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Don’t Give Up: It May Not Be Low Milk Supply

close-up partial view of young mother breastfeeding infant baby

by Leah R. Whitley, IBCLC

International Board Certified Lactation Consultant

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The early stages of breastfeeding can be challenging. So many different new things happening all at once. Sometimes new mothers experience issues that they confuse with low milk supply. Although it is possible, it is actually pretty rare. There are several other factors that can explain the challenges moms face during breastfeeding, all of which are normal. Before you give up on breastfeeding, make sure to educate yourself on these several fixable issues. Perceived Insufficient Milk Supply Perceived insufficient milk supply is one of the most common reasons women do not meet their breastfeeding goals. Although they are producing enough, some mothers feel as if their output… Read More

The early stages of breastfeeding can be challenging. So many different new things happening all at once. Sometimes new mothers experience issues that they confuse with low milk supply. Although it is possible, it is actually pretty rare. There are several other factors that can explain the challenges moms face during breastfeeding, all of which are normal. Before you give up on breastfeeding, make sure to educate yourself on these several fixable issues.

Perceived Insufficient Milk Supply

Perceived insufficient milk supply is one of the most common reasons women do not meet their breastfeeding goals. Although they are producing enough, some mothers feel as if their output is decreasing. This begins the cycle that leads to more formula feeding and less breastfeeding, which in turn will decrease the amount of breastmilk your body is making. The more you breastfeed, the more your body will make for your baby, so don’t start supplementing until you know for certain that your baby’s nutritional needs aren’t being met by you (because they probably are).

Weight Loss

It is important to know that all newborns will lose weight, typically 7-10% after birth. The elevated weight comes from babies absorbing amniotic fluid before birth. Laboring mothers who received large amounts of IV fluids from an induction or C-section experience weight loss on the higher end. Parents should only be concerned with weight loss above 10% or losing weight more than 3-4 days after birth. Naturally, if new parents are not aware of these normal ranges of weight loss, they become concerned that the baby is not eating enough. They typically begin formula supplementation, which means less breast stimulation from breastfeeding, which in turn drives down milk supply.

Feeding Behaviors

Newborns have an innate desire to suck. Their need to suck is greater than their hunger because this action is designed to bring in a full milk supply. After birth, the breasts need a lot of stimulation for full milk production. A normal newborn baby will breastfeed ten or more times daily. They typically will cluster feed at night and give longer stretches in-between feeds during the day. There is no pattern. They may come on for a quick snack, or Thanksgiving meal. The first few weeks, the feeding pattern is unpredictable. When they grow older and breastfeeding is better established, it is easy to anticipate when they will feed. Their feeds will become more efficient, but it takes time to get there.

Many moms interpret this normal newborn breastfeeding behavior as an indication that they have low milk supply. On the second or third night, when the baby is fussy and cluster feeding all night long (which is normal behavior), a mother may think “She must be hungry, I’m not sure if she is getting enough.” She may feel the need to supplement, confusing a problem with a normal, healthy, and needed process.

Pumping Volumes

Breastfeeding and pumping are two different games. Pumping will not show how much a baby is getting when breastfeeding. Nor will pumping accurately show how much milk a mother is making. Pumping is required if a mother is unable to breastfeed, or when she is separated from her baby. However, pumping is not a perfect substitution for breastfeeding. There are many things that will affect the amount of milk a woman is able to express: the time of day, how soon the mother pumps after breastfeeding, the age of the baby, how well her body responds to the pump, and the type of pump are just some of the factors that will affect the volume of milk expressed. Breastfeeding is largely hormonal. A woman’s body will more readily release and produce milk for a baby than a machine.

Professionals commonly experience a mother who is unsure of how much the baby is eating when breastfeeding, so she will pump and bottle feed. Contrarily, when a baby is breastfeeding well, they will do a much better job of producing and removing milk. They will get more than the mother would have been able to pump in the same period.

New mothers pumping within the first two days of birth would be better doing something more productive. The first milk produced, colostrum, is thick and does not pump well. If pumping is required shortly after birth because for some reason a baby is not able to breastfeed, expect only drops (if anything) to come out. At this point new mothers are pumping for stimulation to encourage the body to produce milk. Moms should not expect to express large volumes this early.

Family and Friends

Well-meaning family, not aware of the signs and nuances of healthy breastfeeding, can unintentionally undermine a mother’s confidence, which may impact her breastfeeding goals. When everything is going well, babies love to breastfeed. They get a surge of oxytocin (the love hormone) when they breastfeed. They get reassurance, comfort and good vibes when breastfeeding. A breastfeeding baby will feed very differently than a bottle-fed baby. Small babies want to latch frequently. This constant stimulation is what a mother’s body needs for a full milk supply.

Those who are accustomed to bottle-fed babies may not understand these nuances. A baby who feeds frequently may be interpreted as “using the mother as a pacifier.” Cluster feeding can be viewed as a baby who is “not getting enough.” Professionals see many cases of very prepared and educated mothers becoming unnerved and doubting themselves when loved ones make comments that question if their breastfeeding plans were working.

All these factors have a common theme: the more a mother understands about natural and normal breastfeeding behaviors, the better equipped she is to be successful and reach her personal breastfeeding goals. At the end of the day, if a mother is struggling with breastfeeding, or has questions, it is best to seek out professional help to determine if there is a problem and ultimately find a solution.