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When You "Don't Have Enough Milk"

Shortly after I began my own journey of breastfeeding, people started sharing with me stories of women, either themselves or friends, who “couldn’t” breastfeed because they didn’t “have enough milk.” At first I simply joined in the sorrow and horror, thinking this or that poor woman’s inability was an unfortunate fluke. But as time went on, and I heard more and more of these stories, I began to see some common threads. I also realized that it was more of an epidemic than a few flukes. If you’re a breastfeeding mother and have just discovered that your baby isn’t getting enough, PLEASE be encouraged. Don’t give up. Get help now.

In my experience, low milk supply is an extremely common reason for women’s giving up nursing. Despite the recent resurgence of support for breastfeeding, we still live in a culture that has been grossly affected by bottlefeeding ideas, and high on that list of ideas is the notion that many women aren’t able to produce enough milk for their babies. The belief that so many women fundamentally can’t breastfeed becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as women who are faced with challenges just assume that they are one of these poor mommies who “can’t” and throw in the towel, when in reality, they could have been entirely successful if they had gotten help.

Women are willing to give up on their breasts extremely easily, far more easily than they would give up on other body parts like, say, their teeth. We would all find it sadly ridiculous for someone to say, “Wow, my teeth are full of cavities. I guess I’m not meant to use my teeth. I’d better have a feeding tube put in so I can bypass chewing.” Most of us would say, “Why are you giving up? Why don’t you go to the dentist and find out what’s wrong?” We should apply the same logic to our breasts. They are body parts, and like any other body part, if they aren’t doing their job, something’s wrong. For your baby’s sake (and your own), find out what the problem is.

It would really be very surprising if women’s bodies were as dysfunctional as they appear to be in this day and age. Think about it. Before formula, if a mother couldn’t produce enough milk, her baby died. Don’t you think the Lord would have designed a system that would work a lot more often than the one we seem to have? He would have. And He did. True, we live in a fallen world. And true, there actually are a few women with deformed breasts who really can’t produce enough milk. But they are very, very few and far between. (If your breasts look remotely normal, you probably aren’t one of them.) For 99.9% of women, breastfeeding challenges are not insurmountable. Don’t give up. Get help now.

A major issue is that it is most often the baby’s doctor who first recognizes that there’s a problem. (Praise the Lord for well-baby checks!) But unfortunately, the doctor equally often does something extremely unhelpful. After seeing that the baby is not getting enough, he immediately recommends formula. Why is this so unhelpful? Well, quite simply, breastfeeding is a supply and demand process. If your baby is getting formula, his demand for breastmilk will go down, and therefore, unless you are undertaking serious measures to prevent it, your supply will go down even further. What usually happens next is that women give up entirely. Supplementation, unless carefully managed, is the absolute worst thing you can to for low milk supply. Sadly, an awful lot of women assume that since a doctor told them to supplement, there must really be no other option.

You may be shocked to learn that your baby’s doctor is most likely not an expert on breastfeeding. (See this article for more information.) A pediatrician is an expert on childhood diseases, and most importantly for you right now, on infant wellness and proper growth and development, so you should absolutely take the news seriously that your baby is in trouble. However, a pediatrician is rarely in a position to tell you what to do about your low milk supply. Pediatricians are not specialists in breastfeeding. In fact they receive very little training in medical school on this topic. Some may have educated themselves, of course, but you cannot assume that just because the person is a doctor that he is qualified to diagnose and treat your milk supply problem. Indeed, pediatricians rarely try to treat low milk supply. Instead, they usually just give the common advice: “Supplement with formula.” Or even, “Switch to formula entirely.” This is not a treatment. It’s a bypass.

Now it may be the case that problems have gone unchecked for so long that by now you are producing almost no milk at all, and that your baby is truly starving to death. In that case, of course, you’re going to have to supplement. In fact, even if things are a lot less grim, you still might have to supplement some. But that is why it is imperative that you get the help you need to manage the supplementation properly so that you do not lose your milk supply completely, and so that you have a chance to build it back up again. I do not know your situation and cannot presume to tell you what the best treatment is in your unique circumstance. However, there are people who can tell you what to do. Don’t give up. Get help now.

