You’ve just welcomed a new baby. You’re exhausted, you’re not sure what day or time it is (let alone when you last showered), and now you’re leaking breast milk. Cute!
Along with all the other ins and outs of those early days and weeks of motherhood, leaking breasts are a very common – and normal – thing that many new mums experience.
Even still, you might have a few queries and concerns about leaking breast milk, including why it happens, how long it lasts, and what you can do about it.
To make dealing with leaky breasts a little easier, we’ve put together a helpful guide.
Why breast leaking happens after birth
There are a couple of causes of breast leaking. In many cases, the reason why breasts leak is pretty straightforward: quite simply, your boobs contain too much milk and need to expel a bit of it.
In other cases, oxytocin (the hormone that also plays a key role in labour) may trigger the letdown reflex, whereby your breasts let out a bit of milk.
The letdown reflex is the function responsible for releasing milk, and it's pretty nifty, except when it goes off at the wrong time.
In the first few weeks, your letdown reflex is still getting used to the breastfeeding rhythm and adjusting to its milk supply.
Until it’s fully found its feet, you may experience leaking when you’re not even breastfeeding.
The letdown reflex (and consequent breast leaking) can be triggered simply by looking at your baby, hearing a baby cry, or even by sex!
Because oxytocin is also responsible for orgasm contractions, it can stimulate the letdown reflex at the same time.
Other situations that can initiate leaking breasts include:
- Breastfeeding on one breast. Often the breast that’s not being used will leak
- Taking a shower or bath. Warm water encourages your milk to flow, especially if it’s running over your breasts
- When you first wake up. Your breasts are usually fuller in the morning and more likely to overflow
- Coming to the end of pregnancy. Your body actually starts producing milk (specifically, colostrum) pretty early in pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible for your breasts to leak before your baby is even born. Know that this is very normal
Signs and symptoms of breast leaking
The most obvious symptom of leaking is milk intermittently coming out of your breasts.
They might leak milk gently, or you may spray milk. Either is usually perfectly normal after birth.
There are other signs of an overactive letdown reflex that you might notice, too, including:
- Burning, prickling, pressure, pins and needles, or warmth in your breasts
- Uterine cramps, a bit like when you have your period
These might happen while you’re breastfeeding, or even while you’re not.
On top of the signs of leaking breasts, you may also experience other symptoms associated with nipple discharge. These include:
- Breast pain
- Changes in the size of your breasts
- Swelling around your nipples
- Changes to the colour or appearance of your nipples, such as inversion, dimpling, or scaling
- Other symptoms such as fatigue, nausea, or fever
While many of these signs may simply be a part of routine breast leaking after childbirth, it’s important to keep a close eye on them.
In some cases, they can be an indication of something more serious – we’ll get into that shortly.
Why do I leak breast milk at night?
It's extremely common to experience increased breast milk leakage at night.
While it might be slightly inconvenient, there is good reason why your milk production seems to ramp up towards the end of the day.
As the day progresses, your breast milk begins to increase in fat content, in order to satisfy your baby for longer stretches of sleep.
The idea is that this fattier milk keep them satisfied for longer and helps them sleep longer at night but we know that this isn't always the case, especially when they are going through periods of cluster feeding.
This, coupled with the fact that your levels of prolactin are the highest at night — prolactin supports milk production — can lead to increased breast milk leakage during the night.
If your baby is cluster feeding regularly during the night, this also encourages your body to produce more milk during the hours you usually should be sleeping.
So, while it might be a little annoying to deal with extra leaky breasts while you're trying to catch some much-needed shuteye, know that it's completely normal.
How long does breast leaking last?
The duration of breast leaking varies for each new mum. Some only experience it in the first six to 10 weeks after birth, and find that it goes away once both their baby and body come to grips with breastfeeding.
Other women continue to leak milk all the way until they've stopped breastfeeding, which can sometimes be a couple of years.
Others still may be leaking breast milk a few weeks after they’ve weaned their baby from the breast. All of these are totally normal and usually not cause for concern.
However, if leaking continues a few months after your baby has been weaned, book in a visit to your doctor or lactation consultant, who can equip you with the tips to manage it better.
Breasts leaking during pregnancy
While you might expect your breasts to leak after birth, you might be surprised to know that your breasts can start leaking during pregnancy.
Your breasts can start producing colostrum months before birth, with some people experiencing colostrum production as early as 16 weeks.
