The Benefits of Using Heat for Milk Supply

By: Sabrina Granniss, IBCLC

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7 min

One of new parents' biggest concerns is if their baby is getting enough milk. New moms often wonder, “Am I making enough milk?”. Being able to breastfeed and make enough milk for your baby has lifelong positive impacts on you and your baby’s health. Giving a baby their mother’s milk exclusively for at least the first six months of life provides the baby with all the nutrition they need, adapts as they grow, and develops their immune system.


During your breastfeeding journey, there are sometimes bumps in the road. One intervention that can help in a variety of circumstances is using heat. Heat is soothing and comforting. It can make you feel more relaxed and help reduce stress. Heat is used therapeutically for many applications for breastfeeding and pumping. 

How does heat help?

Both moist heat and dry heat work to bring warmth to a targeted area of the body. When heat is applied, it stimulates the nerves and causes a rapid rise in your skin’s temperature. This rise increases the amount of blood flowing to that area. Increased blood flow causes the blood vessels to widen to transport more nutrients and white blood cells to the area. It can help kick the body into action to: 

  • Relax muscles
  • Promote healing
  • Promote oxytocin release and milk ejection or let down
  • Increase circulation

Moist heat vs. dry heat

Moist heat is something we are all familiar with. Taking a hot shower or bath uses moist heat. It can also be applied with a wet cloth. Steam is another way to use moist heat. Moist heat can get deeper into tissue faster than dry heat. (1) Moist heat is not always an option. This method is excellent for more acute therapy in certain situations. Still, we don’t all have the time nor flexibility to be in a hot shower or use a wet washcloth several times throughout the day every day.


Dry heat is more accessible and can travel with you. It is much easier for everyday multi-time use with less mess. Some people find dry heat can dehydrate their skin. You can use oils that soothe skin and keep moisture in while using a heat pack. Dry heat lasts much longer than moist heat. A wet cloth cools much quicker than a heat pack or heating pad. Most heat packs can be reheated quickly for continued therapy during the same session if needed.


The Legendairy Milk’s Breast-Ease heat pack, specifically designed for breastfeeding and pumping, is convenient and offers a better fit for delivering heat to exactly where you need it since it fits to your breast. 

Using heat in lactation

Engorgement

Your milk transitions from colostrum to a more copious milk supply between 2-5 days postpartum. Not all folks experience a smooth transition. Engorged breasts can become rock-hard, overfull, and painful. There may also be additional fluid retention, causing swelling and making it hard for milk to flow. Applying ice helps relieve swelling and soothes discomfort, but you may want to use heat before you nurse your baby, pump, or hand express to help open up and dilate the milk ducts, encouraging milk to flow more easily and relieving your engorgement. The heat should be warm, not hot.


Slow let-down

The milk ejection reflex is triggered when your baby begins to suck, stimulating the hormone oxytocin to be released. Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone. Oxytocin release depends on the nerves in your skin being activated. They are activated when you hold your baby skin-to-skin and from warmth. (2) Applying heat can trigger the release of oxytocin sooner and your milk to let down faster than without heat.


Increasing milk supply

Milk supply is driven by hormones for the first several weeks postpartum before regulating and being more driven by demand. As your baby removes milk, hand expression or pumping, prolactin is released and signals more milk to be made. When the breasts are more full of milk or milk is not removed regularly, the signal is sent to slow down production. 


A randomized control study, including 39 mothers whose babies were currently in the NICU, was done to see if heat would affect their milk production. Each woman placed a warm compress on only one of their breasts. The warm compress was left on for 20 minutes before pumping both breasts simultaneously for 15 minutes. The researchers measured their milk output and found the warmed breast had an increased amount of breastmilk pumped compared to the non-warmed breast. This meant more milk available to feed their babies, which increased the babies' nutrition and recovery. (3) The overall milk supply is also increased by removing more milk at each session.


Before & during pumping 

Using heat before pumping, nursing, or hand expression helps dilate milk ducts in preparation for removing milk. Keep that heat pack on while you pump to increase milk flow during pumping or nursing. The nice thing about usingheat pack is taking it on the go, allowing you to use it while at work or away from your baby. The degree of fullness in your breasts tells the body to make more or less milk. Well-drained and less full breasts fill with more milk than more full breasts. (4) Maximizing milk removal while away from your baby at work or for mothers who exclusively pump helps maintain a full milk supply for their baby.


Relax & release tension

It is common for nursing and pumping parents to hold on to tension. Stress and tension tell the body it is time to act and not time to relax. This response is not good regarding supporting your milk let-down or milk production. It is comforting to take a warm shower or bath to warm the body and chest at home. 


Babies unwilling to latch are often more relaxed when they are skin-to-skin with you in a warm bath and may latch while in the tub co-bathing. Outside the tub, you can use a warm compress or a heat pack on your neck and shoulders to relieve tension. Your baby picks up on your cues of stress or relaxation. During feeding challenges, the more relaxed you are, the more relaxed your baby will become. When you are calm, oxytocin is released, and tension fades. 


Plugged ducts 

Each breast has several milk ducts that carry milk from where milk is made in the lobes of glandular tissue toward the nipple. If the milk cannot flow easily through the duct, milk backs up, and that duct becomes clogged. You may feel a small lump under the skin where the clog is, and it may feel tender or even painful.  There are many reasons plugged ducts happen. Heat will help widen the milk duct to help your milk begin to flow and clear the stuck milk from the duct. Apply the heat just before nursing or pumping. Combine a castor oil compress to reduce inflammation along with heat for even faster results. If you get plugged ducts often, contact your IBCLC to investigate more and determine the root cause.


Mastitis 

Inflammation in the breast from a plugged duct, infection, or stress causes significant pain and often flu-like symptoms. With mastitis, the affected area on the breast may appear red, swollen, and hot to the touch. Milk will not flow as easily, and milk supply can be temporarily decreased during a case of mastitis. It is imperative to rest, stay hydrated, and get the milk flowing from that breast. Use ice to relieve swelling and pain as needed. Castor oil pack compresses can help reduce inflammation and pain and promote lymphatic drainage before pumping or nursing. Castor oil compresses with warm, not hot heat will help break up the congestion, making it possible for milk to flow through the ducts. Contact your IBCLC right away for more supportive measures. Mastitis can escalate and worsen, so contact your healthcare provider if the tips your IBCLC gives you don’t improve symptoms within 24 hours.


Milk bleb 

Moist or dry heat with olive or coconut oil can help clear a milk bleb. Blebs happen primarily on the nipple or areola and are seen on the skin's surface. It can be painful when milk can not get out from behind the bleb. Repeated moist heat applications or dry heat with food-safe oil rubbed on the bleb can help it to clear.


Baby’s belly issues 

Sometimes, your baby may have trapped gas, constipation, or a bellyache that makes them uncomfortable. Warm up your heat pack and always test it on your skin before using it on your baby. Wrap the heat pack in an extra cloth to create an additional barrier between the heat source and your baby’s skin. Add gentle massage circles, always in a clockwise direction, and it will help your baby’s tummy feel better.

In conclusion

Heat is recommended as a simple and effective way to optimize milk output and relieve many disruptions during breastfeeding. You don’t need to experience problems to benefit from using heat and can enjoy the benefits of relaxation and stress-reducing effects heat offers. Using heat is a cherished tool in any parent’s toolkit for themself and their baby. It can help with getting more milk out in a shorter period of time and adds comfort and relaxation while doing so. Give heat a try and see how it can help you during your breastfeeding journey.

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