The Benefits of Using Heat for Milk Supply

One of the biggest concerns of new parents is if their baby is getting enough milk followed by the question, “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 6 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 for a variety of breastfeeding 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
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Increase circulation

Moist heat vs dry heat

Moist heat is something we are all familiar with. Taking a hot shower or bath is using 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 great for more acute therapy in certain situations, but 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 us. 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 which is specifically designed for use with breastfeeding and pumping is convenient and offers a better fit for delivering heat to right where you need it since it shapes to fit your breast. 

Times to use heat

Engorgement

Your milk transitions from colostrum to a more copious supply of milk between 2-5 days postpartum. Not all folks experience a smooth transition. Engorged breasts can become rock hard, overfull, and be 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 will want to apply 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, relieving your engorgement.

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 milk is removed by your baby, 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 was done on 39 mothers whose babies were currently in the NICU to see if the 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, then they pumped 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 nonwarmed breast. This meant more milk available to feed their babies which increased the babies' nutrition and recovery.(3) By removing more milk at each session, the overall milk supply increased as well.

breastease on breastbreastease on breast shield

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 the flow of milk during pumping or nursing. The nice thing about using a heat pack is being able to take 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 make less milk. Well-drained and less full breasts fill with more milk than more full breasts.(4) Being able to maximize 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 no good when it comes to supporting your milk let-down or milk production. When at home, it is great to take a warm shower or bath to warm the body and chest. 

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

Plugged ducts 

Each breast has several milk ducts that carry milk from the lobes of glandular tissue, where milk is made, toward the nipple. If the milk is not able to flow easily through the duct, that duct becomes clogged. You may feel a small lump under the skin where the clog is and it may feel tender or even be painful. There are many reasons plugged ducts happen. Heat will help bring some pain relief as well as widen the milk duct to help your milk begin to flow and clear the stuck milk from the duct. Combine a castor oil compress with heat for even faster results. If you get plugged ducts often, get in touch with your IBCLC to investigate more and figure out the root cause.

Mastitis 

Inflammation in the breast from a plugged duct, infection, or stress causes a great deal of pain and often flu-like symptoms. With mastitis, the affected area on the breast may appear red, swollen, and be hot to the touch. Milk will not flow as easily and milk supply can be temporarily decreased during a case of mastitis. It is very important to stay hydrated and get milk flowing from that breast. Heat (especially with a castor oil pack) can help before pumping or nursing for milk flow and castor oil will help reduce the swelling and inflammation. Contact your IBCLC right away for more supportive measures. Mastitis can escalate and become worse, so if the tips your IBCLC gives you don’t improve symptoms within 24 hours, contact your healthcare provider.

Milk bleb 

Moist heat or dry heat with oil can help clear a milk bleb. Blebs happen mostly on the nipple or areola and are seen on the surface of the skin. 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 

There are times when your baby may have trapped gas, constipation, or a bellyache that is making 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 in some gentle massage circles, always in a clockwise direction, and it will help your baby’s tummy feel better.

Heat is recommended as a simple and effective way to treat many disruptions during breastfeeding. You don’t need to experience problems to benefit from the use of heat. Using heat is a cherished tool in any parent’s toolkit. It can help with getting more milk out in a shorter period 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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Bottle of pumping spray

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3808259/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290532/#:~:text=The%20maternal%20release%20of%20oxytocin,movements%20performed%20by%20the%20baby.
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22424466/
  4. https://www.jognn.org/article/S0884-2175(15)31026-1/fulltext

Other Resources:

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Nursing_Mother_Working_Mother/0WmQLvJr99QC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=does+heat+dilate+milk+ducts&pg=PA101&printsec=frontcover

https://kellymom.com/bf/concerns/mother/engorgement/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557782/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34504601/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3357165/


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