It may come as a surprise to hear that in Australia, only 50% of babies are being exclusively breastfed at 2 months of age.
There is an epidemic of low breastfeeding confidence amongst new mothers, many of whom who are diagnosing themselves with low milk supply – a problem which is not exclusive to Australia at all.
As soon as some mothers give birth to their babies, they embrace the idea of routines in order to help them manage motherhood. Routines can be very helpful in some areas of life – however breastfeeding your baby is one area where routines can backfire, resulting in low milk supply.
Hearing of a mother’s feeding troubles, well-meaning friends or family members may suggest ‘top-up’ feeds with formula, which only makes the problem worse.
No matter where you go around the world, you’re bound to hear mothers’ stories of ‘running out of milk’. Some say they just didn’t have enough milk from birth, so they had to start their baby on formula to make sure they were full. Sadly, some of those mothers end up shocked to find that after introducing bottles, their baby ends up refusing the breast.
In order to prevent unintentional weaning or relying on formula, it’s really important to try and solve any breastfeeding issues as best you can, as soon as you can. Ask around for recommendations for a great lactation consultant, ideally an IBCLC. Alternatively, you can call the breastfeeding helpline offered by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, or La Leche League in the US.
Low Milk Supply – Incorrect Assumptions
According to BellyBelly’s Breastfeeding Editor and IBCLC, Renee Kam, the following 7 assumptions are NOT sound ways of determining if you have low milk supply issues.
Incorrect Assumption #1: “My Breasts Do Not Feel Full”
Many mothers find that their breasts feel soft and comfortable, particularly after the early weeks. All this typically means is that your milk supply has settled down to be in sync with the amount of milk your baby is taking in.
For some mothers, even in the early weeks, their breasts never feel very full or engorged – this could simply mean that their baby is feeding well and often. But it doesn't automatically mean that you have low milk supply. For more information, read BellyBelly's article on empty breasts.
Incorrect Assumption #2: “But My Baby Sleeps Through The Night, So He Must Be Content”
How much a baby does or doesn’t sleep is a poor indicator of a mother’s milk supply. In fact, if a baby who is only days to weeks old, is sleeping through the night, this could mean he is not waking on his own for feeds and may not be getting enough milk. For example, some very young babies may be very sleepy (eg due to jaundice) and so may need to be woken for feeds just until they begin to consistently wake on their own for feeds and show signs of getting enough milk.
Incorrect Assumption #3: “My Baby Cries And Fusses On The Breast”
There are many reasons why a baby might cry and fuss during breastfeeds, not just because a mother may have a low milk supply. Other reasons may be that the mother may have a fast let-down reflex, the baby may be going through a ‘wonder week’ or the baby may be overtired or distracted.
Incorrect Assumption #4: “My Baby Feeds Often And/Or For A Long Time”
The length and frequency of feeds are very variable. As long as a baby is showing signs of getting enough milk, then the frequency or length of breastfeeds doesn't matter and is completely individual.
The length of a breastfeed depends on several factors. For example, a baby who does a lot of active sucking (where she is swallowing) may feed for a short period of time and get more milk than a baby who is at the breast for a long time and does a lot of passive sucking (where she is not swallowing). Also, the older the baby, the quicker breastfeeds tend to be. The length of the breastfeed also depends on other variables such as how hungry or thirsty the baby is, how tired she is and the mothers flow etc.
It's common for breastfed babies to feed 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period – some babies feed a little less often or quite a bit more often. Different mothers have different breast storage capacities (how much milk a breast can store between breastfeeds). A mother with a small or large storage capacity can make plenty of milk for her baby.
However, the frequency that babies of mothers with different size storage capacities feed can vary a lot. For example, a baby of a mother who has a small storage capacity is likely to want to feed more often as compared to a baby of a mother who has a large storage capacity. Breastfeeds also depend on other variables such as how hungry or thirsty a baby is, how tired she is, her reason for wanting to breastfeed, the mothers flow etc. So, if someone tells you that your baby should feed for ‘x' minutes, what will you say? For more information see Renee Kam's book ‘The Newborn Baby Manual'.
Incorrect Assumption #5: “I Can Only Express a Little Bit Of Milk”
Some mothers panic, thinking they have low milk supply because they can only express a little bit of milk.
However, babies are much better at extracting milk from your breasts than a pump, and expressing is a skill that needs practice. Even with practice there are some mothers who have a hearty supply but who find expressing hard.
Also, babies drink varying amounts of breastmilk at each feed and the volume of milk a mother’s breasts make varies throughout the day. Most mothers find that they make larger volumes of milk in the morning as compared to later in the day. This is completely normal.
The late afternoon/early evening is the time of the day when many babies are unsettled and cluster feed. So if a mother judges her overall supply by the volume of milk she expresses later in the day as compared to in the morning, she may be more worried (either way is unreliable though).
Also, if a mother was to express straight after her baby breastfed versus just before her baby breastfed, the volumes are likely to be very different too. See BellyBelly's article, 5 Tips To Help You Express Milk Like A Pro.
Incorrect Assumption #6: “My Baby Will Take A Bottle After Feeding”
Many babies find sucking very pleasurable. Being hungry is only one reason why babies like to suck. They may also want to suck if they are tired or have some pain etc.
Also, when something (e.g. a dummy, a finger or a bottle teat) is inserted into a young baby’s mouth, their instinct is to suck.
When a baby sucks at the breast, they are in control of how much they drink. They can suck in a way where they are swallowing the milk (nutritive sucking) or they can suck in a way where they aren’t actually swallowing the milk (non-nutritive sucking). They can also be at the breast and not suck at all or they can just come off.
So, no matter how many times a breastfed baby breastfeeds or for whatever reason, they will remain in control of their intake.
On the other hand, when a baby drinks from a bottle, they cannot suck in a non-nutritive way. A firm bottle teat in a baby’s mouth provides a strong stimulus for a baby to suck and when they suck, they get milk whether they need the milk or not. The relatively fast and continuous flow of milk from the bottle means the baby has to keep sucking or else be flooded with milk.
In these ways, a baby may drink more milk from a bottle after a breastfeed, even if they are getting enough milk from breastfeeding alone. Hence, a baby drinking more milk from a bottle after a breastfeed is an unreliable way to assess if you have enough milk for your baby.
Incorrect Assumption #7: “My Five Week Old Is Suddenly Pulling Away From The Breast But Still Seems Hungry”
In the early weeks, it is common for babies to fall asleep at the breast when the flow has slowed down. After the first month or so, they may not fall asleep at the breast (or not as much) but instead pull away or cry when the flow slows down. Many mothers find breast compressions or switching to the other breast helpful in these situations.
If you're still worried about low milk supply, read these great articles:
- BellyBelly’s 10 Top Breastfeeding Tips
- 7 Best Breastfeeding Books (make sure you own at least one of these for a quick and easy reference point).
- How Breastfeeding Is A Confidence Game
- Not Enough Milk: Concerned About Your Milk Supply? (many mothers worry about the amount of milk they produce – this is a must read to avoid a crash course into supplementing with formula).
- Is My Baby Hungry?
Also, join in on BellyBelly’s Breastfeeding Forum, which contains loads of great support and information. Our breastfeeding forum is frequented by members who are lactation consultants, breastfeeding counsellors, counsellors in training, doulas and midwives.