Using a TENS Unit to Stimulate Lactation
It can be a daunting process to begin inducing lactation, especially if you have never been pregnant, or it has been a long time since your last pregnancy. To get started you need to stimulate your breasts to encourage milk production. Stimulating and “expressing” needs to be done on a regular schedule to be effective. The trouble is, you don’t always have the time to stimulate your breasts for 15-20 mins. every 3-4 hours during the day. Without regular and constant stimulation your breasts will take longer to respond with milk – this is where a TENS unit can come in handy.
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, and is most commonly used to stimulate nerves and muscles to alleviate pain. The TENS unit is a device that produces a very low electric current that flows from one electrode to the other electrode of the same channel. Most TENS Units are either single channel (two electrodes) or they have two channels (two pairs of electrodes).
For lactation purposes, you can use a TENS unit to stimulate the nerves in your breasts. When you stimulate the nerves in and around your nipple and breast it promotes the release of prolactin, which, in turn, stimulates growth and development of the milk-producing tissues in your breasts, leading to lactation.
Using the TENS Unit
To use the TENS for stimulating your breasts, use one channel (two wires that branch from the same wire) on one breast. Each channel of a TENS unit connects to two pads. The current travels between these pads. The electrodes (pads) should be placed on each side of the nipple, about ½ inch to an inch from the areola. The wires should be marked + and – for each channel, but if they are not marked just be certain that each breast is using wires from the same channel.
The image to the right shows proper placement of the electrodes.
A WORD OF CAUTION:
- You should never cross channels across your heart.
- TENS units have an extremely small micro amperage current and it would be very unlikely for one to trigger an arrhythmia, but if you are wearing a pacemaker, you should not use a TENS Unit without discussing it with your doctor first.
When Should I Use a TENS?
The TENS unit is not intended to replace nursing, pumping, or manual expression of your breasts. You will still need to continue your regular schedule, it is only meant to stimulate when you are not able to.
For maximum benefit, turn on the TENS for 15-20 minutes every two hours. Most units now are preprogrammed to shut off automatically after 20 minutes. Prolactin is released from the pituitary in about 4-5 discrete pulses over 15 to 20 minutes with suckling. After this more release does not occur for a while so stimulating the breast for more than 15-20 minutes does not cause more Prolactin release.
After You have Milk
Once you start getting milk in the breasts, don’t use the TENS to replace your regular sessions, you must add pumping to remove it because milk staying in the alveoli is a powerful influence to turn the alveoli back off. You can also use it to supplement stimulation with pumping later when you want to pump only 2 or 3 times a day. You can also use it to stimulate during the night while you sleep to accelerate the changes.
Buying a TENS Unit
Today’s TENS units are small and discreet and can be worn under your clothing without anyone knowing that you are stimulating your breasts as you go about your daily routine! When choosing a TENS, if possible, choose one with at least 2 channels so you can apply stimulation to both breasts simultaneously.