Natural Ways to Increase Breast Milk Supply

How to give your milk supply a boost
Mother nursing her small baby
© Can Stock Photo / RaulMellado

Newborns should be fed exclusively by breast milk for the first six months of their life and all modern health organizations agree. There are hundreds of reasons on why breast milk is best. One of the niftiest reason is breast milk’s ability to protect from infections. In fact, if a child has been exposed to a pathogen, as soon as the child begins to nurse, the mother begins to produce antibodies within two hours!  Moreover, there is a correlation between early cow’s milk exposure and type 1 diabetes and the risk is highest when milk is given before 4 months old.

Why breastfeeding isn’t so easy….

Sometimes a mother isn’t able to breastfeed her baby as nature intended. There are a few reasons why, such as breast surgery or injury, taking certain medications like birth control or antihistamines, uncontrolled anemia and smoking. Some maternal health problems such as anemia, hypothyroidism and hormonal imbalances (like PCOS) can make it seem impossible to breastfeed.

Lactation can also be impaired if the placenta was retained after birth, postpartum hemorrhage, or a prolactin deficiency. More of a problem in developing countries, Sheehan Syndrome occurs when a large volume of blood was lost in delivery and/or severe low blood pressure after childbirth. A lack of oxygen can damage the pituitary gland; which ultimately makes the hormones for milk production. Signs and symptoms of Sheehan's syndrome typically appear slowly, after a period of months or even years. But sometimes problems appear right away, such as the inability to breastfeed. Sometimes a breast infection (mastitis) or other reason that slows or stops breastfeeding can make it more difficult to resume lactating; in particular if Mom is stressed. Learn more about why breastfeeding may not happen, and what to do next.

Happy birthday Baby, time to eat….

After delivery, babies should be given unlimited access to breast. This can be done through skin to skin contact as much as possible to learn feeding cues. This will allow for mothers milk supply to adjust to baby’s need. (It's also an important part of the bonding process.) Do be sure to ask the pediatrician to check for ankyloglossia or tongue-tie for abnormalities. Health or anatomical problems with baby can prevent removing milk adequately from the breast.

If milk supply is a concern, the first step of action should always be to ensure baby is nursing often and is able to do so effectively. (There are also steps you can take prior to giving birth in order to prepare yourself for breastfeeding.) If your baby is not gaining weight or is losing weight, you need to keep in close communication with your doctor’s office. Never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician and/or qualified lactation consultant for guidance.

Give your baby only breastmilk. Avoid all solids, water, and formula if baby is younger than six months and consider decreasing solids if baby is older. If you are using more than a few ounces of formula per day, wean from the supplements gradually to “challenge” your breasts to produce more milk. Supplementing nutrition with other drinks besides breast milk can send signals to the brain to stop producing milk. Nursing bottles are a different type of sucking and can cause latch problems or sometimes baby prefers bottle over breast. Pacifiers can affect latch and lessen time on breast too.

Lactation consultants often recommend feeding on demand, which means that every time your baby is hungry, you feed her/him. But you do also have to take your mental health into consideration as this is not always possible, especially for moms who work outside the home or are tending to other young children. But, if you’re looking for a boost, feeding on demand may be the way to go. If possible, consider a "nursing vacation" to boost supply. No, it's not a break from breastfeeding. It means taking the baby to bed and staying there for two to three days, doing nothing but nursing, drinking water and eating.

Moms need rest. Do try to sleep when baby sleeps. Relax. Drink and stay well-hydrated, and eat a reasonably balanced organic and fresh diet.  Allow friends and family to help you adjust to your life with a newborn. It’s okay if a dish isn’t washed, towels aren’t folded and a frozen meal is heated for dinner. No one should expect you to be Super-Mom!

Some studies prove, and nursing moms agree, that listening to tapes of guided relaxation and imagery techniques help moms to produce more milk. Craniosacral therapy is fabulous for treating sleep issues and eating problems in infants (particularly in latching issues with breastfeeding). Babies generally respond beautifully and need only a few sessions to see improvement. Try breast massage, too. Studies show that practicing breast massage while breastfeeding and pumping helps increase milk output by half. Massage helps to compress the ducts and empty the breast more effectively. While massage alone does not directly increase milk supply, it will help you drain the breast more effectively which then signals your brain to produce more.

Consider using a breast pump. Ask for recommendations as nursing mothers do have their preferences! Pumps are very useful to empty the breast if baby is only feeding on one side or to start a milk stash or to maintain milk supply.  So adding in a pumping schedule, along with continuing to breastfeed your baby at least eight times every 24 hours, is one of the best ways to get a substantial boost in your milk supply. Using a hot compresses on the breast while pumping may help too.

