“I’m losing my milk supply and I don’t know what to do!”
I hear this anguished cry from breastfeeding parents constantly. I hear it in the clinic. I see it in Facebook support groups. I hear it from private clients when we’re doing support sessions. Perceived low milk supply is the biggest reason people give up on breastfeeding. Notice I said perceived, not true low milk supply. A VERY small percentage of mothers are biologically unable to produce enough breastmilk to feed their baby (most studies say less than 5%). Now, that doesn’t mean that low milk supply can’t develop. There are some very real things that can sabotage you and lead to true low supply. So what happens then? I usually cringe as person after person spouts the same ridiculous advice - “Drink more water!” “Try coconut water!” “Body Armour drinks”. “Starbucks Pink Drink!” “Lactation teas and cookies.” “Gatorade, but it has to be blue.” Let’s look at milk production, and then examine the effect some of these fad suggestions might have.
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What ingredients make up breastmilk?
Milk is made from the content of a mother’s bloodstream, not her stomach. In fact, there is NO connection to the GI tract whatsoever. Totally separate body systems. Which is why I have to take a deep, deep breath when I hear moms say they were told the bubbles in carbonated sodas can make their babies gassy. There is no straw connecting your stomach to your breasts. Breastmilk is actually mostly water. The biggest component is carbs - lactose to be precise. Carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, immune properties, bacteria (the good kind, like yogurt), hormones, neurotransmitters, and even more magical goodness!
What does your body need to make milk?
Honestly, not much! Hormones, rest, stimulation, and milk removal. After the placenta is out, your body goes through a dramatic shift to increase milk making hormones while suppressing pregnancy hormones. Suckling stimulates those hormone levels to spike and dip, spike and dip, establishing supply and demand. The more milk removed, the more milk fills up for next time. You encounter problems when hormone levels are off, stress or exhaustion put your body into a “fight or flight” mentality and you have trouble getting your milk to let down, or suckling at the breast isn’t efficient enough to remove the milk, leading to a slow down in production. Multiple studies have shown that even moderately dehydrated or malnourished women are still able to breastfeed. Your body will pull nutrients from YOUR fat stores to make milk for your baby.
Let’s address some of these milk production fads.
Body Armor’s ingredients are “Filtered Water, Pure Cane Sugar, Coconut Water Concentrate, Citric Acid, Maltodextrin, Pure Carrot Juice Concentrate, Dipotassium Phosphate, Green Tea Catechins, and natural flavors”. Pink Drink - “Ice, Strawberry Acai Base, Coconutmilk, Freeze-dried Strawberries”. Gatorade - “Water, Sucralose, Brominated Vegetable Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Natural Flavors, Electrolytes, Artificial Colors, Glycerol Ester of Wood Rosin”. How are ANY of these ingredients going to help make more milk?? Most of this stuff isn’t even IN breastmilk.
The issue with the “drink more water” suggestion is that water doesn’t affect milk production that much, and actually fluid overload, or being TOO hydrated, will mess with your hormones, and that could mess with milk supply. A mom might drink gallons of water while ignoring the real reason her milk supply is dropping, wasting precious time (time going to the bathroom a million times a day as well) and making it more difficult to bounce back.
And last, the teas and cookies. These are what really get me. There are COUNTLESS products being peddled to fearful breastfeeding moms, marketed to increase milk supply. There are some foods and herbs that can help promote healthy hormone levels, make moms feel good, and help replenish their nutrient stores after pregnancy, birth, and lactation. There are some herbs that have been used in different cultures for ages to promote a healthy milk supply, usually prepared by older family members in teas and foods and served to a mother after birth whose only job was to rest, restore her body, and feed her baby. Even though studies have been done on most of them and they can’t prove significant benefit, women across the ages believe them to work. And that is WHY they work. It would be culturally insensitive of me to say they don’t. They are a ritual that is very important in some societies. But there is a big difference between being served a traditional food while being cared for in bed and popping a few capsules filled with who knows what (it’s true, studies have shown that most over the counter herbal supplements don’t contain what they say they do in the ingredients. And they aren’t regulated by the FDA, so they can claim whatever they want to).
I say all of this because
it’s so hard to see a defeated mama carrying in ALL THE THINGS she was told she needed to try - teas, cookies, special drinks, gallons of water - because she was concerned about her milk supply, and then I find a baby with a tongue tie who just couldn’t get the milk out, or a mom with a thyroid issue who needs tests and medication, or worst of all, and what makes me the angriest, a mom with ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG. A mom with a healthy baby and plenty of milk, but she got in her head and let the internet get to her, or her mother in law, or the pediatrician was using the wrong growth charts. But she stressed herself out and bought all the drinks when all she needed was support to gain confidence in herself, and her body’s AMAZING ability to feed her baby.
So before you buy a drink or start a supplement, ask yourself a few questions.
1) What problem am I trying to solve? 2) Has this product been proven to help me solve this problem? 3) Do I have the support I need to navigate this problem I’m trying to solve? And ESPECIALLY if the answer to #3 is no, consider holding off and reaching out to a LC instead.
Hey! I’m Allison, one of the Lactation Experts with Successful Breastfeeding! I am an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and have over seven years of experience as a pediatric nurse working one on one with mothers and babies. My most important credential is being “Mama” to two little ones. I am so happy to be part of the Successful Breastfeeding team; to be able to offer support in a more relaxed setting! I can help you meet your breastfeeding goals no matter where you are - virtual sessions for convenient, accessible help no matter where you live. Breastfeeding is a relationship between you and your baby, and it’s my job to support it, whatever your goals and needs happen to be.
Kelly Maher, CLC, CLE
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