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Most new moms know that breastfeeding isn't as easy as it looks. From getting your baby to latch on correctly to mastering the right hold to preventing cracked nipples, there's a lot of work involved in making it, well, work. Add a low milk supply into the mix and you've got a recipe for a stressed-out mama.
"Research shows that one of the top reasons women wean throughout the first year is related to not having enough milk," says Marianne Neifert, MD, author of Great Expectations: The Essential Guide to Breastfeeding. Here, Neifert shares her tips for establishing and increasing your breast milk supply:
Get a good start. The easiest way to have a healthy milk supply is to start off strong. Make it a priority to attend a breastfeeding class during pregnancy and take advantage of the lactation consultants in the hospital after you deliver so you have a good handle on the basics. If your baby isn't latched on to the breast correctly, for example, she won't get enough milk -- and that can cause a dip in your supply, since the amount of milk you produce is directly related to how much your baby feeds. An incorrect latch can also cause painful sore nipples -- and the stress from pain can affect your supply.
Follow up. Schedule a check-up for your baby within 48 hours after discharge, and take advantage of any follow-up visits offered by your hospital. Once your milk has come in, breast swelling and firmness can lead to new latch problems, Neifert says, so it's key to make sure your baby is latching on correctly.
Get pumping. Struggling with production? Pull out that breast pump. "Since low milk is often the result of ineffective milk removal, pumping after nursing to remove extra milk can increase a mom's production," Neifert says. Pumping after that first morning feeding when your supply is strongest will give you an extra boost and help you build up your stash of stored milk for later. Preterm (34 to 37 weeks) or low birth weight babies can especially benefit, since they often aren't strong nursers from the start. And if you are experiencing any nipple pain or soreness, pumping can help keep your supply strong while you take a break from nursing by giving your baby a bottle of expressed milk. (Don't want to buy a pump? You can rent one through your hospital or find a location on the Medela site.)
Rest and relax whenever possible. Stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation, especially for preemie moms, all can undermine your milk supply. Keep pumping -- adding in extra sessions after your baby nurses, if necessary -- and you should see an increase in your supply.
Get help early. If you think you're having trouble, call in some expert help quickly. Your hospital may have a warm line that you can call to speak with a lactation consultant or be able to direct you to a local breastfeeding support group, such as La Leche League meetings. The La Leche League can also help you find a lactation consultant who will come to your home (well worth the price when you consider what you'll save on formula). Your baby's pediatrician may also be able to offer breastfeeding help.
Be wary of natural remedies. Moms groups are full of stories of women who boosted their milk supply by taking herbs such as fenugreek, goat's rue, milk thistle, oats, dandelion, millet, seaweed, anise, basil, blessed thistle, fennel seeds or marshmallow. But research hasn't been able to prove that they're effective, and these supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for safety in the same way that food and medications are -- so it's hard to be sure that the product you're buying is safe for you and your newborn. Plus, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine doesn't recommend them. Drinking dark beer is another common galactogogue (a substance that's supposed to boost supply), but ABM guidelines caution that alcohol has been shown to actually reduce milk production.
With some expert help, pumping and staying positive, you should see an increase in your supply. Still don't see a boost? Talk to your doctor to be sure that there isn't a medical explanation for your low supply, such as an unexpected side effect of medication (birth control pills that contain estrogen can decrease your supply) or a health condition such as a thyroid problem.