Breast massage: What is it, why do it, and is it necessary?
April 09, 2013
It’s a traditional practice in Japan and some other Asian countries, and it’s used in a number of different forms here. But what is it, and why do it? And is it necessary?
In Japan breast massage is practiced to increase breastmilk quantity and “quality.” There, it is performed by specially trained midwives as a paid service. According to La Leche League, “most Japanese people still believe that breast massage is essential for the mother to produce enough milk.”
In the U.S. breast massage is far less known, and takes multiple forms, all performed by the mother. Some mothers know of a “massage-stroke-shake” method of assisting the milk ejection reflex developed by lactation consultant Chele Marmet. In this method, mothers massage their breasts with a pressure and motion in a manner similar to those used in a breast exam. “Alternate massage,” another technique sometimes recommended here, involves massaging and compressing the breast when the baby pauses between sucking bursts. “Hands on pumping” is another method combining the use of a breast pump and breast massage to increase pumping output. And of course massage is also often used to help resolve plugged or engorged areas of the breast.
But what does breast massage do? A few studies have tried to answer this question, and have found that breast massage:
- Increases oxytocin but not prolactin
- Increases milk production in women who are pumping for preterm infants.
- (As alternate massage) Increases breastmilk intake and weight gain
- Alters milk composition in late term lactation, but not early term lactation, by increasing milk solids, including fat (though there are some questions about these findings)
- Reduces engorgement
The finding that massage has an effect on hormones makes sense, since we know that touch of many kinds increases oxytocin. And we might take our cue on this from babies, who actually massage their mothers’ breasts on their own!
But is breast massage necessary? In the normal course of breastfeeding, breast massage is likely not necessary for mothers to produce plenty of milk. For mothers who are having difficulty with specific issues such as milk supply, pumping, milk ejection, plugged ducts, or engorgement, it’s one of a number of tools available which they might consider. Of course, massage should be used concurrently with the basics of establishing milk supply: frequent and effective feeding, and good attachment to the breast.