Breast Changes: Before, During, and After Breastfeeding

There’s perhaps no other time women experience as many changes in their body as they do when they’re pregnant and breastfeeding. During this time, our breasts are especially going through transformations. Hormones, blood flow changes, and the simple fact that the breasts fill and empty several times a day leads to all sorts of new experiences. Will your breasts get bigger? Will they be sore? Will they start sagging? If you’re like most women, you’ve got plenty of questions. Thankfully, women have been breastfeeding since the dawn of time, giving us plenty of information to address all of your concerns.

Breast Changes During Pregnancy

Hormones are to blame for the changes in your breasts during pregnancy. Hormones act as little signalers inside of your body, setting off a chain reaction to first increase blood flow to your breasts. You may notice the veins in your breasts are more noticeable and a change in areola pigmentation. Increased blood flow to the breasts nourishes them and increases their exposure to estrogen and progesterone which cause changes in glandular buds and milk ducts. The result? Enlarged breasts.

Breasts usually begin to grow tender and bigger around six to eight weeks, usually before your belly even begins growing! This breast tenderness is often the first sign of pregnancy and while an increase in breast plumpness is often welcomed, this pain is not. To handle this breast pain, you may use cooling packs intermittently. It’s also helpful to wear supportive bras which don’t pinch or slip while worn. Sports bras or nursing bras are usually a great option.

Leaky nipples are another common change in pregnancy. Your body begins producing colostrum, the precursor to breast milk, before you’ve even given birth. Colostrum is clear to yellow in coloration and usually a little oily. Some women may have leaking breasts from early on in the pregnancy, others may never experience this at all. Nursing pads, small cotton rounds placed in your bra, are available for purchase if the leaking is not manageable.

Breast Changes While Breastfeeding

When the placenta is expelled after birth, it signals a cascade of hormonal changes which lead to a drop in progesterone, a hormone that increases breast size in pregnancy, but suppresses milk manufacturing. The absence of the placenta allows milk production to begin in full strength and, with the help of oxytocin, your breasts begin to fill with milk.

Most mothers wonder when their milk will “come in.” Usually between two and seven days after birth, our breasts grow firm and leak white breast milk. Until this point, you’ve likely been nursing but providing your baby with colostrum, the pre-milk we discussed earlier. Colostrum is an excellent source of antibodies and nutrition for your baby. The more you offer your breasts to your baby before your white milk arrives, the more of this super food your baby gets. Nursing frequently and often after your baby arrives helps expedite your milk’s arrival.

When your milk arrives, you’ll likely have some soreness. Your breasts may experience engorgement, characterized by hard and full breasts. Avoid wearing tight fitting bras and take warms showers to relieve this discomfort. Wear nursing pads to soak up any leaking breast milk.

Nursing frequently, making sure your baby has a proper latch, will also help with any pain. Expressing a little milk from your breasts with your hands or with a breast pump can help with latching if your breasts are so full that your baby is having a tough time nursing. Soon, your breast fullness will decrease, sometimes dramatically, usually resulting in a lot more comfortable nursing.

Often this feeling of emptied breasts makes women panic. Is your milk supply decreasing? Probably not. Your breasts are smart. So smart, in fact, that they adapt to the needs of your baby. Soon you’ll be leaking less breast milk or not leaking at all and making exactly what your baby needs. This emptied feeling usually occurs a few days after you’ve become engorged, as long as you’re nursing when your baby is hungry. The more your infant suckles on your breast, the more milk you’ll make and the less he drinks, the less you’ll make. The rest of your nursing relationship usually follows this pattern. If you stop nursing abruptly, you may experience engorgement again. If you wean slowly, you may not notice many changes at all.

Breast Changes After Nursing

Once you’ve finished nursing, you’ll likely have gotten used to a whole lot of changes in your body. There is no rule of thumb regarding the size or look to your breasts following breastfeeding. The fact is, whether your breasts stay large, shrink, sag, or perk up depends on your personal genetic traits. It’s likely that you’ll even continue to have changes in your breasts for a few months to a year following weaning. Many women report shrinking breasts following immediate weaning that slowly grow in size to their pre-pregnancy breasts or even a bit bigger.

One way to get some idea of what your breasts will be like following breastfeeding is ask your sisters, aunts, or other female family members what their breasts were like after nursing. Be on the look out for drama and take their opinions with a grain of salt. Still, an objective evaluation of the female family members in your family may help you get an idea of what you’ll be going through.

If you’re looking to restore some perkiness to your breasts, practice pectoral exercises to build the muscle below them. Avoid extreme dieting which can rob your breast tissue of the fatty tissue which makes them.

It’s important to remember that if you hadn’t breastfed your baby, your breasts would still go through these changes. Whether you choose to formula feed or nurse, your breasts will still fill and empty with milk. While your breasts change no matter what you do, there is an undeniable benefit to nursing, no matter the change in your breasts. Breastfeeding reduces your chance of ovarian and breast cancer and provides an unbeatably healthy food for your baby. For most women, this is reason enough to give nursing a chance.

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