The Internet is FULL of advice of what you can take to increase your milk supply – teas and herbs and foods and so forth. And there is some evidence-based and some anecdotal evidence that some of these things work. However, there is good reason to be cautious in your use of galactagogues, or substances that are used to increase milk supply.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use galactagogues. I’m not saying that they don’t work. I’m not even saying that, for the most part, they are not safe. What I am saying is that pumping things into your body without a) addressing the root cause of the lack of supply and b) doing enough research to ensure they are safe in general AND with any other medications or supplements you may take may not help, and may do more harm than good.
Do you really have a low supply? The first thing to look at if you feel that you are experiencing low supply is WHY you feel you are experiencing low supply. For the most part, if your baby is peeing and pooping an appropriate amount and is gaining weight at an appropriate rate, your supply is probably just fine. You can find some great information here to determine whether your baby is getting enough milk here and here. Many moms who think they have a low supply in fact have a perfectly adequate supply, but believe their milk should be more abundant. Before you try in increase your milk supply, be sure to assess whether it is actually in need of increasing.
If you find that you do need to increase your supply because your baby is not eliminating enough and/or not gaining weight enough, there are several things you will want to look at before deciding to introduce a galactagogue.
How often is your baby feeding? The greatest signal to the body to produce milk is the removal of milk from the breast. In addition, stimulation of the nipple and breast tissue and skin-to-skin contact with your baby can be good signals for the body to produce milk. If you are feeling that your milk supply isn’t quite what it ought to be, increasing the frequency of nursing can be super helpful in increasing your supply. If your baby is using a pacifier, try to limit or eliminate the use of the pacifier to allow the baby to nurse more frequently for both nutritive and non-nutritive sucking at the breast.
How long is your baby feeding? Make sure that your baby is the one who ends the feeding, not you. Feeding by the baby’s cues – both when to start and when to stop – will help ensure that the baby is removing as much milk as he needs. Never stop him from nursing while he is actively drinking. He will slow down to a non-nutritive suck when he is no longer removing milk, or he will fall asleep. Sometimes very young babies will fall asleep before they are full. Switching sides and continuing to nurse until he refuses the breast can be helpful.
If you find that you are feeding your baby as often and as long as possible, it may be helpful to hand express or use a pump between feedings a few times a day to help stimulate more milk production. This is a signal to your body that you need more milk, even if nothing comes out.
Are you getting a good latch? Sometimes a poor latch, even if you are not in pain, can lead to poor milk transfer. Take a look at the Mastering the Deep Latch topic on this site – if your latch isn’t up to par, work for a good latch before you start arbitrarily supplementing!
Are you well hydrated? This one’s easy. Drink a lot of water. Period. It’s not likely to hurt, and having eight glasses of water at eight ounces each may not be enough for some women. So drink more water.
Are you pumping often/long enough? If you are separated from your baby during the day and you are experiencing low supply when pumping breast milk, do it more. For some women, pumping every 3 hours simply isn’t enough; try every 2 if you can. Also, don’t turn the pump off as soon as the milk stops flowing. If you stop the pump as soon as it stops, that tells the body “that was enough.” If you let the pump continue to run, that tells the body, “hey, we ran out, but I’m gonna need more than that!” Sometimes if you “dry pump” for a few minutes, you will elicit another letdown and more milk will spray. Sometimes it won’t, and that’s okay too. You are still telling your body you need more.
Get your hands involved in pumping. Breast massage before and breast compression during pumping can be extremely helpful in getting more milk. This article about hands-on pumping gives some great information on how hand expression and breast massage/compression can help enhance the pumping experience.
Are you getting enough calories? Most women, even if fairly malnourished, are able to breastfeed, but breastfeeding burns a lot of calories – to the tune of 300-600 calories a day. Some women find that if they are not getting enough calories, or getting poorer quality calories, their supply dips. If you think you might not be getting enough, try adding a few healthy snacks to your diet.
Get that oxytocin! The hormone oxytocin helps with milk production and the milk ejection reflex. One of the greatest ways to boost your oxytoxin is something you will love doing… snuggle with your baby. Snuggling by itself is helpful, but snuggling skin to skin is even better. Unwrap your baby down to her diaper, take off your top (leave your bra with pads on if you are a leaker), wrap a blanket around the both of you, and get some chill time. Snuggle her for a nap while you read or watch TV. Wearing only your bra, put her in a cloth wrap-style baby carrier in only her diaper while you are doing things around the house. Take a relaxing warm bath together. The more skin-to-skin time you can get, the better!
Make sure you are avoiding supply killers. Some women have found that some mint teas can cause dips in supply. Also many medications, particularly cold medicines and hormone-based contraceptives, can cause dips in supple.
If these are not enough…
If you have tried all of the above (and I mean for more than a day or two, it takes time to increase supply), there are some other things you can try. Anecdotal evidence holds that many women experience an increase in supply by eating oatmeal, drinking an occasional dark beer, or eating baked goods made with brewer’s yeast. While these aren’t backed up by solid evidence, none of them are likely to harm you.
If you do decide to take supplements, talk to your health care provider and your pharmacist. Supplements and medications can interact, and before you make a costly visit to the supplements aisle of your local health foods store, you will want to make sure that nothing you are considering taking will be harmful in combination with any other medications or supplements you take or medical conditions you have.
The internet is full of well-meaning suggestions on supplements and medications you can take to increase your supply, but a lot of times, supplementing and/or medicating just mask the underlying problem. No advice from the internet can replace the advice you get from your health care providers. Be cautious in choosing to take supplements, and when in doubt, ask.
If you have questions, contact Megan!