Breast development, or development of mammary glands, is an important part of female reproduction. It makes us who we are....mammals.
The purpose of breast is to produce milk and sustain offspring. The growth of a breast is a progression toward being able to provide for the young, and that progression begins before birth.
Breast tissue starts in the unborn fetus with development of a mammary ridge. A baby is born with nipples and a small amount of breast tissue. Breast tissue goes through multiple stages of development throughout a lifetime. Some of the stages seem obvious and straightforward. For instance, breasts enlarge during pregnancy to be able to produce milk when the child is born. Changes like these are noticable and seem, well, logical. But the process of growth is far more nuanced than that.
A young girl is born with with nipples and the earliest development of breast tissue. During adolescence breast tissue goes through development under the influence of estrogen coming from the developing ovaries. This happens in stages, as adolescence is a series of changes that happens over a period of years.
The basic development pattern is this: Each breast has a nipple which is surrounded by a rounded colored area called the areola. Beneath the nipple there are breast ducts which can be divided into smaller lobules. Those will then be subdivided into even smaller alveoli. It is at this level, the alveoli, that breast milk is formed following a pregnancy.
The entirety of a breast is made up of several major types of tissue: fat, lobules, alveoli and ducts. In adulthood, some of these tissues grow to support breastfeeding. Later in life, tissues diminish in size, soften and often lose volume (a natural condition - though many women dislike it).
Each woman is unique with variable amounts of breast tissue. The different types of tissues within the breast are present in variable ratios. There is no "normal" for women in general, Like a fingerprint, breast tissue is unique and only "normal" for one's self. It requires self inspection on a regular basis to know what's "normal," or if something has changed in a way that might not be healthy. This is why a monthly self breast exam is recommended. Know yourself, know that you are unique and watch for changes during your monthly breast exam. If you detect a change, please let your health care provider know.
As we age, breast tissue will continuously change, unfortunately with age the likelihood of additional, unfriendly tissues or masses increases. This is why annual screening mammograms are recommended for women over the age of 40. These are done to ensure that the last stages of the life of breast tissue are as healthy as the first - a natural progression in the cycle of life.
Image credit: Breast Structure by Susan Spangler (Illustrator); via NCI Visuals Online; copyright: public domain
Originally published 6/17/13 on mammographykc.com.