They say breast milk is nature’s perfect food for your newborn. Formula may come close, but it can’t compete with what the body produces. That’s why many new moms are devastated when they find out they aren’t producing enough milk to support their baby’s needs.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why your milk supply is low and what you can do about it.
Table of Contents
- How the Body Produces Breast Milk
- Milk Production Ramps Up after Birth
- Why is My Milk Supply Decreasing?
- False Flags
- Causes of Low Milk Supply
- Signs of Low Milk Supply
- One Breast Produces More Milk Than Other – Why?
- How to Produce More Breast Milk Fast
How the Body Produces Breast Milk
You probably noticed some major changes in the way your breasts look and feel during pregnancy and after having your baby. But the changes that are going on inside of the body are even more impressive.
As the placenta develops, it causes the body to release the hormones estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones trigger a complex response in the body that causes the breasts to start producing milk.
Breasts before pregnancy are comprised of milk glands, supportive tissue and fat. The amount of fatty tissue varies from one woman to the next, which is why some women have bigger breasts than others.
What you may not know is that your breasts have been preparing for pregnancy since you were in your mother’s womb. That’s right – your milk ducts form when you’re about six weeks old.
The breast’s milk glands stay dormant until puberty, when a rush of estrogen causes them to grow. During pregnancy, that process kicks into overdrive.
Pregnancy hormones cause the milk ducts in your breasts to grow in size and in number. Your milk ducts became fully developed sometime during your second trimester so that you can produce milk if your baby comes earlier than expected.
The hormone prolactin in particular is largely responsible for breast milk production. Prolactin helps the body take sugars, protein and fat from the blood supply, and create breast milk.
Milk Production Ramps Up after Birth
During pregnancy, the body gears up for your baby’s arrival, but milk production doesn’t really ramp up until after your baby is born. It’s those first 48-96 hours after birth that production starts to increase exponentially.
For first-time moms, milk production may take a little longer to gear up than moms who have had multiple pregnancies.
Once you expel your placenta, the progesterone and estrogen levels in your body start to decline. But the amount of prolactin in your body increases at the same time as those other hormones are dropping.
Prolactin tells the body it’s time to start producing lots of milk to feed your newborn.
The body sends a surge of blood to the alveoli as the body prepares for lactation, which causes your breasts to swell and become firm. You may notice some discomfort when this happens, but nursing frequently will help keep that discomfort to a minimum. You may also be leaking breast milk at first.
The more you nurse after giving birth, the more milk your body will produce. But some women find that they’re just not producing enough milk for their baby’s needs, or their supply starts to decrease after a while.
Why is My Milk Supply Decreasing?
Low milk supply can be caused by a number of things, but when everything is running smoothly, the body will produce more or less milk depending on your baby’s needs.
If you’re nursing more, your body will produce more milk to meet those demands. If you’re nursing less frequently, your body will produce less milk.
If you haven’t been nursing as often, that may be the reason for your lower milk supply.
Before we discuss legitimate reasons for a lower milk supply, let’s talk about some false flags that may throw you off:
Your Breasts are No Longer Engorged
A lot of moms, especially first-time moms, think they’re not making enough milk when their production is actually fine. You know that your breasts become engorged and swollen in the first few days after giving birth. Once that engorgement subsides, moms think there’s something wrong and interpret this as a sign that they’re not producing enough milk.
It’s important to remember that your breasts were not designed to store milk. In fact, most of the milk that your baby consumes is produced while she’s nursing.
Your Baby Needs to Feed More Often than Usual
Some moms think that their milk supply may be running low because their baby needs to feed more often than usual. It’s easy to see why moms feel this way: if you can’t satisfy your baby’s appetite, you must not be producing enough milk – right?
That may not necessarily be the case.
If your baby has a ferocious appetite, it may just be because she’s going through a growth spurt. Because she’s growing rapidly, she’ll need to be fed more often.
Babies typically go through growth spurts at 3 weeks, 6 weeks and 6 months.
These are two of the most common false flags that make moms think they’re not producing enough milk. But there are also women who truly aren’t producing enough milk, and their supplies start to dwindle after a while.
What can cause this to happen?
Causes of Low Milk Supply
Pumping May Be the Cause
If you work outside the home or are always on the go, you may pump to make sure your baby gets the nutrients she needs.
But it may actually be your pump that’s causing the problem. If you bought your pump in a baby supply store, it may not be efficient enough to mimic your baby’s nursing.
Your pump may be to blame if you find your:
- Milk supply decreasing at 1, 2, 3 months
- Milk supply decreasing at 1, 2, 3 weeks
Why would your pump lower your milk supply? Shouldn’t it be doing the opposite.
