There is no end to the variety in human bodies and their various functions, and lactation is no exception. Some women only need to hear a baby cry and they find themselves soaking through their nursing pads, grabbing handfuls of napkins to hide the dark patches spreading down their tops. At the other end of the scale, there are some women who find it difficult to get their flow started in the first place. For those women, here are some tips on how to induce lactation.
There’s a huge range of advice out there, some of dubious quality, so here’s a rundown of some of the advice you’re likely to hear about how to induce lactation.
Get the milk flowing
This sounds like a classic chicken-and-egg situation, but the more breast milk that comes out of you, the more breast milk you’ll produce.
Breastfeed to induce lactation
The best way to start producing milk, to get that thick yellow immune-system boosting colostrum into your baby and then start your normal flow, is to nurse your baby.
The more you breastfeed your baby, the more your body triggers the process of producing more milk. This happens through a complex and adaptable combination of hormonal messages and physiological stimulus (i.e. your baby suckling). The more a baby feeds, the more milk will be made, generally. Empty breasts make milk quicker, and milk production slows right down in a full breast (thankfully).
However, the body’s response to the baby at the nipple depends on a number of factors; a good latch and feeding position will help the breast fully empty, meaning more milk production, a fuller baby, and lower risk of mastitis – an infection in the breast often caused by poor emptying of milk glands. Consulting lactation specialists can have a hugely beneficial effect in solving problems with position and latch.
Pump to induce lactation
Use a breast pump when not nursing: Lactation consultants recommend breast pumps for inducing lactation and maintaining flow when you’re not able to nurse your baby directly. This is particularly helpful when babies are born early or are unable to feed directly from the breast for any reason. Some mothers find that using a breast pump helps to maintain supply and produce some milk for storage when they’re going to be away from their baby (could there be the chance of a rare night away?).
Renting a hospital-grade breast pump
Purchasing a breast pump (especially a high-end hospital grade unit) can feel like an uncertain investment. What if you spend all that money and your milk just doesn't come in? Or, what if you spend all that money and you manage to fully breastfeed your baby with no pumping? In either case, you wouldn't get much use out of the pump.
That's why renting initially makes a lot of sense. This is generally only an option for hospital-grade units that are perfect for inducing lactation. You would not rent a manual or rechargable pump. When you're just starting off and trying to establish a good flow of breastmilk, renting a good high-end pump makes a lot of sense.
It's a good idea to start of with a rental unit, then make a decision about what kind of pump to buy a bit later on. Here are some tips for how to rent successfully:
- Find sources of rental equipment early. Once baby arrives you will be a bit busy. List a few options in case your first choice runs out of equipment.
- Find out what pump your hospital uses and, if possible, try to rent a similar unit. At least you will already know how to use it.
- Ask about rental terms - weekly rental with no commitment makes sense.
- With services that deliver the pump to your home, ask how quickly they can replace a defective unit. Your baby will not wait for a broken pump to be serviced.
- Check if you are expected to buy any standalone accessories to use with the pump. It's fine if you need to buy things like suction pads, so long as you know to do it before you take the pump home!
Shopper's guide: Pumping at Home
In the comfort of your home, you can have a powerful electric unit. The main benefit of a mains-operated unit is consistently strong but comfortable suction strength, which will be more effective at inducing lactation.
They can be a hassle to move around, so units like this have the side effect of keeping you at home close to your bedroom, dining table, or in front of the TV - wherever you have the unit set up. Whether that counts as a minus or a plus depends on the outlook and perspective of the mother!
- Strong pump = strong suction
- Most effective option for inducing lactation
- Comfortable to use
- Not cheap, but typically good resale value
- Hospital-grade means the machine is dependable and effective
Shopper's guide: Pumping on the Go
There are electric breast pumps that are run on recharable battery power. However, relying on those as portable pumps can be risky for women who are truly out and about, because it won't always be feasible to recharge sufficiently between pumps.
That's why a manual pump is a better idea when portability is key. Most od the time, you would only want portability once your flow has already started developing, so you won't always need the strong suction of a hospital-grade electric unit. Manual units are also inexpensive so they work as great backup pumps.
- Can be used anywhere - no power source needed
- No charging needed so it's always ready to go
- Suction strong enough that it can stay attached on its own to collect letdown with no effort
- Very affordable; worth having as a backup
Shopper's guide: Pumping at the Office
Many workplaces are eager to support women returning to work after having a baby, and that includes having some flexibility for maternal responsibilities such as pumping breast milk. However, most women still have a preference for a bit of privacy. A smaller pump that you can take to a private room fits the bill.
But that doesn't necessarily mean opting for a portable manual pump. A rechargable electric pump would be ideal for office environments because you have reliable charging infrastructure. Once it's fully charged you can take it to some place where you're comfortable, get your pumping done, and then promptly put it back to charge.
