Many breastfeeding mothers are afraid that they are running out of milk. After ending their lactation journey they wonder: how long will I have breast milk? But the surprise comes when breast milk is still produced months or even years after stopping breastfeeding.
The mammary gland is created to ensure the nutrition of the baby, and the body does not allow for stopping breast milk production suddenly unless a particular medication is taken or if the mother suffers from severe malnutrition.
When you stop breastfeeding or wean your baby, you most likely don’t pay much attention to your breasts. If you don’t touch them, you won’t notice that the mammary gland continues to make small amounts of breast milk, sometimes white/yellowish and sometimes transparent. These small drops are only visible if you hand express the nipple.
When weaning occurs, the mammary gland goes into what is called apoptosis (or cell death). The milk-producing cells (the lactocytes) stop working, so the body suppresses them. Only in the case of a subsequent pregnancy or when stimulation happens for relacation* or induction of lactation** does the functioning mechanism start working again.
Even though the mammary gland goes through this transformation process and the functional breast tissue is replaced by fat, breast milk production does not disappear immediately. Sometimes it takes months or even years to stop seeing small drops of milk if the breast is expressed.
When to see a healthcare professional
Consult with your gynecologist if any of this happens to you:
- You have stopped breastfeeding, and without touching your breast or expressing, your nipple discharges fluid or milk (even in small quantities).
- If any discharge with a dark or reddish color appears from your nipples.
*Relactation: a process by which a mother decreases the amount of formula her baby feeds and increases her milk production at the same time, to achieve exclusive breastfeeding.
**Induction: a process by which a woman produces breast milk without having been pregnant or after she has not been breastfeeding for more than 6 months.