Low breast milk supply is a very common concern for new mothers.
You might be surprised to hear that, by 2 months of age, only 50% of Australian babies are exclusively breastfed. This is not necessarily due to breastfeeding problems but to a lack of confidence in new mothers when it comes to breastfeeding.
Some mothers diagnose themselves with low breast milk supply without seeing a health care professional who is trained in breastfeeding management. Usually, early breastfeeding problems can be overcome with help from a certified lactation consultant and often without the need for supplementing with infant formula.
Hearing of a mother’s feeding troubles, well-meaning friends or family members might suggest ‘top-up’ feeds with formula. Unfortunately, this only makes the problem worse. Milk production works on the principle of supply and demand; that means the most effective way to make more breast milk is to start removing milk more often (i.e. by breastfeeding more often).
Sadly, some mothers who decide to introduce a bottle to their baby find their babies start to refuse the breast.
In order to prevent unintentional weaning or begin to rely on formula, it’s really important to try to solve any breastfeeding problems as soon as you can.
In the case of genuine low milk supply, a lactation consultant will give you advice about how to increase milk supply, and how to ensure your baby continues to get enough breast milk while your milk supply increases to meet his needs.
Alternatively, you can call the breastfeeding helpline offered by the Australian Breastfeeding Association, or La Leche League International.
Low milk supply – incorrect assumptions
The following 7 assumptions are NOT reliable ways of determining whether you have a low milk supply.
#1. ‘My breasts don’t feel full’
Many mothers find that, as time goes on, their breasts feel softer or they no longer leak milk as they did in the early weeks of breastfeeding. This is perfectly normal, as your milk supply adjusts to your baby’s needs.
Some mothers’ milk production is greater than their babies need in the first few weeks of breastfeeding. For other mothers, even in the early weeks, their breasts never feel very full or engorged. This could simply mean their babies were breastfeeding well and often; it doesn’t automatically mean they have a low milk supply.
For more information, you can read BellyBelly’s article My Breasts Feel Empty – Do I Have Any Milk?
#2. ‘My baby wakes frequently at night, so must not be getting enough milk’
How much a baby sleeps is not a reliable indication of a mother’s milk supply.
To make sure a newborn baby is getting enough milk in a 24 hour period, breastfeeding at night is important. Babies who are going through a growth spurt might wake more frequently than they previously did. Breastfeeding your baby on demand, during the day and at night, boosts your milk production and helps make sure your milk supply continues to meet his needs.
#3. ‘My baby is fussy at the breast‘
There are many reasons why a baby might cry and fuss during breastfeeds – not just because a mother might have a low milk supply.
For more information, you can read BellyBelly’s article Baby Fussing At Breast? 7 Reasons Babies Get Fussy.
#4. ‘My baby nurses for a long time’
The length of time a baby takes to breastfeed depends on several factors.
For example, a baby who does a lot of active sucking and swallowing while breastfeeding might feed for a shorter 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, or comfort, sucking.
A baby’s ability to breastfeed efficiently generally increases with age.
The length of the breastfeed can also depend on other variables, such as how hungry or thirsty the baby is or how sleepy or alert he is.
Breastfed babies feed around 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period. Babies who feed less often might have longer feeds; babies who feed more frequently tend to have shorter feeds.
It’s also important to note that different mothers have different storage capacities. A mother with small breasts will have a smaller storage capacity for breast milk and, therefore, her baby might breastfeed more frequently.
#5. ‘When I express milk with a breast pump, I don’t get very much’
How much milk you are able to express with a breast pump is not a reliable indicator of your breast milk supply.
A baby is much better than a pump at extracting milk from your breasts. Besides, expressing is a skill that needs practice. Even with practice, some mothers who have a sufficient milk supply are not able to yield much milk from a pump.
Babies drink varying amounts of breast milk at each feed and the volume of milk a mother’s breasts make also varies throughout the day. If you are pumping after a nursing session, you are producing milk that is extra to what your baby needs.
If you are expressing with the goal of increasing your milk supply, don’t be disheartened if you are getting lower volumes than you expected. The extra stimulation is still an effective way to increase milk production.
For more tips on expressing breast milk, you can read BellyBelly’s article How To Express Breast Milk Like A Pro | 5 Tips.
#6. ‘My baby will take a bottle after feeding’
Most babies will suck for comfort. Hunger is only one reason why babies like to suck. When something is inserted into a young baby’s mouth, such a dummy or bottle teat, the natural instinct is to suck. When babies suck at the breast, they are in control of how much they drink. This is different from when they drink from a bottle, as 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. When they suck, they still get all the milk, whether they need it 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. This is the reason a baby might drink more milk from a bottle after a breastfeed, even if he is getting enough milk from breastfeeding alone.
#7. ‘My baby is suddenly pulling away from the breast, but still seems hungry’
In the early weeks, it’s common for babies to fall asleep at the breast when the flow has slowed down. After the first month or so, they might not fall asleep at the breast as much, or not at al; instead, they might pull away or cry when the flow of milk slows down.
To avoid this, try gentle massage or breast compressions while you a breastfeeding; this will increase the flow of milk to your baby.
Factors that can affect milk supply
These things can reduce your breast milk supply:
- Having a very sleepy baby
- Scheduling your baby’s feedings or leaving extended periods between nursing sessions
- Prolonged use of nipple shields
- Feeding your baby from only one breast at each feed
- Premature introduction of solid foods
- Previous breast surgeries
- Certain medications, such as birth control pills
- Certain medical conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Other health or anatomical problems.
If any of the above factors apply to you, speak to a lactation consultant about ways to manage low milk supply.
You can also read these great BellyBelly articles about low milk supply:
- Breastfeeding Tips– 9 best Tips For New Mothers
- 7 Best Breastfeeding Books | Our Top Picks (Make sure you own at least one of these, for a quick and easy reference point)
- Breastfeeding: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Confidence
- 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? Do I Have Enough Milk?