Joey: If he doesn't like you, then this is all just a moo point.
Rachel: Huh. A moo point?
Joey: Yeah, it's like a cow's opinion, you know, it just doesn't matter. It's "moo".
Breastfeeding is wonderful for the body, but terrible for the mind…if you struggle with milk supply. We, as moms, are willing to go through crazy lengths for our babies — especially when it comes to nourishing them with the precious (said in the voice of Gollum) breastmilk. But how far is too far?
I thought I was one of the lucky ones. I’d heard about how hard it can be to breastfeed. Being the paranoid person that I am, I even consulted a lactation consultant before Charley was born just in case I had issues.
But the moment she latched on, I thought, “I did it. I’m a breastfeeding mama! From here on out, it’s smooth sailing.”
That all changed when I went on a 3 day trip (without Charley) when she was 7 1/2 months.
Even though I brought three pumps — my electric pump and two handheld pumps for when I was on the go. Even though I dutifully pumped every 3-4 hours at the expense of leaving the fun, and a good night’s sleep. And even though I went so far as to pump in the bathroom bar at the rooftop of the W, only to have a drunk girl walk in on me and a long line of other drunk girls staring me down, wondering why I was hogging the stall for so long…
My supply STILL plummeted.
I got back from my trip, SO excited to hold my girl in my arms again and nurse her to sleep. But to my dismay, the milk would not come. She nursed and nursed and nursed, and finally got very tired of waiting (read: cried and thrashed for 15 minutes), and gave up on me.
I was crushed.
But I was determined not to give up. I would crack the code and get it back. And I was willing to try ANYTHING.
Thus began my dark journey down the “Low Milk Supply” black hole. Here are the 12 things I attempted to get it back up, and the one thing that really worked.
1. Consult a Lactation Consultant
Lactation Consultants are the holy grail of breastfeeding assistance. These women know their stuff and they're amazingly knowledgable…when it comes to early breastfeeding. But when I came to them with my issue, they were kind of stumped. So you've never had a problem before? Nope. And you pumped every 3 hours when you left? Yep. Then it should come back. Just pump more.
Three different consultants and three variations on the same answer later, I thought I was a lost cause. Overall, not a great experience. It only made me want to take matters into my own hands. Next!
2. Take a nursing vacation
Of all the tips I was given, this one cracks me up the most. A nursing vacation means that you spend the day in bed with your baby, ideally shirtless (for skin-to-skin contact), cuddling and snuggling till your heart is — and your breasts are — full. Maybe this works with a younger, non-crawling baby. MAYBE. But I know few people in this day and age who have the patience (and time) to snuggle all day long. Nonetheless, I tried it. It was cute for about three minutes. And then Charley booked it to the end of the bed and I had to catch her mid-air. After about 12 more tries of this, I gave up. Overall, the whole experience reminded me of when I tried to meditate and only got more anxiety about the fact that I wasn’t relaxing.
3. Pump on one side while she feeds on the other
When you pump on one side, inevitably, milk will come out on the other. So I figured, why don't I just manually pump one boob, while she's nursing on the other, and the milk will come out faster. BRILLIANT…in theory. Yes, it is possible to help her get milk out this way. But when you're trying to pump with one hand, and hold your baby in the other, you realize you have no hands left to keep her from kicking and grabbing the pump. Overall, this was a very stressful experience. Fail.
4. Feed her a bottle, then follow with the breast
Part of the problem with continuing to put in the “demand” for the milk, is that my girl had worn out her patience with waiting for my let-down. After all, for three days, all she got was the bottle from her dad. When I would try to nurse her, she’d get restless after a minute or two when nothing came out — and eventually she’d get REALLY pissed and refuse to take the breast at all. One solution is to start with a bottle (with half of what she needs), and then switch to the breast when she’s less restless. This actually did work to an extent. Not only was she less stressed, but the pressure was also off me to “produce.” The more relaxed I was, the sooner my milk came. I call this a semi-win. It didn't solve the whole problem, and sometimes I think she would get frustrated and confused why there were so many "nipples" coming at her at once and just give up all together. But overall, a good tip to try.
