Breastfeeding is a journey with a greater learning curve than many new mothers expect. While moms spend 40 weeks planning, prepping, researching cribs, baby monitors, car seats, and strollers, those who plan to breastfeed may not think too much about how to nurse. Many may assume the natural process will come as second nature—after all, they already have the equipment, and evolution has done millions of years of work for us already! And some moms may find little challenge in the process. But the reality for many mothers is unexpected challenge and frustration along with the joys of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding: What to Expect in the Early Days
At full-term delivery, a mother’s breasts are already producing colostrum (also called “first-milk”). Colostrum may appear clear or golden in color. It is much thicker than regular breast milk, and can feel sticky. Colostrum volume is substantially lower than regular breast milk flow, so a new mother may not feel fullness in her breasts right after delivery. Colostrum is like super-powered breast milk, as it is highly fortified with antibodies to protect newborns in their first days. Colostrum production will last for the first two to five days after delivery, and then breast milk will develop or “come in.”
How to Increase Breast Milk
Breastfeeding mothers will soon realize that breasts are complicated and responsive systems. In addition to having milk at the ready for babies’ regular feedings, many women find their breasts respond to physical, auditory, and emotional stimuli. Some mothers will even expel milk when hearing their babies cry.
Pumping Schedule to Increase Milk Supply
One certain way to increase breast milk supply is to pump on a schedule in between feedings. Mammary glands respond in supply and demand fashion, so when a baby breastfeeds often, the breasts produce more milk. Likewise, if baby is less hungry than usual or waiting longer between feedings, breast milk production can reduce. To support increased milk production, breastfeeding mothers can add a pumping session (15 minutes on each breast) about ten minutes after nursing. This will signal to the breasts that more milk is required, and output should increase after about 2-3 days of continued post-nursing pump sessions. To expedite this process, mothers can explore hands-free pumping bras to pump both breasts at once.
Activities that Increase Breast Milk Supply
While trying to increase breast milk supply, mothers should rest as much as possible and try to stay calm, as stress can negatively impact milk production. Additionally, staying well-hydrated and well-nourished will support healthy milk quantities.
Activities that Decrease Breast Milk Supply
Certain medications including some over-the-counter allergy and cold medication can negatively impact milk production. As highlighted by the Mayo Clinic, lifestyle choices including moderate to heavy alcohol consumption and smoking can also decrease milk supply. Additionally, mothers who consume too few calories may see lower milk volume. Recommended daily calorie intake for breastfeeding women includes an additional 330 to 400 calories per day to support energy and milk production.
Rest as much as possible, try to lower your stress, limit alcohol consumption and smoking, and be sure to include an extra 330-400 calories per day to support energy and milk production. - Mayo Clinic
Foods and Supplements to Increase Breast Milk Supply
Galactagogues or lactogenic foods and supplements are thought to boost milk production in breastfeeding mothers. Here is a list of some of the most recognized foods and supplements that may be added to a mother’s regular diet to encourage fuller milk supply.
- Oatmeal: Oatmeal is almost undisputed for its milk boosting properties. In addition to lactogenic benefits, oats are high in fiber for heart and digestion health. If a bowl of oatmeal seems unappetizing, mothers can consider adding versatile oats to other foods including granola, yogurt, and even savory foods like meats as a crumb coating.
- Carrots: These can be eaten raw and crunchy or steamed and soft. Carrots support healthy breast milk production while also helping moms maintain beta-carotene supply while breast feeding. Since vitamins are passed from mothers to babies through breastfeeding, nursing mothers with good vitamin A levels can support their babies’ eye health and developing vision.
- Dark Leafy Greens: Vegetables such as kale and spinach are high in iron and calcium, which are invaluable to nursing mothers trying to maintain and increase health and milk production.
- Chickpeas: Protein-rich chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are a good source of folic acid for breastfeeding mothers. Additionally, chickpeas offer the extra, healthy calories needed to support milk production.
- Green Papaya: Green (unripe) papaya “contains enzymes, vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B, C and E,” which support milk production. Green papaya is a traditional lactogenic choice in Asia, and it can be found in salads and in many Thai dishes.
- Brown Rice: Like oatmeal, brown rice is a great source of fiber. Further, phyto-nutrients found in brown rice convert into enterolactone, which has been shown through studies to substantially support breast health and function in women.
- Asparagus Root: According to a study on herbal galactagogues published in the World Journal of Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences, powdered asparagus root mixed with warm milk and honey supports increased milk production in nursing mothers as well as healthy weight for both mothers and breastfed babies.
- Salmon: During pregnancy, mothers limit their seafood intake due to mercury-level concerns. These concerns remain while breastfeeding, as trace amounts of mercury can pass into a mother’s milk supply. However, fish, especially salmon, offers substantial health benefits, most especially Omega-3 fatty acids, which support breast milk production and baby health. So, breastfeeding mothers should consider adding salmon (in limited quantities) into their diets.
- Almonds: Vitamin-rich almonds offer healthy protein in a quick and portable snack food. In addition to supporting lactation, breastfeeding expert Dr. Jack Newman advises that eating nuts can actually decrease the risk of allergies and food sensitivities in breastfed babies whose mothers eat nuts or nut products.”
- Alfalfa: Alfalfa as a galactagogue, is typically consumed in combination with fenugreek, and has been found to have a mild impact on increasing breast milk production.
Eating nuts can actually decrease the risk of allergies and food sensitivities in breastfed babies whose mothers eat nuts or nut products. - Dr. Jack Newman
- Fenugreek: Fenugreek is possibly the most popular ingredient in many available breast milk booster teas. It may also be taken as steeped seed or in capsule form.
- Fennel: Fennel seeds may be eaten raw, consumed in tea, or taken as powdered capsules. The flavor is similar to anise or black licorice. Some breastfeeding mothers also apply a topical fennel oil to stimulate milk production.
- Barley: Barley is used as a food flavoring and water supplement to boost breast milk production.
- Ginger: Ginger supports immune system health and is thought to stimulate milk production. Ginger is most commonly used as a ground spice, in tea, or though capsules. However, mothers should take caution against uncooked ginger in cases of significant blood loss during childbirth, as raw ginger intake can speed up hemorrhage risk in breastfeeding mothers.”
- Garlic: Garlic has long been recognized for its breast milk stimulating properties. Additionally, a study in maternal diet and nursling behavior published in the journal Pediatrics, demonstrated that garlic’s impact on breast milk also encourages babies to nurse longer and more vigorously.
Breast Feeding Diet Cautions and Resources
As with all diet choices, breastfeeding mothers should maintain an overall balanced diet when considering the addition of galactagogues. Mothers should carefully review the impacts of consuming too much of any food or supplement, and whether a particular food or supplement may counteract with current diet and medication needs.