Seeing signs of low milk supply? It may be a false sign or it may be that you are not making enough milk when breastfeeding. It’s important to recognize the difference.
Most breastfeeding mothers are familiar with the worry that comes with the topic of milk supply. Produce too much milk, and you can become painfully engorged. Produce too little milk, and your new baby may not receive adequate nourishment to feel full and grow. Striking that perfect balance where your breasts are comfortably full and your little one is satisfied and thriving can feel like a miracle at times.
How Do I Know if My Milk Supply is Low?
There are a lot of rumors and stories out there about the signs of low milk supply and what you should do if your breasts aren’t keeping up with your baby’s demand for nourishment and comfort. It can cause so much anxiety and worry that many mothers give up on breastfeeding within a few weeks. Research has also shown that 35% of women who decide to wean early do so at least partially due to perceived insufficient milk, which is referred to as PIM (Gatti, RN, MSN, 2008.)
That doesn’t necessarily mean that 35% of women stop breastfeeding due to actual low milk supply. Just the perception of not meeting a baby’s needs is enough to drive some mothers to turn to the bottle without fully exploring the issue. If your goal is to breastfeed at least until the six-month mark to deliver maximum protection for your baby, it may help to understand the real signs of low milk supply.
This guide will discuss both the inaccurate information that new mothers often hear and the accurate information that every breastfeeding mother should know. Education and full awareness of this issue may help more women breastfeed longer without worry about milk supply.
False Signs of Low Milk Supply
Are you worried about low milk supply because of concerning information shared by a friend or overhead in public? Many new moms worry nonstop about things that turn out to be nothing but misunderstandings. The following inaccuracies are often passed from mother to mother or shared online, but they aren’t entirely in touch with reality.
1. Breastfed babies who want to feed too often aren’t receiving enough milk.
It’s true that some babies will demand additional feedings if they aren’t satisfied the first time around. You will likely notice other symptoms of inadequate nourishment along with the frequent feedings. For instance, the unsatisfied baby will typically fuss and cry a lot more than usual and may struggle to maintain a strong latch throughout a feeding. They may try to continue suckling after both breasts are empty as well.
If your baby simply seems to want to feed every two or three hours, they’re exhibiting normal breastfed baby behavior. It may sometimes feel like all you do is feed your baby, especially if you’re breastfeeding on demand around the clock. Breastfed babies typically feed more frequently than bottle-fed babies, so your baby may just eat a bit more often than some of his or her peers.
Many babies will also breastfeed for comfort or warmth from their mother. Perhaps your baby enjoys being in your arms and sees your nipple as a way to self-soothe.
If your little one appears healthy and happy without excessive feeding or releasing your nipple during feedings, they’re likely satisfied. Checking with your doctor to make sure your baby is gaining weight at a healthy rate may put your fears of low milk supply to rest.
2. Sudden changes in a baby’s feeding habits means they aren’t receiving enough milk.
You should pay attention to any sudden changes in your baby’s behaviors or patterns, but don’t assume that it means your milk supply is insufficient. If your baby suddenly starts feeding more often, they may be hitting a growth spurt that requires a bit more nourishment. In that case, your breasts should notice the increased demand and keep up with the supply naturally.
If your baby starts feeding a little less often, there are many possible explanations that have nothing to do with your breast milk supply, including:
- A cold or other temporary illness
- Starting to sleep longer through the night
- Starting to eat solid foods
- Seeking comfort rather than nourishment
If your baby doesn’t return to normal feeding routines soon or shows signs of discomfort, distress or losing weight, it’s time to check with your doctor. It still may not mean that your breast milk is insufficient. In most cases, changes in eating patterns are temporary or due to normal growth and development.
3. A breastfeeding mother’s breasts should feel firm at all times.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about breastfeeding. You’ve probably seen those pictures in magazines that show firm, upright breasts with perky nipples perched before a baby’s open mouth. That’s how many people perceive breastfeeding, but it’s not always the reality.
Your breasts may sometimes feel softer, and they should completely empty of all milk during each feeding. In the first day or two of breastfeeding, you won’t have a large volume of milk to fill your breasts. It can take some time for the milk to start flowing, and then you still may not always feel as firm as you expected because your baby will empty your breasts every couple hours or so.
Don’t allow how your breasts look or feel to influence your perception of your milk flow. Pay more attention to the look and behavior of your baby. Is he always smiling and cooing at you after feedings? Does she latch on like a champ and drain both breasts without problems? Do you receive positive reports from the doctor at checkups? Those are the things that really matter.
4. Your baby may need more milk if he often sucks on his hands or feet.
Suckling on the hands and feet is a common baby behavior, and it often has nothing to do with the mother’s milk supply. Some babies find sucking comforting, and they use it to soothe and calm themselves. If you aren’t noticing any of the real sigs of low milk production listed below and your baby is otherwise healthy and happy, this behavior is likely nothing to worry about.