What about Mom?

Breastfeeding moms need around an extra 500 calories or more per day. Choose nutritious food that give you energy, such as protein-rich foods, fruits and veggies. Babies get essential fatty acids from breast milk and only some formulas contain it.  Omega 3 fatty acids are more plentiful in fish forms and also easily obtainable via supplements that can actually taste good or be swallowed. Cholesterol is a precursor to reproductive hormones, necessary for proper pregnancy & lactation.  ALA, DHA & EPA are the three main omega 3 fatty acids, which are highly deficient in the North American diet.  Obstetricians and pediatricians recommend calcium, vitamin D, iron and folic acid as important vitamins and minerals for breastfeeding moms.  Continuing to take a prenatal vitamin is often endorsed and encouraged. Lactating women will need to supply their diet with even more nutrition as their baby will get all of the good stuff leaving them at a deficiency. Consider consulting with a nutritionist or mid-wife to make sure your food choices and supplements meet you and your baby’s needs. We want that breast milk as nutrient dense as possible and enough to quench the baby’s desires.

Pumping up milk through nutrition

An Old Wives Tale to increase lactation was to drink a tall glass of Guinness (always Guinness, not any other beer? Odd..) Yet research has shown alcohol can actually inhibit milk production; however, this myth perseveres and survives the ages. In truth, it’s actually barley, a component of beer that may be the key. Beta-glucans, of which barley and oats are full of, has been shown to increase prolactin, the hormone needed to make breast milk. Barley is a tasty whole grain that can be used in lots of recipes. Barley malt syrup can be used as a sweetener.

Aside from barley and oats, whole wheat and brown rice are also rich in beta-glucan, but have only recently been promoted to increase lactation as researchers assumed they were being consumed regularly. But with low carb diets on the rise, these wholesome grains are often ignored by many North American women. It’s important to note that white flour and white rice simply don’t have the same benefits.

Lactation cookies are awesome and can be baked or bought and do help in a very yummy way the entire family can enjoy. Most lactation cookies are essentially oatmeal cookies with added brewer’s yeast (a few tablespoons per recipe and considered to be the key to success), coconut oil and flakes. The dough can be frozen for quick baking and variations can be added such as raisins, chocolate chips, nuts and seeds.

Asian cultures for centuries ate both raw and cooked papaya as a galactogogue. Breast feeding women may also be prescribed black sesame seeds to increase lactation. The dosage is around 9 to 30 grams and is best heated until cracking first then crushed and eaten in foods. There is also some evidence that consuming more dill, apricots, asparagus, beets, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, anise seeds, coriander seeds and fenugreek (a common herb in Indian cuisine and can also help lower blood sugar levels which can linger after labour).

Do avoid alcohol which can block the release of oxytocin and thus results in a decrease in the number of letdowns a nursing mother will have in a session. Caffeine can cause dehydration and worsen anxiety and insomnia. However, don’t beat yourself up if you do enjoy an occasional spirit or mug of joe.

Increasing liquids can also help with lactation and so do herbs, so how about drinking tea? There are lots of lactation teas that can be blended on your own or bought in tea bags. Mother’s Milk Tea is one commercial brand struggling nursing moms love! Drink either hot or iced. Fennel, anise, leonurus, humulus lupus, fenugreek and Blessed thistle are other herbs for promoting lactation. Moringa, a recently popular herb for lots of health issues can boost milk supply by 100%. Galega is used in Europe by for stimulating milk secretion. These herbs can be mixed and taken in tincture, tea or capsules. As always, consult a qualified herbalist and/or alternative medicine professional before taking any supplement or herb. Serious allergic reactions which can occur and some infants may respond with colic behaviors when taking these herbs. Fenugreek can also have adverse reactions in diabetic mothers, those with thyroid issues and those taking certain medications.

Homeopathics can help with lactation too. Homeopathic medicines are extremely diluted and their microdoses will not affect the baby. They can work fast with no side effects. Do consult with an experienced homeopathic provider as there are oodles of homeopathic remedies that can only help. They are completely safe and affordable. Do mind the rules when taking homeopathics for max success (don’t touch the pellets, nothing to eat or drink half hour before and after taking the remedy and don’t store the medicine vial near a cell phone or computer).

All the best boosting your milk supply. May your efforts be well rewarded for both you and your baby! And be sure to know your breastfeeding rights as a mother in Canada and in the United States.