Signs & Symptoms | Breast Changes
Most women have them to some degree or another. How we feel about them often depends on our upbringing, our circumstances and the amount of pressure, expectations, and acceptance we received when we sprouted them. I’m talking about our breasts, those often maligned, revered or misunderstood glands that women just can’t get away from. One way or another, we deal with them. We push them up, flatten them out, support them, add to them, take away from them and sometimes even pierce them, but often we don’t understand them and the changes they go through during a woman’s life cycle.
Christa Miller of Southern Maine doesn’t always understand the changes her breasts go through. They always become tender and sore before her period, but that changed after her son was born. “I noticed only a drop in milk supply from month to month – but no soreness,” Miller says. “I assumed that the symptoms would return after my son weaned himself at 13 months, but they never did.”
The breast, or mammary gland, is one of our body’s’ most complex and efficient organs.
Like other women, Miller noticed a change in her breasts directly related to her monthly cycle. More changes can come with puberty, childbirth, breastfeeding, and menopause, but before we can understand why our breasts change, it is important to understand what they are.
What Makes a Breast?
The breast, or mammary gland, is one of our body’s’ most complex and efficient organs, says Jan Buchanan, a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
Buchanan says the breast is composed of the following parts:
- Glandular tissue makes and transports the milk.
- Connective tissue supports the breast.
- Blood nourishes the breast tissue and provides the nutrients needed to make milk.
- Lymph removes waste from the breast.
- Nerves make the breast sensitive to touch and allow the baby’s suck to stimulate the release of hormones that trigger the letdown and production of milk.
- Fatty tissue offers protection from injury.
“Breast growth occurs in two phases of a woman’s life: during puberty and during pregnancy,” Buchanan says. “Hormones strongly influence the growth of the breasts. In addition, breast size is related to overall body mass index and may fluctuate as the woman’s weight changes.”
Breasts are often sore right before menses because of hormone fluctuations. Some women experience a painful bruised sensation in just one breast, while others experience the tenderness in both breasts. At any rate, some women who find this very uncomfortable are often prescribed a birth control pill to alleviate it, while in others the birth control pill is thought to cause it. The medical community is still uncertain as to all the ways hormone fluxes affect the body.
Other than puberty when your breasts are developing, there is perhaps no greater change in your breasts than when you are pregnant. Buchanan says these changes occur as your breasts are getting ready to produce milk. “During pregnancy, many women notice significant changes in their breasts,” she says. “The breasts increase in size and become more tender. The Montgomery glands surrounding the areola (the pigmented region around the nipple) become darker and more prominent. The areola itself darkens, which is thought to serve as a target to help the baby locate the center of the breast. By the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, the breasts are fully capable of producing milk.”
After childbirth, the breasts produce colostrum, a liquid substance that contains antibodies to help protect the infant against infection. The breasts begin to produce milk three to five days after a woman has given birth, which causes the breasts to become larger and fuller.
“This is when the body begins to shift into a production of mature milk, a transition that takes about two weeks to complete,” Buchanan says. “After the first few weeks, a woman will notice her breasts feel softer and not as full. This softening is a sign that the mother’s milk production is stabilizing to match her baby’s needs. Each woman’s breast is very different from another’s, but regardless of size, they are designed for its ultimate purpose – to nourish and nurture the child.”
Back to “Normal”
One of the most asked questions women have about breast changes is will they ever return to “normal” after pregnancy and breastfeeding. Dr. Geeta Sharma, an attending physician in obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Eastside Medical Center asks, “What is normal?”
“There is a certain amount of stretch that occurs with breastfeeding – but the cosmetic effects on the breast are only one aspect of the highly recommended, valuable, nutritive and nurturing qualities of breastfeeding,” Dr. Sharma says. “There is also a natural amount of stretch with growing older. I encourage my patient to buy nursing bras for sleep, comfort, and support – one bra usually does not serve all these purposes. They should go to a maternity store that can properly fit them for the changes in the pregnancy.”
Many mothers find their breasts return to pre-pregnancy size when done breastfeeding, though this usually takes about six months. It is common for the areola to remain darker than before pregnancy. Remember that some mothers’ breasts become soft and flabby at first, but gradually regain their firmness after several menstrual cycles.
Experts disagree on how long you will continue to be able to express droplets of milk from your breasts after breastfeeding is done. Dr. Sharma and other experts say that if you stop stimulation, milk production and flow will cease within a few weeks. However, some experts say you can get droplets for months – even years. When in doubt, check with your healthcare practitioner. If after weaning you continue to have milk and you’re still not getting periods, have a doctor check your prolactin hormone levels to rule out a benign pituitary tumor.
According to Dr. Sharma, because breasts respond to estrogen, the decrease of estrogen that occurs as we age changes the size, shape, and appearance of our breasts. There is also a natural loss of skin elasticity that should be taken into consideration.
Once menopause has set in, your breast tissue becomes less dense and . The tenderness or nipple discharge you may have had during your cycles will disappear. Because your breasts are less dense, mammograms are easier to read, which means that doctors are more likely to spot breast changes that may indicate early breast cancer.
No matter what period of life you are in or what breast change you may experience, remember that it is only temporary … another change is right around the corner!