There are some things you’ll just know, they say: when you’ve found “the one,” if you’re about to get your period, when your smallest jeans just aren’t ever going to fit again. Then there are the things you think you’ll know intuitively but turn out to be much trickier than expected: how to fold a Pack 'n Play, for example (I have to watch a YouTube video every. single. time I attempt this feat). Breastfeeding is kind of like that, especially at first. Like, what are the first signs your milk is coming in? It can be hard to tell.
In the last month or so of pregnancy, and sometimes even earlier, your breasts will typically begin to produce colostrum. According to the American Pregnancy Association, some women will experience leaking before their baby is born, right around the 31-week mark, but this doesn’t mean the milk floodgates open as soon as your infant comes screaming into the world.
Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC with Oasis Lactation Services, tells Romper that “Some parents do feel milk 'coming in,' which is a misleading term."
"Colostrum is milk," she explains. "It's nutrient-packed and designed to be taken in very frequently (at least 12 times in 24 hours) in small quantities. Essentially, you already have milk when your baby is born. Higher volume milk production builds over several hours to several days after delivery. The more frequently colostrum milk is removed, the faster the onset of copious milk production."
Colostrum is often sticky, thick, and yellow, but may appear thin and watery, which isn’t something to worry about. The substance is extremely high in carbohydrates and protein, but low in fat, which is difficult for infants to digest. According to Medela, a company which provides "research-based breast milk feeding solutions" (and you've probably seen their yellow-capped bottles on every new parents' kitchen counter), the benefits of colostrum include a strong immune system, a lower likelihood of jaundice, and protection against disease and germs. And it doesn't take much to reap those benefits, either: Colostrum delivers highly-concentrated levels of nutrients and antibodies in a small quantities; just 1 to 4 teaspoons per day is a normal quantity for moms to produce, according to the APA (which makes sense, considering "your baby’s stomach may only be the size of a marble, although it increases in size each day"). 1 to 4 teaspoons is not a lot at all; I’ve put a larger amount of sugar in my tea than that (don't judge.) This small, almost undetectable quantity of liquid may leave you wondering... where the actual eff is my milk?
“The amount of colostrum you are making is just right for your baby,” the APA assures. “Be sure to breastfeed your baby as often as he or she desires to help your milk supply start strong.”
Just a few teaspoons a day, of course, might not give you that engorged feeling you were expecting to signal a functioning milk supply.
“Some parents don't feel their milk coming in at all,” Downs Spradlin says. When you’re told by your doctor or other mothers that you will feel your milk coming in in the form of large or engorged breasts, it can be jarring when you just don’t feel a thing. If you’re like me (a full blown Pisces, not to go too Zodiac on you) you’ll look for signs anywhere: in dreams, in clouds, in arrangements of spare change... but fortunately for those who need clear-cut evidence (looking at you Virgos) there is one obvious clue you can look for to discern if your milk supply has arrived.
“Most women find they will be full or engorged when their milk comes in, but not everyone! The only telltale sign is that your milk changes to white and increases in amount so you'll hear your baby swallowing and they will begin to increase in wet and dirty diapers,” Kristin Gourley, IBCLC Manager with Lactation Link LLC, tells Romper.
Many first-time parents already find themselves recording their baby’s sleep, eating, and pooping schedule with military precision (there are even apps like Baby Tracker that make it easy to log your baby’s daily habits), so it shouldn’t require much more effort to notice an uptick in wet and dirty diapers.
Downs Spradlin echoes a similar idea, saying, “If the baby is nursing frequently and effectively, the breast will stay well-drained. The parent may not feel sensations of fullness at all. Lactation can be a largely invisible process. The one thing that's visible and quantifiable is baby poop. Stool is the best indicator of intake in the first week of life. Babies should stool at least once on the first day, twice on the second day, three times on the third day, and so on. Baby should maintain five stools per 24 hours for the first several weeks.”
Aside from counting stools (unlike counting sheep, this practice may keep you up at night) there can be other early signs that your milk is coming in, though not everyone will experience the same indicators. “Sometimes engorgement, soreness, increased temperature, a feeling of letdown, [and/or] increased cramping can happen, but if it doesn't, that doesn't mean you don't have enough [milk]!” Gorley says. “The best way to encourage your milk to come in quickly and with plenty of milk is to feed baby often and hand express between feedings if possible.”
You may experiment with different ways of manually hand expressing your milk, but one common option is The Marmet Technique, which involves pushing the breast to the chest wall, then rolling the thumb over the areola as if taking a thumbprint and repeating rhythmically. (There are tons of videos you can also use as a guide.)
If you’re reading this article, you were probably hoping I'd tell you an absolutely certain way how to know that your milk is about to come in. I’m the same way. I may be looking to the stars for signs, but I also seek out facts and plans and clear answers. Unfortunately, like so much of pregnancy and childbirth, every body is different and one mother’s experience with breastfeeding may be totally different from your own. Aside from an increased number of dirty diapers, there really is no certain way to know your milk has arrived. The good news is that your brain can relinquish control to your body (easier said than done, I know). Your body’s got you and will show you the way.