The Power of Prolactin: Reverse Cycling and Your Milk Supply February 13, 2014 15:16

Written By Michelle Roth, BA, LCCE, IBCLC

Prolactin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland in both males and females throughout the life cycle. It’s a protein important for immune function, cell growth, and more. In females, prolactin takes a starring role in the reproductive cycle, and is especially important as the main hormone of milk production.

 

 

Often called “the mothering hormone,” prolactin creates protective behavior in a woman during the birth process, as well as throughout breastfeeding. One of the
most interesting aspects of this substance is that it has a circadian rhythm – higher levels are present at night in both males and females. This diurnal pattern may be the reason women who practice unrestricted breastfeeding – both day and night – tend to see a delay in the resumption of their menstrual cycle as well as a stronger milk supply.

Building a robust milk supply depends on frequent nursing from the start. In fact, nursing often establishes more prolactin receptors in the breast, increasing a mom’s ability to make milk over the entire cycle of lactation. And the more often you nurse, the better your supply – thanks to an intricate hormonal dance that includes prolactin, among others. A full breast will release a feedback hormone that says, “hey, stop making milk.” But a breast that is emptied often keeps filling. Prolactin levels rise whenever a baby suckles - they spike during nursing - and more prolactin equals more milk production.

For moms struggling with milk supply issues, nursing more frequently is often all that’s needed for improvement. But this increase in nursing needs to happen at night, too, in order to take full advantage of the higher nighttime prolactin levels. Sometimes babies naturally get into a pattern of more frequent night nursing, often called reverse cycling. These babies nurse more in the evening and at night, and less during the day for a variety of reasons. While moms may be losing some sleep, reverse cycling is actually a boost for their milk supplies.

Reverse cycling is most likely to happen in situations where mom and baby are apart during the day, but together at night (for instance, when a mom works outside the home). Sometimes a working mom will find that her baby drinks only enough during the day to take the edge off his hunger, but then spends the evening nursing non-stop and wakes several times throughout the night to nurse. This pattern shows a strong mother-baby attachment. Rather than a behavior in need of correction, it is, in fact, the key to keeping up a strong milk supply after returning to work. 

But reverse cycling can happen for other reasons, as well. If you are taking care of other children, or have simply had a busy day for whatever reason, it may be that you miss some of the daytime cues for breastfeeding. Your baby may try to catch up – on calories and on closeness - by reverse cycling. Or maybe your baby is at that distractible stage – every time he nurses, he starts and stops multiple times to look at the cat, listen to the noises outside, smile at his sibling, etc. Or maybe he’s busy learning to crawl or walk, and doesn’t want to slow down to nurse. These babies may use the quiet of night to get the majority of their calories.

You might think that all that night waking is a disadvantage, and others may encourage you to get your baby onto a “sleep schedule.” But, research shows moms whose babies nurse often at night actually get the rest they need. This is especially true if you choose to co-sleep with your baby. Moms and babies who sleep in close proximity – especially when sharing a bed – tend to have entrained sleep cycles. When your baby wakes, you’re in the same stage of sleep, and the waking doesn’t provide the same level of disruption to your system that sleeping apart in separate rooms would. When a mom sleeps near her baby, she often notices small sounds and movements before either she or her baby are fully awake, and can often doze as baby nurses. If you choose to share a bed with your baby, be sure that you take precautions to make your sleep space safe. Learn more here [Add hyperlink - http://cosleeping.nd.edu/safe-co-sleeping-guidelines/]. If your baby is reverse cycling and you’re feeling a little sleep deprived, try going to bed earlier or napping during the day.

Another benefit of reverse cycling for working moms is that they may not need to pump during their workday. If your caregiver tells you repeatedly that your baby isn’t taking much from his bottles, but he nurses like crazy when you’re together, you may be able to cut back on how often you pump (or maybe not even pump at all depending on your baby’s pattern). Many women find this eliminates much of the stress surrounding working and breastfeeding. You can read more about other working moms’ experiences with reverse cycling and nighttime nursing in La Leche League International’s magazine for mothers, New Beginnings here  [http://www.llli.org/nb/nbmayjun00p98.html] and here [http://www.llli.org/nb/nbiss3-09p32.html].

The biggest benefit of reverse cycling, though, is that the baby consumes more breastmilk, thus keeping your milk supply strong and your baby healthy and happy. The key is to practice unrestricted breastfeeding when you are with your baby – whether that feeding takes place day or night - to take advantage of your hormones for keeping up your supply.

 

About the author

Michelle Roth, BA, LCCE, IBCLC is a board-certified lactation consultant working in a private pediatric practice. She has been a La Leche League Leader for the past 12 years, and currently serves on the Area Council for LLL of Western PA. As a freelance writer and editor, her favorite jobs are proofreading and blog writing. With 4 active children, she doesn’t get much time to herself; when she does, she enjoys reading, crocheting and cross-stitch.

 

Resources:

Ayden, KK. (2001). Employed Mothers: Supporting Breastfeeding and Mother-Baby Attachment. Leaven 37(5), 101.

Bonyata, K. (2011) Reverse cycling. Accessed at http://kellymom.com/bf/normal/reverse-cycling/.

Buckley, S. (2010) Ecstatic Birth – Nature’s hormonal blueprint for labor. E-book. Available at www.sarahbuckley.com.

Lawrence RA & Lawrence RM. (1999). Breastfeeding: A guide for the medical professional. 5th ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

Riordan J & Wambach K. (2010). Breastfeeding and Human Lactation. 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

West D & Marasco L. (2009). The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk