The internet is FILLED with advice for mothers about low supply. “Here, eat this cookie! Wait no, take this pill! Wait, no just pump. Wait no, I think you actually are making what your baby needs because you know…basically EVERYONE can make enough!”
So here we sit as women…looking at our screens, crying, exhausted, confused and just plain overwhelmed. Do we actually even have low supply? And if we do, is it possible to build it up to breastfeed exclusively? The difficulty with answering this question is that it’s not black and white. Everyone is different. While statistically speaking we know that MOST women can make enough milk, there is disagreement as to the exact percentage. Some say 5% and others will say up to 15%. We do know that there are many things that can affect supply including diabetes, thyroid conditions, hormonally related conditions, obesity…the list goes on. The difficulty though is that an overweight woman with diabetes might actually have OVER-supply! So yeah…it’s definitely not clear which makes the whole topic even more overwhelming than ever.
The amount of times I questioned my own supply with my first born…oh the torture we put ourselves through!
Here are some of the most common sentences uttered to women with low supply…
“Here, just eat these lactation cookies…”
For women who have chronic low supply, hearing the words, “Have you tried lactation cookies?”, will put them into a frantic state with smoke blowing out of their ears and eyes rolling back into their heads…why? Because lactation cookies will do NOTHING for someone who is struggling with a low supply issue. Cookies can work for women who generally have a good supply and just need a bit of a boost. NOT for a woman who true, chronic low supply. Eating cookies might make them gain 10 kilos but it’s not going to increase their supply. Did you eat cookies and notice an increase in your supply? Then you didn’t have true, low supply. Do you have a good supply and need a bit of a boost? Click here for my boobin’ cookie recipe!
“Start to pump and top up after each breastfeed.”
This is probably the number one most common suggestion given to women if they are struggling with low supply. Will some women need to pump if they cannot make enough milk? Yes! However giving a woman this recommendation without forming a short term and long term plan, is not going to be helpful. Telling a woman to pump and bottle feed after each breastfeed is EXHAUSTING and very difficult for some women to continue long term. Many women will find that it’s OK for awhile but they then start to feel very overwhelmed and unsure of what to do for the long term. Often times they are also left without any investigation into WHY they are struggling with supply. Is it her? Is it her baby? A combination of both? It might not be your ability to make enough but the fact that your baby cannot effectively and efficiently REMOVE your milk. CLICK HERE for information on what to do when you’re told to pump and supplement.
“You will never make enough so you mine as well just switch to formula.”
No one can tell you this because no one will know until you try! To say to a mother, “Well, you’ll never actually make enough for your baby.” Is not helpful and might not actually be true in your case. Do we need to be honest if there are signs that she may struggle with her supply long term? Yes! However it doesn’t take into account that breastfeeding your baby does not just mean that you can only do it if you make 100% of your child’s required intake.
“Enough” for one woman might be using formula for some of the feeds. “Enough” for another woman might mean using a supplemental nursing system (supply line). “Enough” for another woman might mean she has to supplement and build her supply for a few months before she can exclusively breastfeed. Breastfeeding looks different to different people.
“Your baby is a lazy feeder.”
No. your baby is having a hard time effectively and efficiently removing the milk. Once this is established, then it’s important to find someone (an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or volunteer BF counsellor) who can help you figure out WHY this is happening. Does your baby have a physical thing going on? One woman I saw had a premature baby who was pulled out with forceps and had mild facial palsy when he was born which was preventing him from breastfeeding effectively. He grew stronger over the next few months and by 4 months old he was exclusively breastfed. He wasn’t “lazy”. Click here for their story. For other babies it might be a tongue and/or lip tie or some muscles that are out of alignment from the birth. There will always be a reason.
“You’re not pumping a lot so you can’t make a lot.”
How much milk you can pump or hand express is NOT an indication of how much your baby is getting when breastfeeding. For a baby who is effectively and efficiently removing your milk, they will always be more effective than a pump. This is because no two breasts are the same (even on the same woman!) and a machine will never replicate a baby. Nipples are different, babies are different and breastmilk supply and demand works on frequent, efficient removal of the milk from the breast. This depends on a delicate hormonal balance as well as the physical aspects of milk removal. A machine just does not create that same effect as a real, live baby. Don’t let anyone tell you, “Well, you can only remove 10 mls with a pump so you have low supply!”. It’s simply NOT true.
“Your breasts are too small to make enough for your baby.”
Research shows that breast size has nothing to do with the amount of milk you are capable of making1,2. Breast size is about fatty tissue! Breastmilk production and what your breasts are capable of making (in regards to size) is about the glandular tissue where the milk is made and stored within your breasts. I will be forever grateful for my mother who told me this as a teenager. She loved to talk about how she breastfed my sister and I and she reassured us that we would be able to breastfeed. We had (and still have) teensy, eensy boobs! However both of us make a RIDICULOUS amount of milk and had huge supplies!
“If your breasts are soft and baby is cluster feeding then that means you don’t have enough.”
There are many signs that we will be mistaken as red flags for low milk but are actually not flags at all! These include breasts softening after engorgement has gone away, the difficulty pumping milk and the frequency in which your baby breastfeeds. Every baby will have periods of time where they breastfeed like crazy little boobieholics! Most have a witching hour (Ha! More like HOURS) in the later afternoon to evening period. This is normal. It’s about looking at the whole picture, not just their breastfeeding schedule. I remember with our youngest he would have a couple hours each night where he cried and cried, on and off the boob for no reason. He did this for about a month or two. We knew he was getting enough and it was just his cranky time. Head here for detailed information on how to know your baby is getting enough milk.
“No point in pumping or taking medications to increase your milk if you have a low supply.”
This is a common misconception. I see often online that women will state that pumping and/or taking galatogoues (medications or herbs that increase supply) is pointless if you know you’ll never be able to make enough milk to exclusively breastfeed. This is completely false. While taking the galactogoues and pumping may not get you to the point of breastfeeding exclusively…they WILL put you in the best possible position to make AS MUCH milk as you can make! This may only be a certain percentage of your child’s intake. That’s OK! It’s putting you in the position to make your own personal maximum capacity of milk.
“If you can’t breastfeed exclusively then what’s the point?”
Breastfeeding is not just about “the milk”. I have worked with many breastfeeding women over the past decade who did not exclusively breastfeed, but will be the first to call themselves a breastfeeding mother. Breastfeeding does not have to be “all” or “nothing”. Every drop of milk you can give your child is important. Whether that is 2% of their daily intake or 90%. It’s all important. Breastfeeding is a relationship and can look very different to each woman. Head here to read Brogan’s story of how she continued to breastfeed even though she could never make a full supply due to having insufficient glandular breast tissue (IGT).
- Neifert, M.R., J.M. Seacat, and W.E. Jobe, Lactation failure due to insufficient glandular development of the breast. Pediatrics, 1985. 76(5): p. 823-8.
- Renner J. K., Adewole A, O., Apena M., The Relationship between Breast Size and Breast Milk Volume of Nursing Primipara. Nigerian Quarterly Journal of Hospital Medicine, 2004. 14 (1): p. 104-106