As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), I would love nothing more than to have an herbal remedy I could give women to increase their breastmilk supply. As humans, the desire for a quick fix (especially when we’re exhausted with a newborn!) is something we gravitate towards. Even if we have skepticism, we’re willing to try anything.
You have probably seen suggestions from people online to try a certain tea, lactation cookie, supplement, or tincture to boost their breastmilk supply. However, the reality is that these herbal remedies are not evidence-based and have possible side effects. They are an attempt to fix a symptom without actually getting to the bottom of why the mother is experiencing low supply.
What are galactagogues?
Firstly, let’s cover galactagogues. These are substances that increase breastmilk supply. They can be prescription based such as Motilium, or herbal galactagogues which can be found in capsule form, teas, and cookies. The most commonly used herbs and foods to try to increase supply include Fenugreek, Blessed Thistle, Nettle Leaf, Oatmeal, Brewer’s Yeast, and beer.
Some of these have been used for centuries and have many anecdotal reports supporting their efficacy. However, these foods have limited research and the research that is available is contradictory. For example, a study done in 2011 looking at the effectiveness of Fenugreek tea , and a study from 2013 looking at the effectiveness of Fenugreek capsules  came to different results. As Lactmed summarises regarding Fenugreek, “[e]vidence for a galactagogue effect is mostly anecdotal. A limited number of published studies of low to moderate quality have found mixed results for a galactagogue effect for fenugreek” .
Should I take Fenugreek to boost breastmilk supply?
Don’t get me wrong. There is an argument for trying something that women have been using to increase their supply for centuries. However, it’s important to understand that it’s not evidence-based. And there are possible risks including side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and flatulence with the use of Fenugreek . Caution should also be taken with Fenugreek when giving high doses to women with diabetes or those who are taking Warfarin or other blood thinners.
Other substances such as Blessed Thistle, oatmeal, Brewer’s yeast, and beer have no evidence-based reports to support their use for increasing supply. If you are going to take an herbal supplement it’s important to work with an IBCLC and your doctor or healthcare professional. They can help make sure that it’s not only bringing improvements but also not causing any side effects.
What about my friend who said these herbs helped her?
So what about the women who claim Fenugreek, Blessed Thistle, and the cookies they ate made a difference to their supply? Well, for women who have had a noticeable increase, they would have already had a well-established supply. They may have just needed a bit of a boost. But these herbs are unlikely to help someone with a true low supply. This type of boost could also be reached by using evidence-based methods such as more frequent (and effective) milk removal.
For women with ongoing, chronic low supply issues, herbal supplements, teas, and lactation cookies will probably do nothing. And it can be extremely frustrating and deflating for women in this position who are continually being told to take a herb or eat a cookie to increase supply when the answer may not be in a supplement. Rather she needs a thorough investigation into WHY she has a low supply. So how can this investigation be done?
There are four different possibilities as to why a woman has low supply:
- She has a physiological reason she cannot make enough milk (ie. insufficient glandular tissue, hormonal reasons, etc).
- Her baby cannot effectively and efficiently remove enough milk for her to be able to continue to make enough.
- There was a reason the baby could not breastfeed frequently to remove the milk (such as separation following birth or illness, etc.).
- A combination of the above.
Your best bet is to consult with an IBCLC.
You need your body to have the ability to make enough milk. And your baby needs to have the ability to remove enough milk to make the required amount to exclusively breastfeed your baby. If you have one, or both of these things going on, then taking supplements, herbs, cookies, and teas will be very unlikely to make any sort of difference. I am not telling you this to make you feel hopeless! Quite the opposite! It’s meant to give you hope and clarity about how you can put yourself in the best position to make as much milk as possible.
This can be done with a thorough assessment of an IBCLC. She can help assess if you have anything in your history to indicate that you might have trouble making enough milk regardless of how much is removed from your breasts regularly. She can also assess your baby’s ability to remove your milk effectively and efficiently. If you have pain, discomfort, or your baby takes a long time to breastfeed (over 45-60 minutes every or most feeds), is unsettled, or comes on and off the breast, it is likely that your baby is having difficulty with the latch and will need an oral assessment.
If you’d like to try the herbal supplements or lactation cookies, there are anecdotal reports from women that they can be effective. But for women with true, ongoing, low breastmilk supply, these supplements are unlikely to make any significant difference to your milk supply. Before reaching for the lactation teas and cookies, reach for your phone and seek some help. Get to the bottom of why you are experiencing low supply. And form a plan for moving forward. There are possible solutions to every breastfeeding challenge! As long as you are working with an IBCLC or doctor, trying these supplements aren’t necessarily harmful, but they may not help. But be sure to investigate any underlying cause for low breastmilk supply first.
Turkyılmaz, C., Onal, E., Hirfanoglu, I. M., Turan, O., Koç, E., Ergenekon, E., & Atalay, Y. (2011). The effect of galactagogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 17(2), 139–142. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0090
Reeder, C., Legrand, A., & O’connor-Von, S. K. (2013). The Effect of Fenugreek on Milk Production and Prolactin Levels in Mothers of Preterm Infants. Clinical Lactation, 4(4), 159–165. https://doi.org/10.1891/2158-0722.214.171.124
Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed) [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2006-. Fenugreek. [Updated 2020 Nov 16]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK501779/