It should be, but if you’re using a pump that pumps at a lower cycle speed than your baby nurses (usually fewer than 60 cycles per minute) and you’re pumping more than twice per day, you may find that your supply is gradually becoming out of sync with your baby’s needs.
Because the pump is slower, your body thinks your baby doesn’t need as much milk and produces less as a result.
Experts recommend using a hospital-grade electric pump for expressing milk. These pumps work at the right speed to help get your milk supply back up to the right level.
Your Baby is Eating Solid Food
At around six months, you’ll start introducing solid foods into your baby’s diet. Around this time, you can expect your milk supply to start diminishing.
Once your baby gets used to eating solid food, she’ll nurse less often and your body will make less milk.
Offering the breast as a snack throughout the day or nursing just before feeding solid foods can help prevent your supply from drying up.
Not Feeding Often Enough – Especially at Night
Experts say the most common cause of low milk supply is not feeding enough – especially at night. If you’re supplementing with formula, this may be the reason why your breast milk supply is slowly dwindling.
Poorly Developed Glandular Tissue
When breasts don’t develop normally, there may not be enough milk ducts in the breasts to meet a baby’s needs.
This is usually an issue for first-time moms. Ducts grow with each pregnancy, and breastfeeding stimulates the growth of even more tissue and ducts. If this is your first pregnancy, there may not be enough ducts to support your baby’s needs.
If you’ve had breast enhancement or reduction surgery, the procedure may have damaged your milk ducts. Nipple piercings may also damage milk ducts, which can make it harder to produce enough milk for your baby’s needs.
But even if you’ve had breast surgery, this may not be the definitive cause of your milk supply problems. Surgery affects breastfeeding in a number of ways, and it varies from one woman to the next.
Hormonal or Endocrine Problems
Hormonal or endocrine problems can also cause issues with milk production. If you have thyroid issues, diabetes, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), high blood pressure or another hormonal problem, any one of these may be affecting your milk supply.
Some medications and even certain herbs may interfere with your body’s ability to produce milk, including:
- The active ingredient in cold medication (pseudoephedrine)
You’d have to ingest a large amount of the herbs on the above list for it to have an effect on your milk supply.
Most women have a perfectly healthy milk supply when they breastfeed and take birth control, but there are a select few ladies that will have some trouble in the production department.
This seems to be the case mostly in women who start taking contraceptives before their baby is four months old.
Anatomical or Suckling Problems
The issue may not be you – it may be your newborn. Some babies are born with a tongue-tie, which means there’s a small tissue at the end of the baby’s mouth that holds his tongue slightly. A tongue-tie can prevent a baby from feeding normally, which would diminish your milk supply because your body thinks your little one doesn’t need as much milk.
Some tongue-ties are difficult to see, so have your doctor check to see if this may be the problem.
A cleft palate or cleft lip may also cause suckling difficulties.
Supplementing with Formula
If you’re supplementing with formula, you can expect your milk supply to decrease over time.
The less often your baby feeds, the less milk your breasts will produce because your body assumes your baby doesn’t need any more milk.
Signs of Low Milk Supply
How can you tell if you have low milk supply? Pay close attention to your baby, she she’ll give you the signal that she needs more nutrients.
Your Baby Isn’t Gaining Weight
During a baby’s first three months of life, she’ll gain an ounce of weight per day. She’ll gain about half an ounce per day between three months and six months of age.
Newborns will lose a little weight at first, but should at least be back at their birth weight in 10 – 14 days.
Weight gain is the tell-tale sign that your baby is – or isn’t – getting enough milk. If your baby isn’t gaining weight, she’s not getting enough nutrients. If she is gaining weight, your milk supply is probably just fine.
Your Baby Isn’t Nursing Enough
A healthy baby who is getting enough milk will nurse at least eight times per day. If your baby isn’t nursing this much, she may not be getting all the nutrients she needs.
Your Baby’s Stool Isn’t Normal
Healthy newborns have at least three stools per day in the first month of life. Their stool usually lightens up to a yellow color by the fifth day, so you’ll see some changes in that first week of life. Those changes in bowel movements usually have to do with changes in your breast milk, or the nutrients in your milk.
After the first month of life, your baby’s stool will become a little less frequent. Some newborns will go a day or two without passing any stool.
If your baby’s bowel movements are in the abnormal range, then she may not be getting enough milk.
Your Baby Isn’t Wetting Enough Diapers
A healthy baby will wet five or six disposable diapers and seven or eight cloth diapers per day. If your baby isn’t passing enough urine, something may be wrong.
It’s a little harder to tell when a baby wets a disposable, absorbent diaper. A good way to tell is to check the weight of the diaper compared to a dry one. A wet diaper will be a little heavier.
