You’ve stocked up on nursing bras and easy-access tops. You have your nursing pillow and a basket of one-handed snacks next to the rocking chair, there’s a large stack of freshly washed and neatly folded burp cloths at the ready, and maybe you’ve even read articles and pamphlets on the different ways to hold your baby while nursing.
You’re ready to be a breastfeeding mama.
But maybe you’re one of the 10 to 15 percent of mothers who report a low milk supply. Or maybe you find yourself experiencing a temporary drop in supply – which happens to many mothers at some point. Your baby keeps nursing for what feels like eternity – only to be hungry again much too soon. Burp cloths go unused, and you start to wonder why so many parents talk about spit-up like it happens all the time. Perhaps you turn to your breast pump, curious to see just how much milk you’re producing, and find that there’s really not much there.
Struggling with a low milk supply when you want to breastfeed your baby can be a frustrating and demoralizing experience. The first thing to keep in mind: you are a good mother, and that doesn’t change based on how much breastmilk you produce. The second thing to consider: there are steps you can take to increase your milk supply, if you want to keep trying. The third: there’s no shame in supplementing with or switching to formula, if that’s what you need to do. While breastfeeding can be a beautiful experience, it is not the only way to feed your baby, and you know what they need better than anyone. Ultimately, fed is best, and if you’re struggling it’s a good idea to seek medical help.
Let’s focus on that second thought: increasing milk supply.
How to tell if your supply is low
If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, it can be hard to know just how much your baby is eating, and you may not even know if you need to increase your supply. The best way to know if your baby is getting enough breastmilk from you is to track their weight. While most babies lose some weight in the first few days after they’re born, they should begin gaining weight by the fifth day. If you’re nursing your baby every two to three hours, and they’re latching, but they’re not gaining weight, it’s worth talking to your pediatrician about.
There are other signs to look for while your baby is nursing that can help you gauge whether they’re getting enough breastmilk. Look for their cheeks to fill up (rather than suck in) while they’re latched and for them to release from your breast on their own (including falling asleep and letting go). You should also be able to hear or see your baby swallowing, and they should seem content after feeding. Your breasts should also soften through nursing; if they’re still hard after feeding your baby, you might not have emptied them completely, which can lead to reduced supply.
Some signs in your baby that might clue you in to a lower or decreasing milk supply include fussiness that isn’t soothed by swaddling, rocking, or putting your baby down to sleep or consistently wanting to nurse more frequently than every two to three hours. You may also notice that your breasts are softer or leak less often, but this doesn’t necessarily mean your supply is low.
You can always reach out to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant if you suspect a low supply.
What causes a low milk supply?
So, what causes a low milk supply? Why is it that some mothers produce exactly as much milk as their baby needs, some overproduce, and some can’t quite keep up with demand?
There are multiple potential culprits (and not all of these risk factors necessarily lead to low supply):
- Not feeding frequently enough: Breastmilk supply is tied to demand. The more often you feed your baby, the more milk your body should produce to meet their needs. To help establish a strong supply from the start, it’s important to nurse frequently early on. Experts recommend as many as 10 to 12 feedings per day in the first weeks of your baby’s life, with eight as a minimum. A change in feeding frequency is why some women find that their supply drops when they return to work, as they may have a harder time maintaining their feeding or pumping schedule. In addition, women who supplement breastfeeding with formula or pumped breastmilk without pumping in place of nursing may find that their supply decreases without the “demand” cue signaling the body to produce more milk.
- Latch problems or tongue-tie issues: If your baby struggles to latch fully onto your breast, or if they have a thin membrane of tissue holding their tongue too tightly to the bottom of their mouth – a condition known as a tongue-tie – they may not fully empty your breast. This can impact the supply-and-demand signal your body gets, which can reduce your supply over time.
- Insufficient glandular tissue (I.G.T.): This is a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough of the breast tissue used to make milk.
- Breast surgery: A past breast surgery may have left you with fewer milk ducts than normal.
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (P.C.O.S.): While researchers still aren’t sure why P.C.O.S. is linked to low milk supply, some reasons could be insulin resistance, the way breast tissue develops in a woman with P.C.O.S., or hormonal imbalances.
- Thyroid issues: Women with thyroid issues may find they have difficulty with either their milk supply or with milk removal, which impacts supply over time.
- Diabetes: Diabetes can impact a woman’s ability to build or maintain a milk supply or may delay milk production, though you can work through these challenges with the help of your doctor or lactation consultant.
How to increase milk supply
You’ve confirmed you’re not quite producing enough breastmilk for your little one, and you’ve ruled out or confirmed possible medical hurdles. Now what? There are some simple methods that may help boost your milk supply:
- Check your nursing mechanics: Schedule an appointment with a lactation consultant to check your baby’s latch and rule out a tongue-tie.
- Try lactation support products: There is some evidence that herbs such as blessed thistle and fenugreek can help increase milk production when paired with increased nursing or pumping.
- Consider power pumping sessions: Some women find success through a technique called power pumping, which is designed to encourage your body to produce more breastmilk. When you power pump, you stimulate the supply-and-demand response by pumping more frequently between feedings or in a single additional pumping session each day. If you’re looking to naturally increase your body’s supply, this is one option to look into.
- Take care of yourself: Lack of sleep and water can negatively impact your ability to produce breastmilk. Try to get plenty of rest (we know, easier said than done with a baby!), and stay hydrated.
Overall, give yourself some grace when it comes to feeding your little one. Work with your doctor and lactation consultant to do what you can, but keep in mind that every journey is different. As long as you do what’s best for your baby and you, you can rest assured that you are rocking it at motherhood!
The New York Times: How to Deal with Low Breastmilk Supply
Healthline: Can Power Pumping Increase Your Milk Supply?
American Pregnancy Association: Do I Have a Low Milk Supply?
Grow by WebMD: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Breastfeeding: What to Know
La Leche League International: Breastfeeding and Thyroidism
Diatribe: Breastfeeding with Diabetes: Benefits, Challenges, and Recommendations
Today’s Parent: 10 reasons for low milk supply when breastfeeding
La Leche League GB: Relactation and Induced Lactation