Your first step should be to contact La Leche League . This organization is one of the world’s foremost authorities on breastfeeding, and offers support free of charge. The leaders you contact are mothers who have undergone extensive training (much, much more than the average pediatrician). They will be able to tell you if you can tackle the problem on your own with their help, or if things are so grave that you need to see a professional lactation consultant. A professional lactation consultant is someone with the letters “IBCLC” after her name. That stands for International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Just as you would be leery of a “doctor” who was not an M.D., you should be leery of “lactation consultants” who are not “IBCLC.” The world is, unfortunately, full of them. There are a lot of “credentials” that you can get after attending a very short (as in one week) course. These women may not have the expertise you need. Find someone qualified to help you.

Why am I encouraging you to fight so hard to protect your milk supply? Formula is not good for your baby. It lowers his immune system. It causes his gut to stop functioning normally, making him prone to allergies. It even lowers his IQ and raises his risk of developing certain cancers, high cholesterol, obesity; and of dying of SIDS. You can learn more about all this here. Switching from breastmilk to formula is the equivalent of switching from fresh, organic produce, prepared by a gourmet chef to eating all meals at McDonald’s and popping a multivitamin. Formula is a processed food based either on highly allergenic cows’ milk or equally allergenic soy, with nutrients added in to mimic breastmilk. Problem is, we don’t even know all the good things in breastmilk. We’re discovering more and more all the time. So how could we possibly get all the necessary nutrients into a man made formula? Further, there are living cells in breast milk that we know benefit the baby’s immune system that we have no hope of getting into canned or powdered formulas. Formula use should only be temporary and only a last resort. Make a commitment to your baby that you will provide him with the best nutrition possible. Don’t give up. Get help now.

Breastfeeding has benefits for you, too. Every 12 months you breastfeed, your breast cancer risk is reduced by 4.3%. (Learn more here.) Breastfeeding also reduces your risk of ovarian cancer, lowers your stress level, increases your bone density, and helps you lose weight. (Learn more here). Make a commitment to yourself, too, to do what’s best for your own health.

Now if you lost your milk supply long ago with a previous baby, please don’t read this and feel guilty. As mothers, we all do the best we can with the information we have at the time. My purpose in writing this is not to make you feel guilty about the past, only resolved about the future.

Don’t take dire pronouncements lying down. Take your baby’s doctor seriously. Believe that your baby is in trouble. But don’t just supplement. Find out what’s wrong. For your baby’s sake, for your own sake: Don’t give up. Get help now.

Note: This post is not to be considered a substitute for the professional judgment of a medical doctor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.

7 comments to When You "Don't Have Enough Milk"

  • I agree. I was shocked to discover how many women I know gave up because they had “low supply.” Its all over the place. Weird, eh?

  • Mrs. R

    I have been in the position of having a child who was diagnosed as Failure to Thrive (FTT). It was a horrible time for me. My biggest fear was having to stop breastfeeding. Of course, the pediatrician told me to supplement, but I let him know I wanted that to be a last resort for me. He agreed to let me try pumping and adding a “fortifier” to my breastmilk – as long as he saw improvement in my baby within a couple of days. Praise the Lord, we saw improvement, although a small amount. Everything turned out okay in the end, but I totally agree with this article – DON’T GIVE UP! GET HELP NOW! I went to a midwife who was previously a LLL leader. I also talked to a Lactation Consultant at the WIC office and talked to someone who was working on becoming a Board Certified Lactation Consultant. I wanted as much help as I could get to continue breastfeeding my baby. There may just be some adjustments you need to make. For me, it meant giving up “scheduling” my baby’s feedings and feeding on demand. This helped my milk supply AND helped my baby to gain, and it was only for a season. GREAT ARTICLE! I hope and pray that more ladies find and read this article.

