You might be surprised about how early in your pregnancy your nipples can start to leak. As your body grows and prepares to birth your baby, it also prepares to feed your baby by making colostrum, the precursor to breast milk. Here, we will discuss why your nipples might be leaking—both during pregnancy and after your baby is born—and how to cope.
What is colostrum?
Colostrum is early breast milk. You body starts making it as early as 14 to 16 weeks of pregnancy and probably by 22 weeks of pregnancy, so if you are at least that pregnant and squeeze the skin around your nipple, some might come out. Colostrum is thicker than breast milk, and is usually a golden color. It is also usually clear rather than opaque, like breast milk is. It is so thick because it is full of protein, mostly in the form of antibodies, which are special molecules that your immune system makes to help fight infections caused by bacteria and viruses. It also has fat and vitamins, and substances that help baby have their first successful poop.
Why does colostrum leak?
For some people, colostrum does not leak and unless they try squeezing their breasts, which is also known as hand expression, they will not see it before baby’s birth. High levels of the hormones progesterone and estrogen that the body produces during pregnancy keep volumes of colostrum very low and stop it from being released. Sometimes these hormones get out of balance with prolactin, the hormone that encourages milk production, though, and so other people have a lot of colostrum leaks throughout their pregnancy. One thing that can make nipples leak more is nipple stimulation, which can happen during sex or just from rubbing against your bra. The amount of colostrum that leaks during pregnancy does not seem affect how much milk you will be able to make after your baby is born.
After baby arrives: why are my nipples leaking?
It is very likely that when your milk begins to come in—usually some time 50 to 72 hours after birth, though this can take much longer, particularly if you are a first time parent or have had a cesarean birth—your nipples will leak. This leaking happens because your body is adjusting to how much milk to make for your baby. Sometimes both of your breasts might leak at the same time, or maybe if you are feeding baby or pumping on just one side, the other side will leak. If you want to breastfeed, it is a good idea to put baby to the breast as often as possible, so that your body and baby’s body get in sync. In some people, nipple leaking declines once their milk supply is established, but in others, the nipples continue to leak as long as their body is making milk.
How to Cope with Leaky Nipples
If your nipples are leaking, you might feel annoyed or embarrassed. Unfortunately, there is not a good way to get your nipples to stop leaking. As discussed above, some people just have leakier breasts than others, though there is a good chance that once your milk supply is well-regulated because you and your baby are breastfeeding on a more regular schedule—something that might happen when your baby is several months old—your breasts will be less leaky. Until that time, there are a few products that you can try to help catch the extra colostrum or milk and be a little bit more comfortable.
Breast pads: these are meant to soak up leaking milk or colostrum and come in both disposable and reusable varieties. Disposable breast pads are meant to be used once and then thrown away; they often also come with adhesive that will help them stick to your bra. Reusable breast pads are made of a variety of materials—the most common are cotton and wool—and can be washed in the laundry and reused.
Nipple covers: if you are just leaking colostrum and not very much of it, silicone nipple covers, which are available both with and without adhesive and are meant to conceal your nipples under your clothes, might help. They can help avoid excess nipple stimulation and stop small amounts of colostrum from leaking.
Catching breast milk leaks: if your milk is in and your breasts are leaking, there are a variety of products meant to catch breast milk for later use. We’ll just talk about a couple here that are particularly helpful for leaks when you are feeding baby on one side and the other breast is also making milk. The first product to check out is breast shells, also called milk savers. They are usually made of hard molded plastic with a hole in the back. You put them in your bra over your breast, with your nipple through the hole, and milk passively drips into the bottom of the container while you nurse. The other product to look into is usually called a silicone manual breast pump, which is a bulb-shaped device that works by suction. You squeeze the bulb before putting the open part over your nipple and then milk collects in the bottom as you nurse or pump on the other side.