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Is my baby getting enough milk? Am I producing enough? How did that Instagram mom pump so much?! For new moms, breastfeeding can feel entirely displacing—you’re dealing with two new bodies (yours and your baby’s) and you’re wracked with uncertainty, stress and self-doubt. If you have more questions than answers (which is totally normal, first of all), or you or your baby are still trying to get the hang of breastfeeding (again, normal!), the first thing to do is to see a lactation consultant—they can help assess whether your supply is indeed low (it may not be—looks can be deceiving and most women make just enough) and, if it is, can offer constructive solutions on how to increase milk supply.
After that, you may be tempted to raid your nearest health store for foods to increase breast milk, but that could cause more problems than it solves, according to Alicia C. Simpson, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and a registered dietitian based in Atlanta, Georgia. In her book, Boost your breastmilk, Simpson cautions that herbal supplements and lactation teas should be treated like medication—they may be “natural,” but they aren’t automatically side effect-free. Simpson offers a decent list of the most well-established lactogenic foods and herbs (aka: galatogogues), based sometimes on research, but most often on anecdotal evidence, that may help increase both the quantity and quality of the breast milk your body makes.
You may have heard that a tall glass of Guinness is the key to healthy breastmilk supply, but Simpson notes that research has shown alcohol can actually inhibit milk production. It’s actually barley, a component of beer, that may be lactogenic. “Barley is the richest dietary source of beta-glucan, a polysaccharide that has been shown to increase prolactin [known] levels in both humans and animals,” Simpson writes. How to use it: Add whole barley to soups, stews, salads and even risotto. Use barley flakes to make milk, or add it to your homemade bread recipe.
When grains are germinated, they release malting enzymes, which converts barley into a sweet, syrupy malt, which also contains lactogenic beta-glucan. Barley malt syrup can be found at health and specialty stores, but make sure it’s 100-percent pure—high-fructose or regular corn syrup is often added to dilute and sweeten it, Simpson writes. How to use it: Add barley malt to sweeten chocolate milk made with unsweetened cocoa, or substitute for maple syrup in baked goods.
Fennel is the vegetable with the white, sweet, licorice-flavoured bulb and thin green fronds. Both the plant and its seed, fenugreek, contain phytoestrogens, Simpson writes, which have long been believed to help milk production along. Fenugreek the herb is kind of a big deal for breastfeeding moms (surely you’ve heard of Mother’s Milk tea) in North America, but it’s also been used for centuries by women in India and parts of the Middle East. Simpson recommends going slowly with fenugreek though: “While it is an incredibly popular herb, it is often used incorrectly, at the wrong dose, and with disregard for its side effects…Clinical studies have tried to identify the exact dosage that exerts therapeutic effects as well as the mechanism by which this herb works to increase milk production, but the evidence is still inconclusive.” She continues that people with type 1 or 2 diabetes, heart disease or nut/legume allergies should consult with their doctor before using fenugreek. The most common side effects: “Diarrhea and a (harmless) maple syrup smell to sweat and urine.” How to use it: Go for the whole food! Fennel is delicious raw, tossed simply with good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It also pairs well with refreshing grapefruit, orange and mint. Its licorice flavour mellows when cooked—it’s really good with roast chicken and fish.
Oats are likely the most well-known breast milk makers. “After barley,” Simpson writes, “oats have a higher concentration of dietary beta-glucan than any other food.” How to use them: Oats are pretty easy to work into your diet—cooked and topped with fruit, in muffins, cookies or crumbles.
Aside from barley and oats, whole wheat and brown rice are also rich in beta-glucan, but have been routinely overlooked in research on lactogenic foods simply because they’re both such obvious dietary staples, Simpson writes. It’s important to note that white flour and white rice simply don’t have the same benefits. How to use them: Swap in whole wheat flour where you can—in breads, pancakes and muffins—and opt for brown rice anywhere you would use white.
High in B vitamins, iron, protein, chromium and selenium, brewer’s yeast is routinely used as a nutritional supplement. But unlike beer-related barley and malt, brewer’s yeast has not yet been studied as a lactogenic food, Simpson writes. Nevertheless, it is commonly recommended as a breast milk booster and is often found in trendy lactation snacks. One caveat: As brewer’s yeast is super bitter and passes readily into breast milk, it may cause gas and fussiness in some infants. How to use it: Small amounts can be used in baked goods; in her book, Simpson offers a pancake recipe with ¼ cup of brewer’s yeast.
This sunny fruit has been used—both raw and cooked in soups—as a galactogogue in Asian cultures for centuries, though it’s only recently been studied, Simpson writes. We still don’t know exactly if, why or how papaya increases breast milk supply. How to use it: Eat papaya raw with yogurt, cereal and other fruit. It’s very good in Thai-inspired soups, salads and noodle dishes.
Other foods that have the potential to increase breast milk production:
Dill Apricots Asparagus Garlic Red beets Sesame seeds Poppy seeds Caraway seeds Anise seeds Coriander seeds
It's all well and good to note all the foods that may help boost milk production, but it's also worth getting to know the short list of items considered antilactogenic—plants, herbs and medications that can decrease milk supply.
You may have been advised to have a beer before nursing to relax, help bring your milk in and improve the quality and quantity of your milk. However, Simpson cautions that alcohol “can block the release of oxytocin, which results in…a decrease the number of letdowns a nursing mother will have in a session.” Don't panic, an occasional glass of wine won’t dry up your supply—Simpson cautions against chronic, long-term alcohol consumption or even one night of heavy drinking, which has been known to result in a rapid drop in supply.
You would have to consume large quantities of any of these herbs in order to see an effect on your milk supply, Simpson writes, but keep in mind that sage is used freely in roasts and holiday meals, parley is spread liberally through salads like tabbouleh, and peppermint can often be found in teas, gums and candies.
Available in supplement form, chasteberry may already sound familiar—it’s a common treatment for PMS symptoms, endometriosis and menopause. It's also often recommended to breastfeeding mothers who have painful swelling and engorgement. “However, chasteberry...acts directly on the pituitary glands and inhibits the secretion of prolactin,” Simpson writes. When prolactin levels drop, milk supply typically tanks with it, she continues. Turmeric, on the other hand, is an herb that can help with inflammation due to engorgement without affecting breastfeeding. Or you could try good old cabbage leaves.