One of the most common concerns among new mothers is naturally increasing your breast milk supply. Fortunately, herbal remedies and better breastfeeding habits can be effective.
Naturally increasing your breast milk supply is possible mainly by boosting levels of oxytocin and prolactin. These are the hormones that promote breast milk production.
Normal milk production rises from an average 30-60mL per feeding at birth, to 90-120mL (900mL per day) in one month. If you don’t meet these levels or are concerned that you won’t produce enough milk, then the remedies below are worth trying out.
The best herbs to increase your Breast Milk Supply
Two effective herbal remedies for naturally increasing your breastmilk supply are:
- Milk thistle
Ginger is a warming herb that improves circulation, while milk thistle increases levels of the hormone that promotes milk production. As ginger is an anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea remedy, and milk thistle is a herb for liver support, the best one for you may depend on your other needs.
Ginger While Breastfeeding
Ginger is a popular herbal remedy in Asia for its warming effect, including its ability to boost circulation.
For example, in Chinese medicine, childbirth is described as having an energetically cooling effect on the body. Much care is therefore taken to restore the mother’s body to a warmer, balanced state.
Ginger may be at its most effective right after childbirth when you are just getting started with breastfeeding. It is because of its circulatory boosting abilities.
At first, when you are still recovering from childbirth, this effect is necessary to support your body. You may be more able to produce enough milk on your own after the first few days, where your baby is also able to regulate how much they need to drink too.
A study on women who had just given birth found that ginger increased breast milk flow to 191mL on day three, compared to 135mL in the placebo group. However, there were no significant benefits by day seven.
Besides benefits for breastfeeding moms, ginger can also help with weight loss or digestion. Check out these articles for for information:
- Ginger Tea For Bloating
- Ginger For Improved Digestion During Breastfeeding
- Ginger Tea Could Ease Nausea Experienced When Pregnant
Milk thistle to raise prolactin
Milk thistle is named for the colouring of its leaves, a fitting appearance as it may raise prolactin levels.
As its legend goes, the Virgin Mary once spilled her own breastmilk onto a milk thistle plant (also known as St Mary’s thistle), and since that day, every leaf of the species wears her mark. Traditional herbalists took this as a sign that milk thistle could assist in breastfeeding.
Lab studies show that milk thistle can increase levels of prolactin. This hormone is necessary for breast milk production, hence the name.
A small study found that using milk thistle increased milk flow and babies’ body weight, but larger clinical trials are needed.
Milk thistle’s use as a herbal remedy mainly centres around promoting liver detoxification. For other detox teas you can use for liver support, learn more at:
Other herbal teas can help with milk supply
Traditional herbal medicine includes other herbal teas that can support milk supply too. If ginger or milk thistle isn’t right for you, or you are looking for others with a different set of additional benefits, consider:
- Red raspberry leaf
- Goat’s rue
Red raspberry leaf can support a healthy pregnancy, while moringa is nutrient-rich and fennel aids digestion, for example. To learn more about them, check out this article:
- Lactation Teas to Boost Milk Supply
- Breastmilk supply can be increased by drinking red raspberry leaf tea
Ginger may be best for boosting your breastmilk production if you need warming, anti-inflammatory circulation support, while milk thistle’s appearance reflects its ability to boost prolactin.
Breastfeeding habits for better milk production
Sometimes, you don’t need to take any remedies to improve your breast milk production. Simple habit changes may just be all that you need, and they don’t need to cost you anything.
Better breastfeeding habits centre around nurturing, caring types of touch to stimulate milk production. These increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes breast milk flow.
The three main habit changes you should make as soon as possible are:
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Frequent feeding, pumping or massage
- Breast compression
1. Skin to skin contact to establish bonding
Skin to skin contact is an important but often neglected part of giving birth as it helps to establish bonding.
Many women spend more time than they would like being separated from their babies in the first few hours after birth, but you can request more time together and have someone to advocate for your needs too.
Research shows that women who enjoyed early skin to skin contact were 24% more likely to keep breastfeeding for at least one to four months, and on average, breastfed for two months longer. Babies given this gentle, nurturing contact were also more likely to have been breastfed the first time successfully too.
