How to increase breast milk supply
There are a lot of products out there that promise to “boost milk supply”. Drinks, powders, cookies, herbs … and the demand for such products has increased significantly over the last decade.
These products contain ingredients that are referred to as ‘galactagogues’. Some common ones are oats, dark leafy greens, fennel, garlic, chickpeas, nuts, ginger, fenugreek, and papaya.
As tasty as some of these are (and promising for mamas struggling through the early days of breastfeeding), there’s little research to back up the use of specific foods or ingredients to actually increase the physical volume of breastmilk. In fact, to date, there aren’t any adequate long-term clinical trials on the use of galactagogues to increase breast milk volume.
At a mechanical level, breastfeeding is simply supply and demand. The more you express milk, the more you have available. Whether this is through manual expression, breast pump, or nursing your baby - the more you use, the more you make. There are other factors to look at when having difficulty breastfeeding such as latch, tongue-tie, dehydration, engorgement which, once remedied, can make breastfeeding much easier and ‘successful.’ If you are having trouble breastfeeding, seek out the support of a lactation consultant to uncover and fix the deeper issue.
The good news?
Those foods that everyone claims to increase milk supply? They’re often foods that increase our ‘feel good’ or ‘love’ hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone essential for pushing breastmilk out of your body or the ‘let down’ mechanism. So while there isn’t any sound evidence so support using galactagogues to actually increase the amount of milk in your breast, eating them may cause an increase in oxytocin and, subsequently, the availability of more milk for your baby!
To put it simply:
Comfort foods -> happy hormones -> leaky boobs
More good news?
There have been studies showing the psychological effects of using galactagogues with breastfeeding mothers. Again, the foods themselves don’t actually increase the amount of milk produced, but the perceived benefits of using them (especially fenugreek) were effective in enhancing breastfeeding adequacy. So basically, the placebo effect is hard at work with anything that says “boost breastmilk supply!”
Another thing to note - the reason there’s not enough evidence to support the use of galactagogues is because it’s really difficult to get around the ethical issues surrounding clinical trials on both pharmaceutical and herbal supplements in breastfeeding mothers. Would you sign up for a trial that may have a harmful effect on your breastmilk and your baby? No. So while there’s no sound evidence from clinical trials to make the recommendation to use these products, there’s also no telling - they might actually be working! Chances are, it’s mostly psychological, but without evidence either way, we need more studies on this important subject so educators can better support breastfeeding women.
In the meantime, have at oatmeal lactation cookie or a yummy lactation smoothie (grab a recipe here)! They’re delicious and the feel good hormones turned on by a warm tasty cookie can help release some breast milk for your babe!
Bazzano, A. N., Hofer, R., Thibeau, S., Gillispie, V., Jacobs, M., & Theall, K. P. (2016). A Review of Herbal and Pharmaceutical Galactagogues for Breast-Feeding. The Ochsner journal, 16(4), 511–524.
Sim, T. F., Hattingh, H. L., Sherriff, J., & Tee, L. B. (2015). The Use, Perceived Effectiveness and Safety of Herbal Galactagogues During Breastfeeding: A Qualitative Study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(9), 11050–11071. doi:10.3390/ijerph120911050