How to Increase Milk Supply
Babies need lots of food to fuel their growing bodies—but what if your breast milk production isn’t up to the task? Concerns about low milk supply are common among new moms. In fact, a lot of women wonder how to increase milk supply, when often, there isn’t even a problem. The good news is that if yours is truly low, there are plenty of ways to increase milk supply. The best news? Chances are, your milk supply is actually just fine.
If you’re exclusively breastfeeding and baby is on target for healthy weight gain, your milk supply is likely a-okay, and there’s no need to increase breast milk production—even if baby seems famished or fussy. To maintain a good milk supply, most moms just need to breastfeed whenever baby is hungry, and your body will naturally take care of the rest.
“Breast milk supply is hormonally driven in the first few days following delivery,” says Stephanie Nguyen, RN, IBCLC, a board-certified lactation consultant and founder of Modern Milk, a breastfeeding clinic and prenatal-postnatal education center in Scottsdale, Arizona. “When you breastfeed, the nerves in your breasts alert your brain to release prolactin, the hormone behind breast milk production.”
While hormones are what initially spark milk production, supply-and-demand soon kicks into gear: Basically, the more you nurse, the more milk your body produces to keep up with baby’s needs. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But as any new mom can attest, that’s not always the case.
“New parents often have no clue how much their newborn should eat and tend to think they need more than they actually do,” says Katie Page, a certified nurse-midwife in Lynchburg, Virginia. This confusion makes many moms think they have low milk supply, when they’re actually doing just fine. Plus, unlike bottle-feeding parents, breastfeeding moms can’t see how much milk baby is really drinking, which just adds to supply stress. But the fact is, “90 percent of moms have the ability to make enough milk for their baby,” Nguyen says.
How do I know if my milk supply is low?
Unfortunately, baby can’t yet pipe up after a feeding and say, “Mommy, I’m still hungry!” But if you’re wondering, “how do I know if my milk supply is low?” rest assured that your little one can still give you some valuable clues as to what’s going on. Keep your eyes peeled for these common signs of low milk supply:
• Stalled weight gain. Babies normally lose up to 10 percent of their birth weight in the first few days, but they should regain that by the time they hit the 2-week mark. If baby struggles to put those pounds back on, low supply may be an issue. “It’s important to know that newborn weight charts are based on standards set from formula-fed babies, who may gain weight faster than breastfed babies because the fat content in formula is higher and constant at every feeding,” Page says. “The most important thing is that babies are continuing to grow, even if slowly.” On average, a well-fed baby gains four to seven ounces a week.
• Fewer dirty diapers. During baby’s first several days, she should wet the same number of diapers as her age in days. So a 2-day-old will dirty two diapers. Starting around day 5, “a baby who is well fed should have at least two to five dirty diapers with yellow poop and at least four to six wet diapers with clear urine,” says Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, BA, LLL, a board-certified lactation consultant in New York City. Take a peek inside: If the urine is light yellow or colorless and her poop is big, seedy and mustard-colored, she’s likely getting enough milk.
• Decrease in baby activity. “Babies who aren’t getting enough to eat are lethargic,” Page says. “They may not wake as often or be as active when they wake. They also look thin, losing that chubby baby look as their body uses the energy from their stored fat to power the brain, adrenal glands and more.” Trust your mom instincts on this one.
If you’re seeing these signs of low milk supply in baby, read on to learn what factors can cause a drop in milk supply and how to increase milk supply naturally.
What causes low milk supply?
It’s natural to panic if you think baby’s not getting enough milk, and trust us, we know that panic doesn’t mix well with those wild postpartum hormones! But take a deep breath and relax, because although low milk supply may seem like a mystery, it’s one you can usually solve. Here are the most common causes of low milk supply:
• Not feeding enough. In the first few weeks following delivery, babies can be super sleepy and sometimes snooze right through feedings. If she’s packing on the pounds regardless, by all means, let a sleeping baby lie. But if not, wake your snoozer up to nurse. How? “Unswaddle them! Swaddling suppresses hunger cues and normal waking cycles,” says Barbara Cohen, IBCLC, RLC, LLLL, a board-certified lactation consultant in New York City. “Take off any hats, which keep them too warm, and remove mittens so they can suck on those little hands they’ve been sucking on for months before they’re even born.” These techniques should arouse baby enough to pack in all those daily recommended feedings. For the first few weeks, you should be breastfeeding eight to 12 times a day, which shakes out to about every two or three hours.