- Battery-operated, so it can be used anywhere when not charging
- USB charging is highly convenient - can even be charged in a car
- Inexpensive so worth a try for women who want to get back to work soon
- Small size makes it convenient to even use at home in bed
Mothers who go back to work while still breastfeeding can often be accommodated by their workplace, perhaps by provision of a private place to pump at flexible breaktimes, and a dedicated space in the fridge.
Pumping + galactagogues = the ultimate induced lactation stimultion combo
The combination of using a breast pump regularly, alongside consumption of galactagogues (we get into this hard-to-pronouce nutrition group below), can be so effective that it can even induce lactation in adoptive mothers .
Mother’s nutrition matters
Breast milk comes out of you, so it should come as no surprise that what goes into you can help to induce lactation.
What a mouthful!
Galactagogue (pronounced like “galactic” except you replace the “-tic” with “-tagog”) comes from the original Greek “gala” which means “milk”, and “agōgos” which means “leading”. It’s a mouthful for you to say, but it gives your baby a mouthful of precious breast milk, leading the way to excellent nutrition for the critical first few months of life.Find out more about galactogogues ≫
A trip to a health food shop can also offer a range of herbal remedies to help induce lactation; names like goats’ rue, fenugreek, and blessed thistle sound like some mystical yesteryear advice, but have been the subject of some modern medical research and have a lot of anecdotal support . It’s a good idea to check with a professional (such as a lactation consultant) before taking these herbal remedies.
Beer as a source of galactagogues
Did you know that beer contains galactagogues? The advice of yesteryear, still a favorite among family elders, is now mostly out of vogue – to have a pint of stout to get the milk flowing. Beer does contain galactagogues, but it also contains alcohol which can suppress lactation
But perhaps there might be something in granny’s argument is that it might make you a little more relaxed; getting stressed about your milk not coming in only makes it harder!
Remember that any alcohol in your bloodstream passes into your breastmilk, and if you do decide to have a drink it’s best to keep it small and time it so that you don’t need to feed your baby until the alcohol is out of your system.
The internet is awash with recipes for meals that are meant to help induce lactation – mainly, standard healthy food advice applies. Whole grains, a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, healthy fats. Breastmilk is nutritionally complete, and your body will leech nutrients from itself before it’ll let your baby go without. But you need to be on top of your game, more than ever when you’ve got young children, the physical and mental stressors of sleepless nights and all that looking after a small baby entails.
Vitamin and mineral supplements specially formulated to keep you healthy aren’t a substitute for a balanced diet, but a pragmatic response to the extra demands on your body at this time - not to mention that it’s sometimes hard to get the time to make a healthy dinner when you’ve got a very dependent infant around.
You probably don’t need to be told this one; breast feeding is thirsty work. You’re using fluids faster than ever before so keep a glass of water on hand, it’s not uncommon for breastfeeding mothers to suffer the effects of dehydration, such as low blood pressure and dizziness. Maintain a steady intake of healthy drinks and you’ll keep feel better and have more fluid available for making milk without dropping your blood pressure. Like with the nutrient make-up of breastmilk, your body will produce the right amount of milk at your expense, so baby will be fed and hydrated even if you don’t keep up your fluid intake. You will feel better if you do, though.
Even in very hot weather, your baby can get all the fluids it needs from breastmilk, and the composition of the milk changes in response to the environmental needs of your child. They may need extra feeds to get plenty of fluids when it’s hot, and so you’ll need to stay hydrated too.
There are some medications known to induce lactation, and if the usual methods fail then it’s important to see a physician who may recommend medical induction of lactation via prescription medication.
There’s a huge push to promote breastfeeding, and this is reflected in the training given to healthcare professionals involved in the care of new mothers and babies . This push can lead to quite a lot of pressure to induce lactation.
Midwives and lactation consultants working in hospitals, birth centers and postnatal clinics can be a valuable resource and have a wealth of experience and knowledge on hand; sometimes you need someone to be there and physically show you better positions and techniques. Moms who have had a caesarian, a premature birth, or when they or their babies have health problems which might make successful breastfeeding trickier often benefit from extra support. It’s important not to get stressed when struggling to induce lactation because the stress can in fact inhibit lactation. There are lots of resources out there, so ask for help when you need it so you and your baby can enjoy successful breastfeeding.
Here at Intrepid Wellbeing we prefer to source information from high quality, academically rigorous sources. These are the references we used to develop this article:
- Bryant CA. Nursing the adopted infant. J Am Board Fam Med. 2006 Jul-Aug;19(4):374-9.
- Gabay MP. Galactogogues: Medications That Induce Lactation. J Hum Lact. 2002 Aug;18(3):274-9.
- Dusdieker LB, Booth BM, Stumbo PJ, Eichenberger JM. Effect of supplemental fluids on human milk production. J Pediatr. 1985 Feb;106(2):207-11.