Elena Scotti/FUSION

Breastfeeding is often at the center of controversy, from debates over nursing in public to "how old is too old." But there's one aspect of the act that feels so taboo, so intimate, women rarely mention it for fear of being shamed: Many moms become aroused while nursing, some even to the point of orgasm.

I first discovered this secret of secrets while researching the evolutionary role of breasts in sex, stumbling on it as a mere footnote in an academic journal. Intrigued, I quickly found my way to confessional YouTube videos on the topic. A few academic studies have also explored the phenomenon. While firm numbers are hard to find, research suggests that between 33 and 50% of women have experienced arousal while breastfeeding.

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"It's common, but women don't talk about it," according to Viola Polomeno, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa's School of Nursing and a sexuality researcher.

This reticence makes sense—it can feel uncomfortable to associate the act with sex. And indeed, a 1999 meta-analysis of 59 studies regarding breast feeding found that at least a quarter of women who report arousal while nursing feel a sense of guilt over it. Many are too scared to discuss it even with their partners. "The breast is an erogenous zone," explained Mary Jo Podgurski, a nurse and childbirth educator in Pennsylvania. "But if a woman feels anything sexual while performing a motherly duty,” she may wonder, “What’s wrong with me?”

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The answer is: nothing. Arousal during breastfeeding is completely normal, according to nurses and lactation consultants, and it shouldn't be a source of shame or anxiety. "It's not a woman's choice, it's how we are wired," Podgurski told me. "But if a woman knows in advance how this works, she’ll be a little more comfortable with it."

So how does it work? There are a few theories. One anthropological explanation is that, since breastfeeding can be painful and exhausting on the female body, the act evolved to eventually feel good as a sort of "reward"—suffering gives way to pleasure.

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There’s a biological theory, too, which boils down to the fact that many of the ingredients present during sexual experiences are also present during the act. When a woman breastfeeds, her body releases two very important hormones: prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin stimulates milk production and helps with bonding. It also makes women feel relaxed and sleepy. Meanwhile, oxytocin, famously known as the “feel good” bonding hormone, creates feelings of pleasure for the mother—and causes the uterus to contract. The other instance in which oxytocin is released and the uterus contracts? During orgasm.

Some women become aroused enough to orgasm while breastfeeding. A Dutch study of 153 nursing moms, published in 2006, found that 8% reported orgasming while breastfeeding. Several experts mentioned this phenomenon to me as well. "We know that in a certain situation, if the mother is sitting with her legs crossed, that puts pressure on the clitoris and it can get stimulated," said Polomeno.

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Notably, some nursing mothers will shoot milk from their nipples while orgasming during sex—thanks, once again, to hormones. "When oxytocin is released into the bloodstream it can cause milk ejection," says Diana West, a lactation consultant for La Leche League and author of several breastfeeding books. Another illustration of the way breasts, nursing, milk production, and sexual experiences are all, biologically speaking, connected.

While the combination of nipple stimulation, hormones, and uterine contractions can all lead to feelings of arousal, these feelings in no way signal that a mother is turned on by her baby, or has sexual feelings toward her child. "You're just pushing certain buttons," said Podgurski. Yet education and communication about the topic is key to helping mothers—and the public—understand what’s really going on.

"It's something that’s seen as uncomfortable and taboo," said Polomeno, who has written about the phenomenon extensively. "We know [the arousal] exists, but sometimes it takes academics and researchers to come out and say it."

While discussing arousal during breastfeeding today may raise eyebrows, a few decades ago—before the academics and researchers started speaking out—it might have sparked more serious consequences. Confessing such feelings may have even called into question whether a woman was fit to be a mother, said Polomeno. “I would say, 15 years ago, here in Canada, when women said they were aroused during breastfeeding, Child Protection Services would come in and remove the child."

The 2006 study on breastfeeding and sexuality describes a specific—and extremely disturbing—case of a mother losing her child here in the United States. The author, Roy Levin, a British behavioral scientist, wrote, "Ignorance about such normal physiological occurrences can sometimes create gross miscarriages of the law." For example, he said, "a mother in Syracuse, New York in 1992 had her two-year-old child taken away from her after admitting that she became aroused on nursing, the authorities claiming that she sexually abused the child."

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According to newspaper articles at the time, the mother had simply called a hotline with a question: Is it normal to be aroused while breastfeeding? The volunteer who answered the phone equated her question with sexual abuse and contacted authorities. The mother spent the night in jail was separated from her daughter. While criminal charges were dismissed, sexual abuse and neglect charges were filed in family court. (Government officials were also ignorant to the fact that it is completely normal and healthy for two-year-old children to nurse.)

Anthropology and biology aside—psychology may play a role in women’s experiences while nursing as well. Women's breasts are sexualized nearly their entire lives, and research shows that more than 80% of women experience sexual arousal from nipple stimulation. There's no reason to think that just because a child is born the sexual component of breasts disappears.

"Human emotional psychology is tied to hormonal experiences," explained La Leche's West. "Breastfeeding really is such a primal experience, and the hormones accentuate the situation." Which means, for some women, the feelings of sexuality and eroticism typically associated with breasts can carry over into breastfeeding.

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On the flip side, she said, some women focus less on their breasts during sex while lactating, to avoid blurring any lines. Every woman’s experience is different and deeply personal. "I would say almost every woman, even in her 90s, can tell you about her breastfeeding experience," she told me, "because it’s so meaningful."

While increased understanding has limited dramatic reactions to arousal, breastfeeding experts argue that we, as a society, should do more to fight stigma. "I've been talking about sexuality and breastfeeding during my Lamaze class since the mid-80s, because we need to talk about the stuff that our culture doesn’t talk about," Podgurski said. Interestingly, she told me, it's younger moms—particularly the ones in her teen support groups—who are more comfortable bringing up the arousal questions.

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"Teens will bring up the erotic feeling more so than other generations,” she said. “Someone will say it's arousing, someone will giggle and say they're happy their partner is there that night, and someone might say that it's never happened to them.” The whole point, she said, is to communicate to women that they'll experience a range of sensations after giving birth.

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For her part, Polomeno stresses the need for communication on a larger scale and a more concerted effort between the media, public health departments, and healthcare professionals to normalize these feelings and increase awareness.

"So many prenatal healthcare professionals are not comfortable talking about it because they haven't been trained,” she said. “We need to arm them with the knowledge.”

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.