  • Very late in replying but I’ve only found this blog today :-)

    I wish I’d read this article before I had to fight the baby clinic doctor over breastfeeding my twins! I asked her how to increase my milk supply, and the answer was “supplement”– when I asked “won’t that decrease my milk supply” she said “frankly, yes, but it will ensure that your kids get enough” as if women haven’t been nursing twins for millennia! Fortunately, I already had breastfeeding experience with my first, and wasn’t overwhelmed by the doctor being a doctor, so I kept up the fight and we won: they nursed for 10 1/2 months (the elder) and 11 months to the day (the younger) and are now happy and healthy 13-year-olds.

  • harper

    I am one of those women with the “low supply” problem. My baby lacked the instinct to connect eating with satiety, and acid reflux created an association between eating and pain. As a result, he unlatched every time I had a let down of milk, and my body got the message to slow production in the first month of my son’s life. I’ve bent over backwards to get my supply back, but it hasn’t. He’s three months now, and I still only produce about half of what he needs, even using a SNS, Motilium, Mother’s Milk Tea, supplements, meditation, plenty of sleep, pumping, you name it. Taking a laxative helped for a little while. What’s helped most is relaxing. All the stress of the problem and of the pressure the pediatrician was putting me under to switch to formula really hurt my already low supply. Now my boy and I nurse and supplement. It’s the best I can do at this point, and the stress of fighting it was ruining, not only my supply, but my marriage.

    Don’t give up, but don’t sacrifice your quality of life to protect the milk supply either.

  • L

    Well said, Harper. You shouldn’t have to feel a need to explain yourself, esp to strangers. There is a lot of truth in this post, and some true propaganda. I’m sure your baby will be happy and healthy. Sure it’s worth fighting for. For lots of reasons. But it’s not the be-all-end-all of child health, or yours. I personally didn’t find much helpful here. Just a lot of “get help” in bold letters. Over and over again. Thank God for formula, and for goat’s milk. And for breast milk.

  • What a wonderful, well-researched article! I completely agree.

  • I was told initially that I had a low milk supply because my daughter wasn’t gaining weight fast enough. She weighed 10 lbs at birth and has SVT. She is now 10 months old and is only 15lbs. The problem is some pediatricians think that a fat baby is a healthy baby and a small baby is an unhealthy baby. Charlotte nursed fine, but just simply never doubled her birth weight. My husband and I are small people and our 3 year old is only 27lbs…so genetically speaking we aren’t Shaq! After 9 months of hearing from the pediatrician that Charlotte MUST be sick if she isn’t gaining weight and isn’t “fat” and that I needed to stop breastfeeding and give her formula we got a second opinion. I took fenugreek (and still do) just to make sure my supply is enough, and I pump and put the milk either in a sippy cup or in her food. The first pediatrician wanted to run all these tests and a test for cystic fibrosis, although NO ONE in my family has or ever has had CF…

    The new pediatrician did run some blood work and Charlotte is perfectly healthy…just petite. She is surpassing her developmental milestones, and has good poopie and pee pee diapers.

    I have a feeling that doctors only assume it’s a milk supply problem when a baby isn’t gaining fast enough. FYI most pediatricians use the CDC growth chart for formula fed babies which on average tend to gain more weight at a faster rate than breastfed babies.

    All in all, breastfeeding is possible for all moms, other than if there is some serious health issue…getting help from the LLL or a good Lactation consultant right away is the best course of action.

    I only nursed my first daughter for 6 weeks because the pediatrician told me that she wasn’t gaining fast enough and that formula would be better for her…with my daughter Charlotte I refuse to give up because breast milk is better than any formula.

    Charlotte also spent a week in the NICU and I was able to pump but she had to supplement formula until my milk came in because the NICU nurses were horrible to me about giving her breastmilk…weirdos!

    Being proactive is key and not giving up is hard, especially if you have a pediatrician who isn’t 100% for breastfeeding.

    I had a great supportive team of women who helped encourage me and after switching pediatricians my stress over nursing has gone away and Charlotte is 100% healthy, well other than her SVT, which the cardiologist says breastfeeding is the best thing for her heart!

    Thanks for posting this blog…I really hope that it encourages more mommas out there not to give up on breastfeeding…especially when NO doctor can say exactly how they know if a mom has a low milk supply…or if the mother’s body is simply adjusting to what the baby needs. It’s funny how mankind has to have control over everything.

    God Bless
    Crystal <

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