One Breast Produces More Milk Than Other – Why?
If one breast is not producing milk or producing less than the other, don’t panic – it’s perfectly normal.
One way to prevent this from happening is to offer your baby both breasts during nursing. Start off with one and halfway through, switch to the other breast.
Some babies have a preference and would rather feed from one particular breast. But refusal to take one breast may be caused by an ear infection, discomfort from a birth injury or illness. Talk to your baby’s doctor if she outright refuses one breast.
How to Produce More Breast Milk Fast
Now that you know the causes and signs of low milk supply, what can you do about it? Are there ways to increase milk supply?
Work on Breastfeeding Issues
Breastfeeding issues may interfere with the milk flow. An anatomical issue may be preventing your baby from suckling properly, which keeps the breasts from making more milk.
If your supply isn’t decreasing, your body won’t see a need to make more.
If your baby is not nursing efficiently, try expressing milk after and in between nursings to help keep your milk supply up. In the meantime, work with a lactation professional to address the anatomical issue.
Nurse More – Take a Nursing Staycation
The simplest and most obvious way to increase your milk supply is to nurse more. We said it before and we’ll say it again – you need to empty your supply if you want your body to make more.
Ideally, you want to nurse every 1.5-2 hours during the day and at least every three hours at night.
Many moms find that taking a “nursing staycation” can help increase their milk supply fast.
What you do is take to three days off and just spend that time nursing as much as you can. Moms get a nice rest, babies get to eat as much as they want, and your body will start producing more milk very quickly to make up for that lost supply.
If you have to get back to work or you just can’t nurse all the time from the breast, try pumping more often. And while you’re at it, invest in a pump that pumps at the same rate your little one nurses.
Pumping more will have the same effect as nursing more.
It may be hard to pump breast milk in the middle of the day, but even just pumping a little bit more than normal can help boost your supply.
If you’re not sure how to pump more breast milk, consult with a lactation expert.
Avoid Supplementing and Pacifiers
Avoid supplementing with formula and giving your baby a pacifier if at all possible. Some formula supplmentation may be necessary, so talk to your doctor about the best possible solution to boost your milk supply without compromising your baby’s health.
Giving your baby only breast milk will help get your supply levels back in order very quickly.
Consider a Galactagogue
A galactagogue is a milk supply booster. It may come in the form of an herbal supplement, or it may come in the form of a prescription medication.
The most common galactagogues are:
Women have been taking fenugreek for breast milk for centuries, and research shows that it can boost milk production by as much as 900 percent.
Medical experts still don’t know why fenugreek helps with milk production, but they believe that it may be the oil in the spice.
Most women find that their breast milk supply increases within the first 24-72 hours of taking fenugreek.
But here’s the thing about this spice – it won’t help boost your supply if you’re not nursing enough. In other words, if you’re not draining your breasts, fenugreek won’t help you make more milk because – again – your body doesn’t think it has to.
The good news? Fenugreek appears to be safe for moms and babies. But as always, talk to your doctor before taking any kind of herbal supplement.
Alfalfa is another herbal supplement that mothers take for healthy milk production. This nutrient-dense plant has estrogenic properties, which can be bad news if taken in large quantities.
But when eaten in food form – not supplement form – this herb can help boost milk production. Talk to your doctor about whether alfalfa is right for you.
If fenugreek doesn’t work to boost your milk supply, blessed thistle might. This herb can also help alleviate the symptoms of postpartum depression or prevent it altogether.
Eat the Right Foods
Did you know that you can eat foods to increase your milk supply? These lactation foods can help you boost your supply quickly and easily.
Oatmeal is a go-to food for nursing moms. It’s loaded with fiber and aids in digestion, making it easier for your body to absorb nutrients and eliminate waste.
The great thing about oatmeal is that it’s so easy to prepare, and makes a satisfying breakfast.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is essential for nursing moms. Salmon can help boost lactation hormones in the body and ensure that your milk is loaded with nutrients.
You can eat this fatty fish however you please – grilled, broiled or even from a can.
Carrots help promote lactation, so including them in your diet either in juice or solid form can help keep your supply healthy.
The vitamin A in carrots boosts the quality of your milk, too.
Try steaming your carrots or eating them raw. They make a great soup, too.
Healthy fats play an essential role in nutrient absorption, which are transferred from your body to your breast milk. They also play a role in healthy digestion and bowel movements.
Make sure you eat the right oils and fats, like olive oil, avocado and coconut oil.
Talk to your doctor if you think you might have issues with low milk supply. In many cases, moms find out that their supply is perfectly healthy. And if your supply truly is low, your doctor or a lactation expert can help you either overcome this issue or find the right formula/breast milk ratio to keep your baby healthy and growing.