5. Take Rescue Remedy
This is another way of saying RELAX. Too much stress can lead to problems with let-down, a dive in milk supply, and early weaning. Check, check, and check! I felt like I was stuck in this vicious cycle. The less milk I produced, the more I stressed, and the less milk I produced. Enter Rescue Remedy. A blend of flower essences concocted by a doctor to help you deal with stress. This product was a recommendation from a lactation consultant, and though it was on the pricier side, I figured – I can always use something to help me stress less, right? Meh. I'm a big believer in essential oils and herbs for better health, but maybe I needed something a little stronger in this situation. Plus, adding one more thing to my pre-feeding routine ironically stressed me out. Ha.
6. Eat oatmeal (and other galactagogues)
Oh, the oatmeal. I really put the “ish” in Paleo-ish during this oh-so-stressful time. Everybody and their mother will tell you that oatmeal will help with your milk supply. It’s what they call a galactagogue. A food that is meant to increase milk supply. So I ate it. I ate it with flaxseed (also a galactagogue). With brewer’s yeast (galactagoguge). With fennel (galactagoguge). With almonds (galactagogue). I ate it cold. I ate it baked into cookies. Every day. Sometimes two times a day.
Other galactaoguges that I did not put in my oatmeal, but did eat frequently include: dark leafy greens, garlic, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, ginger, papaya, cumin seeds, anise seeds, and turmeric (source).
I never actually measured my output with and without oatmeal, so I can’t say for sure whether it did or did not work. But my guess is that it has more of a placebo effect than an actual effect. It calmed me to make my galactagogues concoction every morning. It made me feel like I had some sort of control over the situation.
7. Drink a Guinness
Ha! I know this should probably be in the galactagogues category, but it was such a rock bottom moment in my milk recession that I had to give it its own number. As you know, I generally follow a Paleo diet. I let things slide here and there, but typically beer is not one of those things. But when your doctor tells you to drink a Guinness and relax, you figure it’s a damn good excuse to drink one. The barley in beer is a polysaccharide — a carbohydrate that stimulates prolactin (that key hormone that stimulates milk production) (source). Not to mention, there’s yeast in beer, which is — surprise! — a galactagogue.
As soon as I figured this out, I threw Charley in the Ergobaby and marched over to Mariano’s to pick up a case of beer. I called my husband on the way there and told him that we’re drinking Guinness tonight (he was very supportive).
That night, I sat there with my pump sucking the little milk I had left out of me, with a Guinness in one hand and a bowl of oatmeal in the other. Honestly, the whole thing felt weird to me. Alcohol and breastfeeding are not supposed to go hand in hand. And it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I thought it would be. It seems as though this girl agrees with me.
8. Take Supplements
Just like foods, certain supplements are reported to have a positive effect on your milk supply. The most popular one is fenugreek. Head to Target or any major grocery store and you’ll probably find this or this on the shelves. I bought both of them. And then a lactation consultant told me to watch out for fenugreek because it could also have the opposite effect on milk supply. Are you serious?
I immediately stopped taking them, and looked for alternative options. That's when a friend told me about this store in Chicago that specializes in breastfeeding moms (Ya. A WHOLE store). The nicest woman showed me to the holy grail of supplements called Liquid Gold that so many of her customers “Swear by!” She was the first piece of positive news I’d heard yet. I hung on to her every word when she told of the countless other mamas coming back and thanking her for their large boost in milk supply.
Oh boy! I thought. This is it. This is what’s going to get me back on track. I started taking the recommended two tablets, three times a day, went to their website (hilarious, great marketing), and ordered the other two supplements that they sell — each one a different combination of herbs, intended on working better for different people.
I waited seven days to see a result. And still, no dice. I switched it up to the Pump Princess, hoping this particular concoction would have a better effect on me. Still nothing. Not to mention the fact that I tested my milk while taking these and was appalled by the herby-dirty taste it took on from taking these supplements. I pushed them to the back of my medicine cabinet and hoped they would serve me on the next go-round.
9. Avoid Certain Foods
Just as galactagoues have a reputation for increasing milk supply, other foods have a reputation to decrease it. On that sh*t list is:
- Spearmint (watch out for Altoids!)
- Cabbage leaves (works wonders for engorgement, but obviously avoid if your supply is low)
- Beer (contradictory to #5, I know).
As somebody who uses herbs liberally in her everyday cooking, I got real simple and stuck to salt and pepper. In addition, I said goodbye to my favorite hummus (sage being one of its ingredients), avoided peppermint tea, and donated the leftover Guinness to my husband. Did this make a difference? Probably not. It just added to my stress level, feeling like I had to constantly watch what I ate.
