breastfeeding mothers may have adverse effects on their babies. Exposure to antibiotics through breast milk has been linked with problems such as minor infant breathing difficulties3 and diarrhoea4. Although such complications are not regarded as serious enough stop women from taking medication when they need it (particularly if it enables them to continue breastfeeding), it seems sensible to avoid putting babies at any unnecessary risk, particularly given that this area is currently under-researched1.

So, what does all this mean for mothers who have mastitis, and health professionals who are trying to treat it? There is some evidence that antibiotics help treat mastitis when infection, diagnosed using both bacteria and white blood cell counts, is known to exist. Ideally, antibiotics would be prescribed only in this situation, as using them unnecessarily increases the chance bacteria will develop resistance to them – leading to strains such as MRSA – and may expose babies to unnecessary health problems. Diagnosing infection is notoriously difficult, however, as the bacteria which potentially cause infection can be present even when infection itself isn’t5, and measuring both white blood cell and bacteria counts is rarely going to be practical in a normal health care setting, such as a GP surgery. In a paper published last year discussing this difficult issue, Linda Kvist and colleagues recommend a daily follow-up of mothers with mastitis, and the prescription of antibiotics when symptoms are persistent. In the meantime (and indeed, in the first instance) treating milk stasis, the primary cause of mastitis, remains the top priority.

  1. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD005458
  2. Int Breastfeed J. 2008 Apr 7;3:6.
  3. Pediatrics. 2007 Jan;119(1):e225-31
  4. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1993 May;168(5):1393-9.
  5. Mastitis: causes and management. World Health Organization; 2000.

Battle with the bottle: persistence pays off

bottle_2When C was about 10 weeks old, she started refusing to feed from a bottle. Initial reluctance rapidly turned into violent resistance, and if I actually managed to get the teat near her mouth, it was met only by screams.

My despair at the situation was tempered only by the fact that it turned out not to be particularly unusual. Two mothers I knew had had the same experience – trouble free bottle feeding morphing into complete refusal – and several others (including, ahem, my own mother) had never managed to get their babies to feed from a bottle.

On the web, several discussion forums were devoted to the topic, and here I found a glimmer of hope: many parents who had experienced similar problems had eventually been able to get their babies to accept bottles. Reading the advice was nevertheless confusing. There were a multitude of conditions that apparently dictated whether infants would feed from a bottle: mothers needed to be around to provide comfort/mothers needed to be completely out of the house; babies shouldn’t be really hungry (they might get too upset)/babies should be really hungry (they won’t let themselves starve); silicon teats were better than rubber/rubber teats were better than silicon…

The only thing that all the success stories had in common was that the parents persisted in offering their children bottles. This in itself is not a great revelation – if a bottle isn’t offered, then it cannot be accepted – but it was reassuring to know that just because a baby resolutely refuses a bottle at one point, it doesn’t necessarily mean she always will.

Keeping this in mind, we started to offer C a bottle everyday, containing just an ounce of expressed milk to start with. I abandoned my frustration, and decided not to worry too much whether she took it or left it. Perhaps because I was no longer anxious, C stopped crying when the bottle was near her. Sometimes she drank a little bit of milk, sometimes she just chewed on the teat, sometimes she spat it out. Eventually, she became so comfortable feeding this way that she’d grab the bottle with both hands and help push it into her mouth! Whether it was decoupling the stress from the situation, the increasing familiarity of the bottle, or a sudden turnaround that would have happened regardless of what we had done is impossible to know, but for now at least, bottle refusal is thankfully in the distant past.

Could a laid-back approach to breastfeeding help your baby latch on?

baby_cryingAlthough it’s perfectly feasible to feed your baby any way that feels comfortable, four positions are commonly recommended. These are the cradle hold, the football hold, lying on your side, and the cross-cradle hold. This last position requires you to sit up with a straight back, hold your baby sideways on, and carefully position him with his nose opposite your nipple so he has a large mouthful of breast when he latches on. It can seem like quite a complicated process for a beginner, particularly when a crying baby is added to the equation. Nevertheless, it is particularly recommended to new mothers, as it is apparently the best position in which to ensure your baby is latching on correctly – something that many women (and babies) can find quite difficult.

Despite the strong recommendation of these feeding positions, there appears to be virtually no scientific evidence to justify their use. In practical terms, it is easy to see why being able to discreetly breastfeed whilst sitting up is a useful skill to master, but for a new mother, simply being able to comfortably nourish her baby may be a more immediate priority.

A recent study conducted at hospitals in the UK and France calls into question the idea that the traditionally recommended feeding positions are automatically the best ones1. During the study, 40 women whose babies were less than a month old were videotaped breastfeeding in a series of recording sessions. As long as feeding was going well, mothers were not advised or guided in any way: they were simply left to get on with it in whichever was most comfortable for them. In the ‘best’ recorded feeding session 21 of the mothers sat upright to feed their babies, one lay flat on her back, and one lay on her side; the remaining 17 were semi-reclined with their babies lying on their tummies (a behaviour termed ‘Biological Nurturing’).

There were some striking differences in the feeding process when mothers adopted a reclining position, as opposed to sitting upright. When babies lay on their mothers’ tummies, their mothers’ hands were free to gently guide them. Stroking their babies’ feet seemed to be particularly helpful, as it released mouth and tongue reflexes that helped them to latch on. By contrast, when babies were held in their mothers’ arms, their legs and feet were left in thin air, and the foot-to-mouth connection was lost.

The reclinining group did not need to line up the nose and nipple, and make sure the baby’s mouth was open wide enough before initiating the latch: as the baby was on top, gravity pulled his tongue and chin forward, allowing him to attach himself, even when he was sleepy. Gravity also automatically ensured a close fit between the baby’s chin and the mother’s breast, facilitating deep suckling and producing the ear and jaw movements that indicate successful feeding.

Perhaps the most interesting result, however, was that babies exhibited reflexes that helped feeding when their mothers were reclined, but hindered it when their mothers were upright. When they were lying on their mothers’ tummies, head-righting and -lifting reflexes allowed the baby to orientate himself for successful latching on. When mothers were upright however, these irregular, jerky head movements had the opposite effect: the head bobbing that resembled ‘nodding’ when a mother was reclined was perceived as ‘head butting’ when a baby was held sideways against an upright mother. The gravitational forces that had helped attachment in reclining postures dragged babies away from their mothers when they sat up. It was harder to keep the baby latched on, and mothers reacted by tightening their grip, resulting in back arching and arm and leg cycling that appeared like thrashing or flailing.

It is important to view these results in context: this was an observational, rather than a controlled study, so the data cannot ‘prove’ that one feeding method is better than another. Many of the mothers who participated fed quite happily whilst sitting upright – as do many women every day – so it’s clear that a reclining posture is not required for successful feeding.

Nevertheless, this research does call into question the idea that a position like the cross-cradle hold is the best one to recommend to new mothers. Innate early breastfeeding behaviours were observed to help attachment when a mother lay back with her baby lying on her tummy, but not when she sat up;  reflexes and gravitational forces which aided latching on when a mother reclined, hindered it when she was upright. If, as this study suggests, women can just lie back and let nature take its course, the often fraught early days of breastfeeding could potentially be a much more relaxed affair.

  1. Early Hum Dev. 2008 Jul;84(7):441-9.
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