Leaky Nipples During Pregnancy: What Expectant Parents Need to Know

Are your nipples suddenly leaking a clear or yellow liquid? Don't panic! Here's the reason behind this completely normal pregnancy phenomenon, and what you need to do next.

Relaxed Pregnant Woman with Hands on Bare Belly
Photo: g-stockstudio/Getty Images

Our bodies can change in all sorts of unexpected ways when we get pregnant: skin tags, acne, congestion, and more. But for some people, there's a particularly surprising issue: nipple discharge, or fluid leaking from their breasts/chest. It's something you rarely hear about, but more common than you think. Read on to learn more about this perplexing pregnancy phenomenon, and how to treat it.

What Causes Your Nipples to Leak During Pregnancy?

First of all, it's pretty normal. Although it doesn't happen to everyone, if it does it's usually because there's a hormonal imbalance. "During pregnancy, your body releases prolactin, a key hormone that promotes milk production," says Patrick Duff, M.D., associate dean of the obstetrics and gynecology department atthe University of Florida in Gainesville. As time goes on, your prolactin levels start to surge, and your chest will fill with colostrum, an early form of milk that's creamy white or yellow in color. Colostrum is high in protein and contains antibodies that protect your newborn against infection.

While all of this is happening, estrogen and progesterone made by the placenta are working to prevent your body from secreting milk until the baby arrives. But sometimes the balance between all of these hormones is off. "It's like having your foot on the gas and the brakes at the same time—sometimes the accelerator overrides the stopping mechanism," says Dr. Duff. "And a little bit of milk can leak out."

When Might It Happen?

Health care experts tend to think that we start developing colostrum at around the 14th week of pregnancy, but some people leak before then. Even though plenty of people never do, "seeing a few drops of liquid is normal," emphasizes Sharon Phelan, M.D., a professor emeritus in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, in Albuquerque.

Leaking will typically be triggered when your nipples are stimulated. That can happen during foreplay or when you're taking part in activities that cause your nipples to rub against your clothing (say, a brisk walk or a Zumba class). It's more likely to happen toward the end of a pregnancy, as your body revs up.

Can I Keep My Nipples From Leaking?

No. There's nothing you can do to stop the leakage, so you may want to wear nursing pads inside your bra to prevent spotting on your shirt.

Do I Need to See a Health Care Professional?

If you're leaking more than a few drops, or if you're noticing a thick discharge or spots of blood, it's a good idea to make an appointment with your OB-GYN. Many times these symptoms are nothing to worry about; they're caused by the major changes your milk ducts are undergoing as they prepare for lactation. However, they can also indicate "mammary duct ectasia, or a clogged milk duct, which is easily treated by your doctor," says Dr. Duff

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