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Colic in the Breastfed Baby

Overactive Letdown Reflex

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Updated December 07, 2003

Overactive Letdown Reflex

A baby who gets too much milk too quickly, may become very fussy, very irritable at the breast and may be considered "colicky". Typically, the baby is gaining very well. Typically, also, the baby starts nursing, and after a few seconds or minutes, starts to cough, choke or struggle at the breast. He may come off, and often, the mother's milk will spray. After this, the baby frequently returns to the breast, but may be fussy and repeat the performance. He may be unhappy with the rapid flow, and impatient when the flow slows. This can be a very trying time for everyone. On rare occasions, a baby may even start refusing to take the breast after several weeks, typically around three months of age.

What can be done?

  • If you have not already done so, try feeding the baby one breast/feed. In some situations, feeding even two or three feedings on one breast before changing to the other breast may be helpful. If you experience engorgement on the unused breast, express just enough to feel comfortable.
  • Feed the baby before he is ravenous. Do not hold off the feeding by giving water (a breastfeeding baby does not need water even in very hot weather) or a pacifier. A ravenous baby will "attack" the breast and cause a very active letdown reflex. Feed the baby as soon as he shows any sign of hunger. If he is still half asleep, all the better.
  • Feed the baby in a calm, relaxed atmosphere, if possible. Loud music, bright lights and lots of action are not conducive to a successful feeding.
  • Lying down to nurse sometimes works very well. If lying sideways to feed does not help, try lying flat on your back with the baby lying on top of you to nurse. Gravity helps decrease the flow rate.
  • If you have time, express some milk (an ounce or so) before you feed the baby.
  • The baby may dislike the rapid flow, but also become fussy when the flow slows too much. If you think the baby is fussy because the flow is too slow, it will help to compress the breast to keep up the flow (topic #17 Breast Compression).
  • This problem is made worse if the baby is not well latched on to the breast. A good latch is the key to easy breastfeeding.
  • On occasion giving the baby commercial lactase (the enzyme that metabolizes lactose), 2-4 drops before each feeding, relieves the symptoms. It is available without prescription, but fairly expensive, and works only occasionally.
  • A nipple shield may help, but use this only if nothing else has helped and only if you have got good help without any relief.
  • As a last resort, rather than switching to formula, give the baby your expressed milk by bottle.
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    5. Infants
    6. Colic
    7. Overactive Letdown Reflex and Colic

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