One of the most common questions directed to the Lactation Consultant is how to maintain or increase milk supply. The stress and fatigue from returning to work and continuing to breastfeed can result in a reduced milk supply. Many women find it difficult to make it to the lactation room as often as they need to in order to empty their breasts and maintain their supply. Advertisements for herbal supplements are plentiful and many women find that their friends are reporting success with these supplements. Should you take an herbal supplement to increase your supply?
Herbal remedies thought to assist in the development and maintenance of milk supply are called “galactogogues”. Most herbal galactogogues have been used throughout history as seasoning in foods or herbal supplements in an effort to enhance milk supply. Commonly used herbal galactogogues include fenugreek, goat’s rue, blessed thistle, fennel, and milk thistle. Traditional use of these substances gives us enough information to suggest some efficacy and that they are generally safe. Unfortunately, there is very little scientific data to demonstrate safety and/or effectiveness of these substances. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal remedies as drugs and there is no standardization of dosages. The strength of active ingredient may be more or less, depending on how the herbal supplement was prepared. The ideal dosage for milk supply enhancement has not been established. Although herbal remedies are required to be free from contaminants, unknown harmful substances may be present in the preparation. Herbal teas containing galactogogues are generally safe, but probably do not contain enough of the active ingredient to increase milk supply.
In deciding whether to try use of an herbal galactogogue, it is important to evaluate whether your milk supply is actually low and why it has decreased. Be sure that you are feeding your baby as often as the baby asks to be fed when you are with your baby. When separated from your baby at feeding times, be sure to use a good quality breast pump to empty your breasts thoroughly at least every 3 to 4 hours. Milk production involves complex neurohormonal processes in the body, but the basic principle is that the body makes milk in response to the amount of milk removed. A baby will ask to feed more often when they are signaling the mother’s body to produce more milk. Usually if a mother increases the number of times she is nursing or pumping during the day, her milk supply will increase. Many working mothers find that if they can get some additional rest, their milk supply will improve.
If you are considering the use of an herbal supplement to increase your milk supply, I would encourage you to give your Lactation Consultant a call so you can discuss the possible benefits versus risks for you as an individual. Use of traditional foods containing galactagogues is not harmful and may enhance milk supply. Other herbal galactagogues may be used with caution after correction of other modifiable factors.
Nice, F.J., (2007), Nonprescription drugs for the breastfeeding mother, Amarillo, TX: Hale Publishing.
Marasco, L. ((2008), Increasing your milk supply with galactogogues, Journal of Human Lactation.