The epidemic of mothers suffering from insufficient milk is strangely one which is concentrated only in the Western world among comparatively well nourished women with access to good quality foods and supplements.
Why then is it such a frequently reported reason for women to stop breastfeeding?
There has been plenty of research which has shown that even when a mothers diet is hugely lacking in nutritional foods, even during periods of famine, mothers are still typically able to make and produce all the milk their baby needs. It appears then, that the issue with insufficient milk which troubles Western women so, is about more than their bodies failing to do their job, as so many believe and blame themselves for.
Instead it is a problem with our culture, the way we treat birth and the way we perceive breastfeeding should look.
Lets look at some of the reasons why a mother might have insufficient milk:
Separation after birth. The baby’s urge to suckle is at is very strongest 20 minutes after birth, yet this opportunity is so frequently missed. Babies being taken for unnecessary monitoring, checks and other unneeded practices which interfere with that crucial time immediately after the birth, mean that it can be hours before the mother and baby get to spend some time relaxing together and establishing the breastfeeding relationship.
This time of separation can create a multitude of complications for breastfeeding.
Fear or anxiety. We are told breastfeeding is complicated and difficult. Before we even get started we are saturated with stories of other mothers failures, advised to get bottles and formula supplies “just in case” and undermined in every which way. We start off expecting to fail, or to have to top up at the very least, and this creates uncertainty within us.
We are scared we can’t do it. And wouldn’t you know it, fear and anxiety can be the very thing that prevents us from succeeding. For milk to flow freely, we need to feel relaxed. Stress can hugely affect a mother’s let down, and the more her milk doesn’t come, the more stressed she becomes. It it a vicious cycle.
Short infrequent feeds. There are two ways to feed a baby. Short and frequent feeds, spaced every 10-20 minutes apart. Or much longer, but less frequent feeds spaced an hour or two apart. These both enable the baby to get his fill of both fore-milk and hind-milk. But when we combine short feeds with infrequent feeds as so often happens, a baby does not get quality milk.
What happens is that the baby just gets the thinner fore-milk, which may quench his thirst, but will not have the fatty goodness of the hind-milk to fill his tummy. After the fore-milk runs out, the hind-milk is the next to come forward. If you feed again quickly, every 20 minutes or less, the baby will have a good and constant supply of nutritionally dense, satisfying milk. But if you only feed for a short time and then wait for several hours before offering the breast again, what happens is that the hind-milk is reabsorbed into the mother’s body, and the baby gets only fore-milk the next short feed too.
He never gets that necessary hind-milk, and this is when we find unsatisfied, unhappy babies and when mothers decide that top ups are the only way to keep him happy. It isn’t that she hasn’t got the milk, it is that he hasn’t had a chance to get the good stuff! Babies need both fore-milk and hind-milk, and short infrequent feeds do not enable them to get this.
Scheduled and supplemented feeding. These both tie in with the previous point. If you supplement your feeding with formula top ups, you are undermining your body and preventing your baby from accessing that amazing hind-milk. When you schedule feeds, even when they are long feeds, you are listening to the clock rather than the baby. The baby knows exactly what he needs and will communicate that to you if you listen. But when you hold him off for another hour or two or three, you are in effect, withholding food and creating a very hungry baby.
The more you feed your baby, the more milk your body will make to meet his need. When you listen to the clock rather than the baby, your body produces less milk. In addition to this, if you wait until your baby is absolutely starving before offering the breast, he will likely be utterly frantic, have a harder time latching and be very fussy at the breast. Your let down might come much faster than it would if you were emptying the breast regularly and this may cause him to cough, splutter and have terrible tummy ache and wind after each feed.
Lack of understanding about normal feeding habits. One of the biggest problems and most common reasons mothers believe they have insufficient milk is that they simply don’t understand what normal, natural breastfeeding looks like. We are fed an image of four hourly feeds, we have no idea of the reality we will be facing, no knowledge or understanding of cluster feeding and natural milk stimulating.
A baby will go through many growth spurts in the first year or so, and during these growth spurts it is very natural and common for them to cluster feed. This involves them feeding very frequently, often for very long periods of time. I once fed my newborn son for 9 hours straight, only stopping every now and then to use the bathroom or to get a drink.
This cluster feeding is such an important process, not just for giving him what he needs to nourish him through the growth spurt, but also for telling the mothers body to make more milk for her growing baby. Nature has worked this out just fine. When we undermine this process by sticking a dummy in the baby’s mouth instead of a nipple, by topping them up with formula, we unwittingly complicate the process.
To mothers who have never been taught the natural process of breastfeeding, it is little wonder that they become fearful and decide they can’t satisfy their baby. They can’t understand why the baby wants to feed again so soon, and they feel as if the baby is sucking and sucking because they are not getting enough. It really throws their confidence and this leads back to point number one when stress brings in more issues still.
Rationalising a desire to formula feed with excuses about milk supply. It is hard to admit that really, deep down, you just don’t want to breastfeed. You know it is what is best for your baby – It’s impossible to miss that message – but for some reason, you just don’t enjoy it and don’t want to continue. So you look for reasons to stop, and you find them easily. Formula feeding may not be the best choice for the baby, but sometimes for personal reasons, it is the mothers choice. That’s OK. But own it. Don’t perpetuate the myth that it’s impossible, and don’t scare other mothers out of trying. Just say, I chose to formula feed, because that is what I’m comfortable with.
The best way to prevent complications with insufficient milk is to have immediate skin to skin with baby after birth, to relax and trust in your body, after all, you were able to grow a whole person, why would your body not allow you to continue nurturing him? To feed little and often, or long and less often, and to avoid top ups and nipple substitutes.
How to determine which feeding frequency is best for your baby is very simple. Just offer the breast whenever your baby cries and let him communicate his needs to you. Follow your baby’s lead and he will regulate his own intake.
And for that very small percentage of mothers who do genuinely have milk supply issues, this article is not meant as a dismissal of what you are going through. I can only imagine how tough it is to do everything in your power to feed your child, and still not be able to up your supply.
For some mothers insufficient milk is a very real problem and I am not at all trying to undermine your experience. This article is intended to dispel the myth that it is a common issue affecting vast numbers of women in the Western world. It isn’t.
If you do have a low milk supply and are looking for ways to boost it, these things may help:
- Meditate and relax fully before attempting a feed
- Mothers milk tea
- Make your rest and nutritional needs a priority
- Pump between nursing sessions
- Supplements: Blessed thistle, Fenugreek, alfalfa
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