Getty / Jamie Grill
Pregnancy comes with a hefty list of strange new experiences. Swollen limbs, odd cravings, and mood swings even your newborn checklist shopping habit can't fix are only part of the journey.
But if you're not pregnant, it's jarring if your body mimics pregnancy symptoms. No need to break out the nursing bras just yet, but if you're not pregnant and concerned with milk production, here's what you should know.
It's wild but true—non-pregnant women are capable of producing milk, but why it happens is a little complicated.
"Women can produce milk without being pregnant, a condition known as galactorrhea," says Dr. Zeeshan Afzal, MD, and Welzo Medical Officer. "Galactorrhea can occur due to various factors, including hormonal imbalances, medication side effects, stimulation of the breasts or underlying medical conditions."
Afzal also notes that it's important to get a thorough evaluation to find out if it's galactorrhea and the underlying cause to determine treatment.
The process of milk production outside of pregnancy doesn't come from hospital grade manual breast pumps or power pumping, so how does it happen?
"It is important to understand that hormones primarily regulate milk production," says Dr. Nisarg Patel, MBBS, MS - Obstetrics & Gynecology at Nisha IVF Centre. "During pregnancy, the hormone prolactin is released in large amounts, which stimulates milk production in the mammary glands. This is the same hormone that is released during breastfeeding to maintain and continue milk production."
A few other scenarios can also bring on a surprise milk supply, so it's important to note your symptoms.
"Prolactin levels can increase, leading to milk production," Patel says. "These include certain medications, such as antipsychotics and antidepressants, and medical conditions like hypothyroidism and pituitary tumors. Stress can also play a role in elevated prolactin levels."
If you're adopting or using a surrogate and hoping to produce milk without a pregnancy, nurse midwife and lactation educator, Ruth Mileke, says it's possible—but induced lactation takes some work.
"It is possible to produce milk by just pumping, but less is usually produced than using a full pumping protocol with an electric pump and medications such as Domperidone or birth control pills," Mileke says.
"How much milk is produced widely varies, but the only things needed to produce milk are breasts and a functioning pituitary gland in the brain. A person who has had a hysterectomy, removal of ovaries, or is in menopause can still make milk."
Nipple stimulation and breast stimulation are also known contributors to nipple discharge and lactating without being pregnant.
Milk production for those who've given birth can go on for two to three years. For those experiencing supply without pregnancy, it might last anywhere from two to three weeks (or longer if not checked). This is especially true for women who breastfeed their babies for prolonged periods of time.
"Producing milk can physically affect the body, regardless of pregnancy," says Afzal. "The breasts may become engorged, sensitive, or tender. Some individuals may experience leaking or discharge from the nipples. These physical changes can be discomforting and may require appropriate management based on the cause of galactorrhea."
It may be worth asking your doctor to test your levels of estrogen and other hormone markers as well.
"Emotionally, the production of milk can have a significant impact on women. For some, it may be a source of embarrassment or shame, while others may feel proud of their ability to produce milk without having given birth," Patel says. "Women need to know that there is no shame or guilt in experiencing milk production without pregnancy and seeking help from a medical professional if necessary."
Likewise, there are physical ramifications to producing a milk supply. Engorged breasts, mastitis (inflammation of the breast), and discomfort will have you retreating to the nursing pajamas section at the mall for a little relief.
"It is also important to note that milk produced without pregnancy may not be suitable for consumption by infants and should be discarded," Patel adds.
"The emotional impact of galactorrhea can be addressed through open communication with healthcare providers, seeking emotional support from loved ones or support groups, and understanding that this condition is often manageable with proper diagnosis and treatment," says Patel.
"Providing reassurance and education about the underlying cause can also help alleviate emotional concerns."
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