When you reach around 28 weeks, you can start expressing colostrum and if you're producing enough, you can start freezing it to use once your baby is born.
Colostrum is also known as 'liquid gold' as its abundant in vitamins, minerals and protein than encourage growth while also helping to fight infection and build you baby's immune system.
There's not much to be done about leaking breasts during pregnancy as it's a normal side effect but you might want to start using breast pads to catch the fluid if it's starting to stain your bras and clothing.
Tips for dealing with breast leaking
We totally get it – even though leaking breasts is an expected part of early breastfeeding, that’s not to say it’s a nice one.
Whether you’re back at work or taking bub out for a walk, having some of your breast milk leak through your clothes can be a little uncomfortable.
While you can't necessarily stop your breasts leaking, there are a few things you can do to make the leakage less obvious.
Wear breast pads in between (and during) feeds
Breast pads are a bona fide lifesaver if you’re experiencing leaking breasts. They’re nifty little pads that go between your breasts and bra to absorb leaks.
You can use nursing pads between feeds to soak up any leakage, or you can slip one over the breast you’re not using while feeding.
You can opt for disposable or reusable nursing pads to absorb leakage, but the advantage of the latter is that you don’t have to worry about running out. (And, let’s be honest, one less worry in those first few weeks is a real blessing.)
Kin's Breast Pads are made from sustainable bamboo. They're soft on skin, super absorbent and washable. You can find them as part of the Breastfeeding Essentials kit, or as a pack of three pairs for just $25.
Carry a change of clothes
Needless to say, a blouse accessorised with breast milk around your nipples may not be your favourite look of all time.
This is where a jumper, cardigan, or change of clothes can come in really handy.
If there are any accidents while you’re out and about, you can easily cover yourself up or slip on a new top – one without breast milk on it. A spare bra is also a good idea.
Here’s another handy hint: patterns are excellent at hiding milk stains, so you might want to pack your busiest blouse.
Try more frequent feeds
Because breast leaking is often caused by too-full breasts, regular feeding can help ensure your breasts don’t reach a tipping point.
Do it frequently and try not to leave too long a gap between feeds.
As well, you might want to alternate breasts with each feed. This allows you to empty your breasts evenly, reducing the chance of leakage as well as nasty things like mastitis and engorgement.
Figure out your best position
Sometimes, simply changing your breastfeeding position can help reduce leakage.
This is because once you figure out a position that works for you, it can make breastfeeding easier for both you and your baby – allowing your breasts to settle into a feeding routine and even milk supply sooner.
Lying on your back might be especially beneficial if your leaking breasts are due to an overactive letdown reflex.
You might be able to sense the gentle tingle of letdown ahead of time. If you can catch breast leaking before it happens, apply gentle, brief pressure to your nipple area to halt milk flow. And if you’re out in public, try crossing your arms over your breasts and lightly pressing down.
The keyword here really is ‘gentle’. If you go too hard on your breasts, the pressure may well lead to mastitis – and while mastitis is common in that it affects 1 in 5 new mums, it's still very unpleasant.
When to seek medical attention
You might be reading this because you’re experiencing leaking breasts and are not pregnant or breastfeeding.
Keep in mind that it’s not necessarily cause for alarm just yet – there are numerous reasons why breast discharge happens.
Here are some possible causes of nipple discharge:
- Hormonal changes, perhaps during your period or if you’re going through menopause
- Taking the contraceptive pill
- Taking certain drugs that stimulate the production of prolactin (AKA the hormone responsible for milk production). These include prescription drugs for things like depression and nausea, as well as recreational drugs
- Over stimulating your breasts or nipples
- Blocked milk ducts
- Eczema or dermatitis around the nipple
- Breast injury or infection
- Underactive thyroid
- Fibrocystic breast disease, a condition where non-cancerous lumps appear in one or both breasts
- Breast cancer. Note that discharge is a relatively uncommon symptom of breast cancer – in fact, less than 5 percent of women with breast cancer experience nipple discharge – and it’ll usually be accompanied by other symptoms like blood in the discharge, a lump in the breast, or other changes to the appearance of your breasts and/or nipples
Completely understandably, you may be concerned if you notice nipple discharge without the presence of a baby.
Any breast discharge should be checked out by a doctor to rule out a serious condition, and to work out a plan of attack for dealing with whatever’s causing it.