Wondered how much milk Baby is getting throughout a feed? Here's the difference between the letdown, rhythmic sucking, and flutter stages of breastfeeding.

By Melissa Mills
June 24, 2020
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There's no doubt about the benefits of breastfeeding—from a reduced risk of asthma and allergies for Baby to less of a risk of breast or ovarian cancer for Mom. But what does it really look like to breastfeed? Like, what exactly is going on, why does Baby's sucking pattern change, and how much milk are they actually getting?

Nicky Gibbon, a breastfeeding expert at the Calderdale Breastfeeding Peer Support Service in the U.K., posted a video to the group's Facebook page to show the stages of a breastfeed and It. Makes. So. Much. Sense.

Using three wine glasses, a sponge, and a mixture of water—dyed blue—with yellow oil, Gibbon walks though a typical breastfeed. Dunking the sponge, which represents the breast, into the mixture of blue water (acting as the breast milk) and yellow oil (representing the high-calorie fat content in the milk, which separates to the top when stored), Gibbon shows the three stages in which babies get their feed.

For the initial stage, Gibbon lets the soaked sponge drip into the first wine glass. During this letdown phase, where breastmilk is first released from the breast while nursing, the wine glass quickly fills up from a steady flow of milk. Gibbon points out that this is typically when babies will suck faster to keep up, and the milk has a higher water content, as signified by the mostly blue water in the wine glass.

To fill up the second wine glass, Gibbon rings out the same sponge to fill the glass with a mixture of the blue water and yellow oil. This "suck-swallow-breathe" stage is where the baby will get into more of a rhythmic sucking, starting to take in some of the higher-fat milk.

Finally, Gibbon shows the final "flutter" phase, squeezing the sponge over the third wine glass to get every last drop of liquid, which just so happens to be mostly yellow oil now. While many nursing moms might feel like their baby's finished by this point, Gibbon shows how important it is to see a feed all the way through so Baby can get those last drops of nutritional, high-calorie milk they need to grow.

Seems simple enough, but does the video check out? According to Jessica Madden. M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, it does.

During a breastfeed, that foremilk that Baby gets at the very beginning does, in fact, have a lower fat content than the hindmilk, or the nutrient-dense milk Baby gets at the very end. But Dr. Madden says, "It's important to know that what she discusses only applies to mature breast milk, which is the milk produced when one's milk supply has been fully established (usually between 2 to 4 weeks)." The fat composition of breast milk can also change depending on the time of day and length of time between feeds, says Dr. Madden.

But what if your baby doesn't go through all three stages during every single feed? Gibbon says not to worry, as babies adjust based on their own needs during growth spurts or even due to things like the weather. That's why it's so important to watch for your baby's unique feeding cues and follow their lead.

"Your babies are clever and they know what they need," says Gibbon. "And trust your bodies, because they are amazing and they will adapt to your baby's needs."

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