a TENS unit to Stimulate Lactation
Introduction to TENS:
Any woman who wants to induce lactation when she has not
just delivered a baby must do so by stimulating
her breasts and specifically her nipples
frequently by using one of 3 common methods; 1.
Pumping with a hospital grade breast pump 2.
Massaging the breasts using the Marmet technique
3. Having your husband/partner suckle. There is
a 4th way as well although it has not
been used much; Using a TENS unit (Transcutaneous
Electrical Nerve Stimulation) to stimulate the
nipples. When would you want to consider a TENS
unit as an alternative to the first 3? Many
women who want to induce, work out in the public
and find it almost impossible to have suckling,
do pumping or marmet technique several times a
day. The advantage of a TENS is that it can be
worn at work all day around the neck or on the
waist with the electrodes left in place and
turned on and off at will. You can still work
and coworkers will not know what is going on as
it is totally discrete, no movement, sound or
devices are apparent.
Can Electrical Stimulation Really Promote Lactation?
All the nerves in the breast, when stimulated, promote the
release of Prolactin by the Pituitary. These
include the sensory nerves of the nipple and
areola and the nerves to the ducts under the
areola that sense the compression and suckling
actions. In addition to these, the nerves
throughout the breast, in the alveoli and skin
will promote Prolactin release but not as
intensely as the nipple and areola. What this
means is that virtually any type of playing with
the breast whether it be fondling, squeezing,
rubbing, suckling etc. is stimulating to the
breast. It has been reported in the literature
that a variety of sensory stimulation to the
breast can bring on spontaneous lactation. These
include the rubbing of the nipple by clothes
when the woman does not wear a bra, irritating
skin conditions including itchy rashes, herpes
infections and other things. An example of
“Spontaneous lactation” is where the woman
acquires an itchy rash on the skin of the breast
such as Poison Ivy and she scratches it a lot
because it is very itchy. One morning she wakes
up after dealing with the rash for a while and
finds that her breast is spontaneously leaking a
little milk. The general point is this>
stimulating the sensory nerves in the nipple by
a TENS unit will most likely cause Prolactin
release and induce lactation.
How Does a TENS Unit Work?
A TENS unit generates a very small, high frequency current
that stimulate nerve endings. They are used most
frequently to block pain signals in conditions
such as chronic low back pain. Many of them also
have a setting to cause muscle contractions.
When the pads are placed on or near the nipple
and the unit is turned on to a low setting you
will feel a tingle in the nipple as these nerves
are stimulated, that is all it takes.
Is a TENS Unit Safe to Use?
The amperage of the current is what is critical in
triggering heart arrhythmias. TENS units have an
extremely small micro amperage current and it
would be very unlikely for one to trigger an
arrhythmia. Some of them can run for a week on a
watch battery. TENS units generate a high
frequency alternating waveform. It tends to be
very non-penetrating, running superficially in
the skin and it disperses in the tissues
rapidly. It is quite effective in triggering
nerve endings. Depolarizing the heart would not
be very likely with this high frequency.
Defibrillators use either a direct current or a
low frequency alternating sine wave current.
They are of course, very effective at
depolarizing the heart. If you have an implanted
pacemaker or defibrillator do not use a TENS
unit in this fashion. Each channel of a TENS
unit connects to two pads. The current travels
between these pads. It would be best to use 2
pads- one channel on each breast rather than
having one pad on each breast with the current
traveling through the chest between the breasts.
Using two channels should be very safe.
Purchasing a TENS Unit:
TENS units come in a great variety of sizes and
configurations. You can purchase one from
multiple sites on the Internet. Buy a simple,
small one, a 2-channel unit. It will probably
have 2 modes of operation, which is all you
need. Don't pay more than $50 if possible, get
one with a 9 volt battery if possible rather
than a watch battery because the battery will
last longer, however the watch battery types are
smaller. Buy it from a site that does not
require a prescription. You might want to get a
small bag to put it in and hang it from your
neck or waist. Here is a link to an example that
is very good:
This TENS is very small and flexible, about the size of 4
tongue depressor blades stacked together. It has
little flat buttons, is a 2 channel unit, it
does run on a watch battery. It comes with a
little cord and can be hung from the neck
between the breasts unobtrusively, no bag
needed. You can push the buttons off and on all
day with ease.
It costs $70 and does not require a prescription. They will
ship to US/Canada for $10.
The pads that come with the unit are usually 1- 1 1/2"
square. You can use these or you can purchase
some special pads that fit over the breast.
Essentially all TENS units are built the same
way with interchangeable wires and pads so it is
unlikely you will have a problem with
compatibility if you buy separate pads. Here is
a link to consider:
How do I Use the Unit?
A 2 channel unit comes with 2 pairs of wires. Each pair has
a red and black tip. Connect the 4 pads to these
tips and place the pair of pads on each pair of
wires to one breast, the other pair go on the
other breast. Place the two pads on the Areola
left and right, beside the nipple. They should
be about ¾” apart. When done all 4 pads
should be in a line with the nipples. Most TENS
units have at least 2 settings; a pain blocking
setting and a muscle stimulation setting. Use
the muscle stimulation setting, which is a
pulsing intermittent setting very similar to
suckling. Turn the level of stimulation up to
just a pleasant tingling level, it doesn't have
to be a high level for this purpose, just enough
to feel a "sensory buzz". Turn the
TENS unit on several times during the day for a
short time. 15 min every two hours would work
very well. See what happens over a month.
For What Purposes Can I Use It?
You can use it to begin the stimulation of the breasts to
induce lactation. Once you start getting milk in
the breasts 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. (You do have to wake up
to turn it on however.)
What Happens in the Bre
ast with TENS Stimulation:
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. For maximum release it is best to
stimulate the nipples 15 min every 2 hours.
Prolactin turns the alveoli in the breasts on to
produce milk for about 3 hours. If the breasts
are not ready to make milk, the Prolactin
stimulates development of the changes necessary
to do so.
What Kind of Changes Do I Look for In My Breasts?
When starting to induce most women experience first some
tenderness in the glands of the breasts and may
notice a little dilation of the veins under the
skin. The breasts may feel a little warmer to
touch corresponding with the increased
metabolism. They may also retain some fluid and
feel a little fuller and heavier. The nipple can
be a little tender and thickens and gets a
little firmer as the ducts in the nipple itself
enlarge. The areola may then enlarge its
diameter some and get a little darker. All these
changes may occur before even one drop appears
at the nipple. Further stimulation will cause
the alveoli to develop little muscles around
them, which will start contracting with the
stimulation. This will be a tingling feeling
associated with letdown. This tingling usually
begins before any significant amount of milk can
be expressed but eventually develops into the
full letdown experience. You should check every
so often to see if you are making milk. When you
start to make more than a few drops you need to
add pumping to your schedule.
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