One of the common reasons moms introduce formula top-ups, or even stop breastfeeding altogether is because of a (perceived) low breast milk supply. The truth is that very few women truly do not have enough milk. Often parents fail to understand normal breastfeeding patterns, and interpret these as signs of a low milk supply.
Here are the five most common false alarms for low breast milk supply:
Breasts that are soft and not leaking
When you initially start breastfeeding your breasts will feel soft and empty. As a result many women find themselves wondering how baby can be getting any milk.
In fact, your breasts are far from empty – they contain colostrum, which is the very first milk your body produces. It may be small in volume but it packs a nutritional punch. Even a few millilitres of colostrum will be enough to supply baby’s needs at this stage. Colostrum versus ‘normal’ breast milk is like an espresso versus a latte – both are coffee, but the first is far more potent.
Three to four days after birth your ‘normal’ breast milk comes in. This is when full and leaking breasts are common. Most mothers feel more at ease now as they can see that they have milk. In fact, they may have so much milk that all their initial concerns over volume are forgotten - at least for the first few weeks.
The concern about low milk supply often returns in full swing when you wake up one morning, a few weeks after the start of breastfeeding, to find your breasts soft again. Many women will report that their milk has ‘dried up’. This apparent reduction in supply is simply a sign that your milk production is settling and that you are now producing just what your baby needs.
Your baby is feeding frequently
Somewhere someone has set the standard that a good routine for babies includes feeding sessions every 3-4 hours. This expectation is unrealistic for a breastfeeding baby. In fact, many formula-fed babies don’t even last this long between feeds.
Breast milk digests quickly and easily as it’s made to specification for baby’ digestive tract. At the same time a breast baby is also unlikely to overfeed as breastfeeding is hard work and they only take the amount they need. It’s normal for a breastfed baby to feed every 1.5-2 hours in the early months.
Breast babies also cluster feed, meaning that they have a few feedings on top of each other, and then have a longer stretch where they may sleep.
Cluster feedings are especially common in the late afternoon and early evenings, a time of day when one naturally produces less milk. Feeding on demand helps baby to calorie-load for the night, and it stimulates your supply for the night time feeds.
You tried expressing but got very little milk out your breasts
You will never express with a pump what a baby can extract with a good latch. There are many breast pumps on the market and a good quality pump will inevitably yield more milk. However, even with the best quality pump, expressing still needs plenty practise before it’s perfect.
Other factors that influence the volumes that you express include the time of day, the time lapse since your previous feed, whether you are using the pump correctly and simply whether the breast pump has the right flange size for your nipple.
Unless you have been expressing for quite some time and suddenly find that your volume has decreased, you shouldn’t interpret a few bad sessions as a sign of a shortage.
Your baby is fussy and difficult
Whenever a baby is fussy and unsettled it immediately gets blamed on his milk intake. The truth is that there are many reasons why babies fuss and cry.
If your baby is excessively windy and crampy, consider a visit to a chiropractor. This is because a malalignment of the spine can place pressure on the nerves that supply the gut, which can lead to digestive discomfort. Most mothers find an improvement in symptoms after a visit to a chiro. Be sure to ask your clinic sister or a lactation consultant for a referral to a practitioner that has experience in working with babies.
Your baby drank a whole bottle of formula after breastfeeding
The mechanisms of sucking on the breast versus sucking from a bottle are very different. With bottle feeding the milk flows the moment the baby’s mouth creates a vacuum. All he basically needs to do is to swallow.
Most fussy babies will drink milk that is offered so easily, just as most grownups won’t say no to a comfort treat. This does not mean that your milk supply is insufficient.
So how do you know that baby is getting enough?
- Ultimately, the only way to know that baby is getting enough milk is to monitor their weight gain and the number of wet and dirty nappies.
- Your baby should have 5-6 wet and/or dirty nappies in a 24 hour period.
- Your baby should not have lost more than 10% of his body weight on day 3 after delivery, and should be back at his birth weight by day 10-14.
- Baby should gain weight on the curves of a World Health Organisation growth chart designed for breastfeeding.
A last word on breast milk supply
As a society we seem to have lost confidence in our body’s ability to make enough milk for our babies. We question this ability at every turn. The term ‘supply’ in itself implicates a shortage or lack of something.
Breast milk is a bodily fluid like any other. You don’t worry about running out of tears, or out of sweat, do you? Trust your body to make what you need. Although there are some factors that influence your body’s capacity to produce milk, it’s more the exception than the rule. Focus on getting latching right and feeding on demand, and the rest usually sorts itself out. If suspect a problem, do contact a lactation consultant for assistance. Enjoy feeding your baby, the way you were designed to do.
Christine Klynhans is a nursing sister and South African Certified Lactation Consultant (SACLC). She currently works at Parentwood Baby and Family Wellness Centre in Pretoria as a well-baby clinic sister and antenatal teacher. She also has a breastfeeding practice and a Breast Pump Demo Centre. She is passionate about supporting parents on the journey of pregnancy, breastfeeding and the early childhood years. Learn more about Christine Klynhans.