5. You’re not giving your baby enough milk if they cry a lot between feedings.
Fussiness could be a sign of inadequate milk supply, but there are many other explanations that are more likely. For instance, your baby may experience gastrointestinal distress due to another health condition or simply gulping down his milk too fast. Perhaps your baby has colic or is sensitive to something in your diet that makes its way into your milk. Consulting with your doctor to rule out problems may prove that milk supply has nothing to do with the problem.
6. If your baby doesn’t stay latched at the breast or struggles to feed, you obviously aren’t producing enough milk.
It’s possible that low milk supply is to blame, but there are also many other latch problems that are easily fixed. Try holding your baby in different positions and assessing his or her latch to see if they’re doing something incorrectly. Working with a lactation consultant even for one session could clear up the issue and allow you to breastfeed comfortably. Don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re not producing enough milk.
Why Did My Milk Supply Suddenly Drop?
In most cases when moms think that their supply suddenly dropped, their baby is actually having a growth spurt and they seem to need to eat all the time. This happens often during baby’s first year and your breast milk production will adjust to your baby’s needs. However, there are a few other reasons why your breast milk supply might suddenly drop to watch out for. You can see some of there here: Sudden Drop in Breast Milk Supply? Common Causes and Fixes
Do I Have Low Milk Supply? The Real Signs of Low Milk Production
Now, what should you really pay attention to when determining if your milk supply is adequate to meet your baby’s needs? It comes down to the results of feeding: wet and dirty diapers, weight gain and hydration for true signs of low milk supply.
Some of the best signals that hint at potential milk supply issues include:
- Lack of Weight Gain – Your baby isn’t gaining weight at a healthy rate or is possibly losing weight. You may also notice other signs of malnutrition such as changes in skin color and low energy levels (Powers, 1999.) It’s true that breastfed babies often gain weight at a slower rate than bottle-fed babies, so don’t compare your little one to other babies. If you’re concerned about weight gain, allow your doctor to weigh your baby and show you where he falls on the growth charts. Make sure your doctor is aware that you breastfeed exclusively because that does make a difference in expected growth rates.
- Lack of Wet/Dirty Diapers – Inadequate intake naturally leads to inadequate output. If your baby isn’t producing at least six wet diapers and two or three dirty diapers daily, you may have something to worry about (WHO, 2009.) Some babies will urinate far more often, and that’s okay as well. When the diaper is clean and dry most of the day, it’s time to check with your doctor.
It’s important to note that there are other causes for these symptoms, so your milk supply isn’t automatically at fault. If your baby fails to thrive, you will likely notice other symptoms. Some babies may fuss a lot because they aren’t adequately nourished while others exhibit signs of fatigue, lack of energy and excessive sleeping.
It’s important to consult with a doctor because there are other things that could interfere with your baby’s ability to nurse successfully.
How Can I Increase My Milk Supply Quickly?
If you are seeing signs of low milk supply and the problem really is with your supply, there are some things you can do to boost your milk supply quickly rather than giving up on breastfeeding.
For instance, you may need to increase the demand for milk on your breasts by pumping between feeding sessions. It’s also possible that tweaks to your diet or increases in your own water intake could help. Helping your baby learn to latch properly and suck efficiently is also an option, and a lactation consultant can help with positioning your baby for more productive feedings.
Don’t give up on breastfeeding before you exhaust all other options. Even supplementing with bottles for a short period is better than completely stopping breastfeeding.
Are You Struggling with Perceived Insufficient Milk?
It’s not uncommon for mothers to voice concerns about inefficient milk supply to their doctors only to be assured that their production is adequate. That may leave many new mothers worried and perhaps feeling like their doctors weren’t really listening. In reality, doctors make that decision based on real signs of a healthy, happy, well-nourished baby. They see that a baby is thriving and is adequately satisfied, and they pass that information along to the parents.
If you have voiced your concerns about low milk supply to your doctor and your baby has received a clean bill of health, you may suffer from PIM. Your perception of insufficient milk production may cause so much anxiety that it starts to interfere with your ability to produce enough milk for your baby in the months to come.
Start by not comparing your baby’s eating patterns to that of bottle-fed babies. Most babies receiving formula go longer between feedings because it takes their bodies longer to fully process formula than breastmilk. If your baby seems to demand nourishment more frequently, it’s likely because breast milk is processed faster. Breastfed babies may also consume less milk at each feeding than a bottle-fed baby, but what they receive is still adequate for growth and physical comfort. If you’re not noticing the real signs of low milk supply listed above, compare your baby’s feeding patterns to nothing but your pediatrician’s assessment and recommendations.
It may also help to feed your baby on demand at least for a month or two. Sometimes, trying to enforce a regulated feeding schedule can interfere with the baby’s natural hunger cues. You learn to look at the time rather than pay attention to your baby’s signals. Breastfeeding on demand may encourage your baby to feed more often and develop their own pattern, and that may change your perceptions of your milk supply.
Finally, you can find a lactation consultant in your area if you’re still concerned about your milk supply. Sometimes hearing that your milk flow is adequate from a breastfeeding expert is far more comforting than hearing the data from a doctor or reading lists of low milk supply symptoms online.