What You Need to Know About Your Milk Supply

Young baby nursing

For women around the world, breastfeeding is an important way to feed their babies. It offers incredible health benefits for both moms and infants. But for those who want to breastfeed yet struggle with low supply, the topic of breastfeeding is fraught with emotion. 

"When breastfeeding doesn't go as women hoped, there are so many emotions tied to that," says pediatrician and lactation consultant Ilse Larson, M.D., I.B.C.L.C. "I want women to know that they're not alone, and there are resources to help them meet their goals for feeding their infant." 

What causes low supply? 

There are certainly medical conditions that can cause low milk production, but the good news is that these are rare. 

"Most women, with the right counseling and support, can make enough milk for their babies," says Dr. Larson. The keys to avoiding low supply for the majority of women are to practice lots of skin-to-skin time with your infant after birth, focus on frequent feeding and milk removal in the early postpartum period, and seek help quickly if you experience breastfeeding problems. 

How do I know if my supply is low? 

The most accurate sign of low supply is abnormal infant weight gain. Your pediatrician will monitor your baby's weight and support you in solving the problem. 

This means that if your baby is steadily gaining weight, your supply is probably just fine. There are a few parts of normal feeding that women may misinterpret as low supply. For example, it takes a while for your production to regulate, so at the beginning you may feel engorged and even leak. Over time, this subsides. You may worry that you don't have enough milk anymore, when really you have just the right amount for your baby. If you're concerned, talk to your health care provider or a lactation consultant. 

How do I boost my supply? 

"Breasts work on supply and demand," says Dr. Larson. "The more often you empty them, the more milk you will make." So the most important and effective way to boost your supply is to feed your baby – early and often. 

If your baby has trouble latching or if you are separated, then make sure to pump or hand-express milk regularly. 

You may have read about supplements and foods to boost milk production, like fenugreek, lactation cookies, oatmeal, or beer, to name a few. Dr. Larson emphasizes that the research behind all of these options is relatively weak. That said, most of them are totally safe to try as part of your healthy diet. 

"Beer is the only one I would recommend avoiding," says Dr. Larson. "Some believe that barley helps with milk production but the alcohol, besides finding its way into your baby, decreases supply and would negate any boosting effects of the barley." 

Is it worthwhile to keep breastfeeding if I have to supplement with formula? 

Dr. Larson says that it absolutely is. "If breastfeeding is important to you and your family, it's worthwhile. There are health benefits for you and your baby in continuing to breastfeed that aren't negated by supplementing with formula," she says. 

She adds that if breastfeeding is not what you choose or if it is not possible for you and your baby, there are other effective ways to feed, bond with, and care for your baby. 

"I'm a mom myself, so I totally get how tough this can be," says Dr. Larson. "We're here to provide resources and support. It's why I love what I do."