• Supplementing with a bottle. Generally speaking, your body is built to produce as much milk as baby needs—so when baby breastfeeds often, your body understands there’s a high demand for milk and ramps up production to meet it. But when baby’s getting bottles of formula instead of nursing at your breast, your body is tricked into thinking baby needs less milk—and the supply shrinkage begins. Consider ditching the bottle if you want to increase milk supply.
• An ineffective latch. Sometimes, the problem isn’t with how often baby is breastfeeding but how he’s feeding at the breast. “A poor latch can be detrimental to the entire breastfeeding process,” Nguyen says. “Baby removes less milk, so mom produces less milk.” When a baby has a good latch, more milk comes out, and more milk is made.
• Using a pacifier. “If baby is using a pacifier throughout the day, it can satisfy her need to nurse and she may not show hunger cues,” Nguyen says. If you’re planning on using a pacifier, wait until baby is 3 or 4 weeks old and your milk supply is well established before introducing it.
• Drinking alcohol or smoking. Both of these things can decrease milk supply. Smoking can also slow your let-down reflex, making it harder for baby to nurse. If you’re having issues with low milk supply, avoid these substances.
• Born prematurely. Preemie babies are sometimes too small and weak to breastfeed, so you may have to try pumping to increase milk supply. “If baby was born prematurely—or was separated from you after birth—it’s important to begin pumping right away to establish a good milk supply,” Nguyen says. If you don’t, your milk production can take a big hit.
• Health issues or medications. It’s common for a mom’s breast milk supply to take a (temporary) dip if she’s sick with a cold or the flu. But other health conditions, like polycystic ovary syndrome or thyroid issues, can have a more lasting impact on breast milk production, as can prior breast surgery. Certain medications can also muck up milk supply, like a combined contraceptive pill or a decongestant.
• Advanced maternal age. Women over the age of 35 who give birth for the first time are much more likely to need to find ways to increase milk supply than their younger counterparts. Nancy Clark, BS, IBCLC-RN, director of Northern Virginia Lactation Consultants, says, “Any mom that’s considered to be of advanced maternal age should get the best stimulation early on to have the best chance of breastfeeding. Do it from the start, and talk to a lactation consultant during pregnancy. It’s important to maximize milk supply from the very beginning.”
A decrease in breast milk supply is not a permanent problem. There are a lot of natural ways to increase milk supply and stimulate your milk ducts so they produce more breast milk. And the good news is, most of them are pretty simple to incorporate.
How long does it take to increase milk supply?
Eager moms want to know how long it’ll take to boost their milk supply. But here’s the deal: “It’s impossible to know how long it’ll take to increase milk supply,” Cohen says. “It depends on why the supply was low to begin with.” But know this: Most methods you can try will either work relatively quickly, or they won’t at all. In other words, you don’t have to take fenugreek for months hoping for results—if it’s going to work, you’ll likely see an increase soon. Remember that the best way to increase milk supply is to relax, eat healthy food (more about that later) and nurse baby often. If you still feel like your supply is low, read on for how to increase milk supply.
Pumping to increase milk supply
Pumping to increase milk supply can be done by using your pump (hospital-grade double pumps work best) for every missed feeding or anytime baby gets a supplemental bottle of breastmilk or formula. It’s also a good idea to express any leftover milk after each feed. Another method, if you’re wondering how to increase milk supply when pumping, is power pumping, Page says. “For an hour each day, pump 20 minutes, rest 10 minutes, pump 10, rest 10, pump 10. This can be done for a few days and works by signaling the body to make more.”
Foods to increase milk supply
Wondering if you can eat certain foods to increase milk supply? Actually, it’s possible! There are several foods (and drinks) that have been said to help get your milk flowing. And of course, these foods can be used in addition to other ways to increase milk supply, like pumping and taking supplements. Here are some of the best foods to increase milk supply:
• Oatmeal. You can’t go wrong with oatmeal, since it’s both delicious and filling. “Quick oats, regular oats, steel-cut oats—oatmeal in all forms is said to increase milk supply,” O’Connor says. “People of some cultures even blend oats with water, then strain the oats from the water and use the remaining milky water as a supply-boosting drink.”
• Brewer’s yeast. Typically sold in powdered form and admittedly not the tastiest ingredient on the planet, brewer’s yeast is most often used to make beer and wine. However, it has been considered effective at increasing milk supply, and is often one of the main ingredients in those super-popular lactation cookies. It’s packed with iron, protein and B vitamins and is generally considered safe to consume.