10. Go to an acupuncturist
I’m a big believer in acupuncture. It has helped me through serious back pain, anxiety, and possibly even improved my fertility. As the practice is meant to improve blood flow, it made sense to me that it could help move other fluid (milk) through my body. Not to mention, acupuncture can also help with anxiety — which I believe was having a big impact on my supply as well.
I walked into my acupuncturist office like a bat out of hell. I was talking a million miles a minute, but I wasn’t saying much. She, of course, stayed completely calm throughout my explanation. And before I knew it, I was lying on her table with pins in my ears, my back, and my shoulders. Within minutes, I entered a tranquil state. I was so relaxed that I convinced myself she must’ve slipped drugs into my waiting room tea.
I returned back home, dazed and confused, with Chinese medicine and an essential oil tincture in my purse. I was instructed to break the herbal capsules into hot water and drink it as a tea three times a day. The oil, I was to rub on my breasts before breastfeeding.
The results? The acupuncture did indeed help to relax me. And if I could’ve gone regularly, I believe could’ve helped in the long run. But unfortunately, insurance still has not gotten around to covering alternative treatments such as Chinese medicine, so weekly visits were out of the question. I did not notice an increase in my milk supply with the herbs, so my acupuncturist upped the ante and gave me something a little more potent. I took it dutifully three times a day.
Fast forward three weeks after me obsessing over my Chinese tea (I had anxiety if I didn’t have it because I truly believed my milk supply would disappear if I stopped drinking it), and I realized that the attachment was getting a little out of hand. When I ran out the third time, I didn’t make the 15-minute trek to my acupuncturist to get a refill. I was slowly letting go…
11. Power Pump
This was the mother of all tips. But it was also a Mother something-else. My good friend who had struggled with breastfeeding from day one had tried every trick in the book. When I came to her desperate for help, she sent me this link, and warned me: it works, but it is a soul sucking activity. She was right.
Power pumping is meant to mimic cluster feeding. In other words, pump, stop, pump again, stop, pump again, etc. You do this for an hour, following the schedule 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off, 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, 10 minutes on.
As much as I hate pumping, I was willing to try anything at this point. At first, I went a little crazy, and aimed for two power pumping sessions a day. After about 4 days, I saw results. Real results. I’m talking a three ounce difference. I was addicted. So I kept at it. After a week I cut the morning power pump out, but continued doing the evening one after she went to bed. I would join my husband on the couch and we’d watch TV with the “eh eh eh eh” of the Medela in the background…for FIVE MONTHS straight.
Long story short. It works. But it’s an un-sustainable soul-sucking practice that no one should do as long as I did.
12. Let go
When my supply dropped, I did not take it well (obviously). I found myself forgetting to breathe on most days. I woke up every morning hoping for full, leaky boobs, and would cry when I saw small, deflated ones. And after a particularly rough night when Charley refused to take milk from me, my husband found me on the kitchen floor curled up into a ball, rocking back and forth, bawling my eyes out.
I perceived my milk supply as part of my identity as a mother — it was how Charley and I bonded. No matter how moody she was, nursing was always a calm, happy time. Before she was eating solids, I was literally her only source of food. And she ate every two hours so I had serious anxiety about ever leaving her for longer than that time.
I did not know how to be a mother to Charley without breastfeeding.
Sometimes, though, you need to hit rock bottom to get back up again. After weeks and weeks of wallowing, self-pity, and self-doubt, I stopped. Because I realized that I was making this all about me, and not about Charley. I had to be strong for her. So that's what I did. Every time the milk wouldn't come, I would just repeat over and over "Be strong for Charley."
Today, I am happy to report I am pump-free, supplement-free, oatmeal-free, and carefree (when it comes to breastfeeding, that is). Charley now takes a formula I am very happy to give her in place of my milk (It's base is Mt. Capra goat milk, but essentially is a recipe that I make myself using these ingredients).
Here's the kicker. We're still breastfeeding five months later. Not very often. Just enough to put her to bed at night and sometimes to nap during the day. I can't believe I still have milk without doing any of the afformentioned things. If this experience has taught me anything, it's listen to your body. It knows what it's supposed to do.
I share this becuase I hope somebody out there reads this, realizes how CRAZY one could go trying to "get your supply back," and lets go a whole lot sooner than I did. Maybe you lose your supply, maybe you don't. Whatever happens, it's going to be okay.