Skin to skin contact isn’t just about holding your baby. It is holding them without even clothing as a barrier (you can wrap a blanket around you both if necessary). This completely unhindered contact increases oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, which also increases breast milk flow and soothes stress.
Even better, resting the baby on your stomach strengthens the uterine contractions that start post-partum recovery and reduce your risk of excessive bleeding.
2. Breast compression to improve milk expression
Breast compression can help you to express milk more effectively, especially when you are pumping milk to feed your baby later.
The use of compression was able to improve the milk ejection reflex and squeeze more milk from the breast. This is partly because physically stimulating the areola releases more oxytocin, which increases pressure inside the milk ducts.
When women were given either standard vacuum pumps alone or with a compression stimulus component, average milk flow increased from 40.5% to 59.5%. There was an increase in average volume milk ejection by 10-46%.
Do warm compresses help produce breast milk?
Warm compresses may help to produce breast milk in the long term if you use them alongside cold compresses to treat engorgement as soon as possible. Research shows that alternating between warm and cold compresses can effectively relieve engorgement, which may damage the milk-secreting cells if untreated.
3. Frequent feeding, pumping or massage to boost oxytocin
You don’t need specialised breast pumps to boost milk production, however. Research shows that even simply massaging your breasts or other contact such as more frequent feeding or pumping can be effective too.
When 18 women with inadequate milk production were instructed in massage to increase oxytocin levels, seven of them began to have enough milk to feed their babies.
Do breasts need time to refill?
Milk only needs minimal time to refill after feeding, as it is produced in response to your breasts being empty.
Even though your baby will almost never drink all milk available, your breasts remain on a kind of standby to respond to their needs. Feeding too infrequently, however, can reduce milk flow.
Gentle, close contact and stimulation of your breasts can help increase milk production through boosting oxytocin, the “love” or “bonding” hormone.
Music to reduce stress while breastfeeding
As a new mother, love and joy are mixed with new responsibilities and the uncertainty of what to expect with your new baby, so you may enjoy music to reduce stress while breastfeeding.
Low milk supply can be related to a drop in the stress hormone cortisol. The hormone is involved in the fight-or-flight response, and many of its roles involve freeing up energy for immediate use, impairing milk production. Therefore, it is important to reduce stress while breastfeeding.
Music can reduce stress while breastfeeding by acting on the nervous system. Especially if it is relaxing to you, music increases the share of alpha brain waves. These promote a relaxed yet alert state, calming the area of your brain that triggers cortisol production.
A study on women with premature babies tested the ability of music to reduce stress while breastfeeding. In this trial of music therapy, the average increase in breast milk production rose from 12 to 23mL, while it remained relatively flat in the control group.
Additionally, the relaxing effect of music widens your blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and nutrients to reach your tissues. You are then better able to produce milk and help your baby maintain a healthy rate of growth and development, whether or not they are premature.
Should I play music while breastfeeding my baby?
The above study tested music while the women were pumping breast milk, so the flow could be measured. If your baby finds music overstimulating while you are feeding them, you can listen through earphones.
The relaxing effect of music enhances breast milk production by boosting blood flow and reducing stress hormone levels.
Avoid certain allergy medications to prevent your milk from drying up
We have covered factors that prevent your milk from drying up, but what about things to avoid? It turns out that certain allergy medications may impair lactation or be passed on to your baby.
Antihistamines can reduce prolactin, the hormonal trigger for lactation. Fortunately, there are alternatives that can prevent your milk from drying up.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Zyrtec (cetirizine) are two medications to watch out for. In high doses, they can reduce prolactin and cause symptoms in babies such as irritability or excessive tiredness.
Natural ways to soothe allergies include:
- Adding flavonoids such as quercetin, rutin and fistein in your diet or as supplements. These are found in a range of foods, including apples and strawberries.
- Reducing your intake of high-histamine foods, including red wine, cheese and fermented vegetables
- Use of a HEPA filter to remove allergens from your home
- Identifying and removing toxic moulds that can be lurking inside your home, including within the walls.