• Flaxseed. Thanks to their omega content, flax seeds are among the best ways to increase milk supply. Page recommends the lactation treat Milkin’ Cookies, which pack a powerful milk-production punch with flaxseeds, oatmeal and brewer’s yeast.
• Water. You should also drink a ton of water to keep your supply in good shape, Page says. It makes sense that your body can’t produce ample milk if you’re dehydrated, so try downing an eight-ounce glass each time you breastfeed, plus a couple more throughout the day.
• Barley, hops and fennel. Yes, these are the same ingredients found in beer, and they may also support your supply efforts. Since you had to skip the beer during pregnancy, it’s good to know that one beer now and then might help boost your supply now that baby’s finally here.
Herbs to increase milk supply
Herbs have been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. Curious about how to increase breast milk production this way? Several herbs are considered to be super-effective galactogogues, and many moms have seen tangible results using some of these herbs to increase milk supply.
• Fenugreek. “ Fenugreek is probably the most common of the herbs to increase milk supply, and works well for many moms,” Nguyen says. “There are also supplement blends that contain multiple supplements in one pill. I prefer these because you may respond to one supplement and not another, so it’s best to try multiple supplements at once.”
• Lactation teas. Tea and cookies, anyone? According to Cohen, “Lactation teas tend to contain fennel, borage, fenugreek, blessed thistle and other digestives.” Try combining the tea with some lactation cookies for a yummy snack that’s sure to ramp up your supply.
• Blessed thistle. This is another galactagogic herb that lactation consultants often recommend in tandem with Fenugreek. It’s often found in the supplement blend pills and in lactation tea as well.
• Alfalfa. Alfalfa has long been used by nursing mothers as an effective herb for increasing milk supply, and it boasts lots of other health benefits too. Alfalfa can be consumed in its plant form, in a pill or even a tea.
• Oat straw. You may not have heard of this one before, even if you were familiar with the other herbs on this list. But, according to Cohen, “oat straw is a very helpful herb that boosts milk supply and is very calming due to it being rich in B vitamins.”
Note that it’s important to talk to your physician before taking any supplements to increase milk supply. And if you’re given the go-ahead, know that once you reach a point where your supply is where you want it, you should stop taking the pills.
Essential oils to increase milk supply
Many natural living sites tout the use of essential oils to increase milk supply—but the jury’s out on whether they’re effective or not. “There’s no research to back up the use of essential oils to increase milk supply,” says Jennifer de Franco, RN, IBCLC, owner of Premier Lactation Services in Northern Virginia. “No one in the field is really talking about them.”
Clark agrees, saying, “There are no essential oils that would increase milk supply. There are some that would make mom more relaxed, but you have to be incredibly careful using essential oils during pregnancy and lactation because some are unsafe for mother and baby.”
That said, for those of you who use essential oils as part of a healthy, natural lifestyle, we’ve listed a couple essential oils that generally pair well with breastfeeding. Note that you never want to rub these oils on your nipple region where baby could ingest them while she’s nursing.
• Lavender. Lavender has long been recognized as a calming, sleep-inducing scent. Consider diffusing lavender during nursing sessions to enhance relaxation and decrease tension.
• Fennel. Used in lactation tea and supplement blends, fennel is also available as an essential oil that can be rubbed on the upper breast area in an attempt to increase supply.
Medication to increase milk supply
If you’re truly struggling to provide baby with enough milk, you may have heard of two controversial drugs that can increase milk supply. New moms should be aware that using medication to increase milk supply should be explored only as a last resort, since neither drug has been approved by the FDA for increasing milk supply. A lactation consultant should always be consulted to ensure there truly is a supply issue, and if there is, all other avenues should be exhausted first. Here, more information about both drugs.
• Reglan. This is a drug used for digestive issues that can be effective as a galactogogue. “Reglan can be very effective and safe if taken in the short term, for two weeks or less,” de Franco says. New moms should take caution when considering this drug, though, since severe depression and fatigue are two of the more common side effects—not exactly ideal when you’ve got a newborn on your hands.
• Domperidone. Originally used to ease nausea in cancer patients, domperidone was also used as a medication to increase milk supply until it was banned for sale in the US by the FDA. Many researchers are actively trying to get it back, though—it’s said to have fewer side effects than Reglan and is excreted in breast milk at a drastically lower percentage than Reglan, making it safer for baby too.
Plus more from The Bump, tips for storing your breast milk:
Updated August 2017