How the female body produces milk

One way to understand what will happen if you don’t or can’t breastfeed is to understand what happens to women’s bodies when they breastfeed.

During pregnancy, a woman’s breasts swell and even leak small amounts of colostrum. However, her breasts don’t start producing milk in any significant volume until after her baby has started to feed.

This suckling action triggers the release of hormones that stimulate both the production and expression of breast milk; this can also be triggered through the use of breast pumps.

In both instances, the body adapts to the demands put on it, and it will soon figure out how much milk to produce to meet those demands.

What happens when you don’t breastfeed

If you don’t breastfeed, your body will take a little time to adjust before stopping milk production.

Your body is able to do this by recognising that there is no stimulation on the nipples – either through feeding or pumping. It then suppresses the hormones that trigger milk production, and soon your body will cease production all together. This usually takes seven to ten days after childbirth or after you stop breastfeeding.

Are there any side effects to stopping breastfeeding?

You may experience some initial discomfort as your breasts remain full. This fullness will subside over the course of a week as your body’s hormones return to a pre-lactation state.

Your breasts may still be producing small amounts of milk during this time. If you apply too much pressure to your nipples – either through tight clothing or restrictive bras – you can develop blocked milk ducts; this can lead to infection and mastitis. Try and increase the amount of time you spend braless, or wear loose but supportive bras.

If the pain you experience is significant – or if you suspect you have an infection – consider speaking to a lactation consultant or visiting a GP.