- Reducing small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may theoretically relieve excessive histamine levels, as many bacteria produce it in the gut. Support from a naturopath is essential.
Pharmaceutical antihistamines may lower prolactin levels, but natural alternatives such as a low-histamine diet and removal of allergens are available.
Breast massage for blocked ducts
Perhaps you are producing enough breast milk, but it just isn’t flowing correctly because of blocked ducts. If so, you aren’t alone.
Eighteen per cent of Australian mothers who stop breastfeeding before six months list pain as the main reason, which is commonly caused by blocked ducts.
When the breast milk ducts are blocked or inflamed, it can lead to pain and an inability to feed your baby. Breast massage can be an effective remedy for blocked ducts, mastitis and engorgement by unblocking the ducts and supporting the flow of breast milk.
A study of 42 mothers tested therapeutic breast massage in an attempt to relieve mastitis, swollen breasts (engorgement) and plugged milk ducts without quitting breastfeeding.
After therapeutic breast massage, their average pain levels fell from 6.4/10 to 2.8/10. Out of the 28 women with plugged milk ducts, 16 saw the issue completely resolved, while another 10 had problem areas no larger than three centimetres.
How to massage your breasts to relieve blocked ducts?
Massaging your breasts to relieve blocked ducts is quite simple. With one hand on each side of your affected breast, gently massage in a circular motion around your entire breast, but focus more on the area with the blockage. This video shows you how, starting at around nine minutes.
When should I see a doctor for mastitis?
If you have difficulty breastfeeding with symptoms including pain and swelling, you could have mastitis. This often needs antibiotics for treatment, especially if you only gave birth days ago and have nipple damage.
After your baby is old enough to settle for the night, you are recommended to seek treatment after 24 hours if you can’t find relief from cold compresses or more frequent milk expression.
Learning how to perform self-massage may be an effective way to release blocked milk ducts, so you can continue breastfeeding comfortably.
The importance of nutrition during lactation
Breast milk is the best food for your baby, but its nutrient content comes from your own diet. The importance of nutrition during lactation centres around optimal intakes of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals, as breast milk is your baby’s only food in the first several months of life.
It is important to remember that you do not need to overeat when breastfeeding, as you only require an extra 300-400 calories per day. Nutrition during lactation must prioritise a wide range of vegetables, oily fish, quality meats, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fruits while minimising refined junk foods.
Key nutrients during lactation include:
- Vitamin A, which is essential for the healthy development of the eyes, brain and immune system. A deficiency reduces its levels in breast milk
- Folate and vitamin B12, two key vitamins in DNA synthesis. Rapid growth, such as that in infancy, requires a much faster rate of DNA synthesis than seen in adults.
- Zinc, which is important for immune function, and a deficiency may impact the health of your breast tissue.
- Calcium: its levels do not change in breast milk, depending on your dietary intake. Instead, deficiency leads to calcium being pulled from your bones, so it’s essential that you take supplements if you cannot consume enough from food.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. Your baby depends on your breast milk to receive these, which are vital for healthy brain and immune system development.
If you are concerned about post-partum weight loss, you can still lose weight without sacrificing a healthy diet. Learn more at:
- The Best Teas To Lose Weight While Breastfeeding
- The Best Green Tea in Australia
- Benefits Of Coriander Seeds For Weight Loss
During lactation, all of your nutritional needs are higher in order to support healthy breast tissue and provide enough nutrients to your baby.
Naturally increasing your breast milk supply is a common issue encountered by new mothers. We want to make sure our babies are receiving the best nutrition, but it’s understandable to be apprehensive about the ingredients and additives in commercial formulas.
Fortunately, we know that we can enhance prolactin and oxytocin levels with home remedies such as milk thistle, stress-relieving methods such as listening to music, and skin to skin contact. These can also make breastfeeding and spending time with your baby more enjoyable for you both.
Even if you still require formula or additional treatment, however, the most important thing is that your baby is happy and healthy.
Australian Breastfeeding Association
1800 686 268