Many of you have asked for an episode on foods and herbs that can increase breast milk supply. This is something that a lot of new moms worry about. In fact, it is the primary reason women give for stopping breast-feeding. Unfortunately, this worry, or the perception that milk supply is inadequate, may be a lot more common than the actual problem.
Nonetheless, this concern leads a lot of women to look for things that might help increase their milk production—and they will quickly find lots of them on the Internet. But is there any evidence to support the things that are traditionally claimed to help with this? How about some of the supplements that are specifically formulated to increase breast milk production?
Myths About Breast Milk Production
First, we should clear up a few myths.
- First, rest assured that breast size does not affect milk production. So if you have small breasts and are nursing, there’s no need worry, you are able to produce plenty of milk for your baby.
- A lot also depends on the baby. Milk synthesis is related to how vigorously the infant nurses, how much time the infant spends nursing, and how many times per day the infant nurses. In other words, if you have a baby that spends several hours a day nursing and drinks a lot of milk, you will probably produce more milk. Conversely, a baby that only nurses for a couple minutes a few times a day, and doesn’t drink a lot of milk, won’t stimulate a lot of milk production in the mother.
- And finally, drinking a ton of water will not increase your milk supply. If you are severely dehydrated, this could impact the amount of milk you are able to produce. But drinking fluids above and beyond what it takes to quench your thirst will not help you produce more milk.
So much for the myths. Is there anything that can help increase milk production?
What Are Galactalogues?
There are a handful of herbs that have traditionally been used as galactalogues, or subtances that promote milk supply. They include fenugreek, blessed thistle, milk thistle, goat’s rue, and fennel. These are usually used either in capsule form or as a tea—and sales of these products are on the rise. And yet, even though they have been used for thousands of years, it’s hard to say how much these herbs are actually doing.
Last year, researchers from Tulane University did a painstaking review of the evidence (such as it is) on herbal galactalogues, in an effort to answer this question more definitively. They found only a handful of studies in the literature, and the quality and design varied widely, as did the results. There were encouraging but inconclusive findings on fenugreek, milk thistle, shatavari (or asparagus root), and moringa. For many others, there simply wasn’t any research to review.
I realize this isn’t very satisfying but there’s just not enough evidence to say for sure how much these herbal products might help increase milk production. But there’s also not enough evidence to say for sure that they don’t. As the saying goes, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The good news is that they appear to be safe and well-tolerated, causing a minimum of adverse effects for mom or baby.
If you’re worried about not producing enough breast milk and drinking some fenugreek tea or taking one of the herbal supplements helps calm your anxiety, perhaps it’s worth it. There’s nothing wrong with a good placebo response. But it might be even more helpful to work with a lactation consultant. Making sure your baby is nursing well and often is probably the most important influence on breast milk production.
Sometimes despite everyone’s best efforts, breast-feeding doesn’t work out or isn’t sufficient on its own. Here are some tips on what to look for when choosing a baby formula.
Special thanks to Anna Gianpetro, RDN, for her help in researching today’s show.