Not enough milk? The “symptoms” you don’t need to worry about.

glass of milkA huge proportion of women worry that they aren’t satisfying their babies through breastfeeding alone, and many give up as a result. Much of the time, however, they are worrying about nothing. Although the precise relationship between perceived and actual milk supply isn’t well researched (see insufficient milk: all in the mind?), it is certainly the case that many of the “symptoms” that women think indicate they aren’t producing enough milk are actually completely normal, and can in fact be indicators that breastfeeding is going well.

In an article for Australian Family Physician journal, Dr Lisa Amir summarizes the common misconceptions of low supply. They include your breasts feeling softer, your baby taking less time to feed or feeding more frequently, your baby seeming unsettled or settling better on formula, and your baby’s growth appearing to slow down after three months1. In the absence of any genuine indicators of ill health, none of the above are a cause for concern, yet they perturb many mothers to the extent that they stop breastfeeding. Why do mothers interpret these commonplace occurrences as signs that their milk production is diminishing, and what actually causes them? The sections below address each ‘symptom’ in turn, outlining why they can be misconstrued as a problem with milk supply, and explaining what actually causes them.

•    Your breasts feel softer

After the problems with engorgement that can occur in the post-birth period, it should come as a relief when breasts go back to a softer, more normal consistency. In reality, it can be somewhat unnerving. If you’re used to rapidly filling up with milk, any decline in this can give the impression of a dwindling supply. In fact, your breasts are simply adjusting to maximize their efficiency, by producing as much milk as your baby needs, but not going overboard – an important process, given how energy intensive it is to produce milk. Initially, production is controlled by hormones that are released after giving birth, causing a significant amount of milk to appear regardless of whether a woman intends to breastfeed. Within a few days, however, the amount produced starts to be determined by the amount of milk that your baby takes at a feed2. The quantity of milk required by your baby increases rapidly to start with, but by the end of the first month it has stabilized, and your production becomes fine-tuned too, so you can supply your baby with exactly what she requires, without wasting energy by producing too much3. This isn’t to say you can’t make more if necessary, but simply that you won’t do it unless the demand is there.

•    Your baby takes less time to feed

Whilst the amount of milk a baby has at each feed remains relatively consistent as he gets older, the speed at which he takes it on board increases. A five month old baby sucks more frequently and ingests more milk with each suck than a two-month old, meaning that he can get through a meal much faster4. Although this gives the impression that he isn’t getting as much milk, you can be reassured he is – he’s simply getting it in a shorter time.

•    Your baby is unsettled, or seems to settle better on formula

The research into colic, crying and the type of food a baby receives presents a confusing picture. Some studies show babies sleep longer if they are breastfed5, while others say formula fed infants are more settled6. One problem that frequently arises with the research in this area is that feeding method is confounded with style of care-giving, and cross cultural studies indicate that the the latter might have a much greater impact on how irritable babies are than the former5. The main thing to remember is that there are many factors affecting how much your baby cries: if you are feeding on demand, a problem with your milk supply is unlikely to be one of them.

•    Your baby feeds more often

A long term study in Sweden has shown that the number of feeds a baby takes in a day can vary by a huge amount, both from baby to baby, and for the same baby over time7. A change in feeding frequency is not unusual, and is not associated with a problem with your milk supply.

•    Your baby’s growth slows after three months

What if your baby has been gaining weight steadily, and then suddenly starts to falter?  The amount of weight babies put on may vary over time for many reasons, but an apparent slow-down from around three months should pretty much be expected. Although the new WHO growth charts were published in 2006, many health care providers (including my own) still aren’t using them, so your baby’s growth is being compared with that of formula fed infants. The really important thing to remember in this situation is that it is actually the breastfed babies’ pattern of weight gain that is considered desirable, so formula fed infants whose growth curve continues to climb are actually gaining too much weight. Or at least this is what the WHO states – presumably the rest of the medical profession will catch up in the next few years.

The issues discussed above frequently cause mothers to worry that they aren’t producing enough milk when in reality their supply is absolutely fine. A baby may cry, fuss or feed more frequently because she is hungry, but this does not mean that her mother is unable to provide her with sufficient milk. The efficient nature of milk production means that if a baby indicates that he needs more milk by taking more at a feed, then the breasts will increase production as required.

The only time to worry is if your baby appears physically ill. If her growth has genuinely stalled, or she is continually tired, weak and listless, there may be a problem: if you’re in any doubt, consult a professional. Just keep in mind that any other ‘symptoms’ of low supply are probably nothing of the sort: as long as your baby is healthy, you almost certainly have nothing to worry about.

  1. Aust Fam Physician. 2006 Sep;35(9):686-9.
  2. Exp Physiol. 1993 Mar;78(2):209-20
  3. J Midwifery Womens Health. 2007 Nov-Dec;52(6):564-70.
  4. J Reprod Fertil. 1999 Mar;115(2):193-200.
  5. Early Hum Dev. 2000 May;58(2):133-40.
  6. Early Hum Dev. 1998 Nov;53(1):9-18.
  7. Acta Paediatr. 1999 Feb;88(2):203-11.

Where does fore-milk end and hind-milk begin (and does it actually matter?)

milk-creamAccording to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding provides all the nutrition your baby requires for the first six months of life. This entails satisfying both hunger and thirst, and to meet both these needs you might have heard that your breasts produce two distinct types of milk: thin, watery ‘fore-milk’ to quench thirst; and creamy, calorie-rich ‘hind-milk’ to satisfy hunger.

These apparently different types of breast milk are described in various ways, but a distinction is generally drawn between a watery/creamy consistency, and thirst/hunger. There is also an implication that you need to make sure your baby gets enough hind-milk in order to gain weight. According to

‘Foremilk is the milk which is first drawn during a feeding. It is generally thin and lower in fat content, satisfying the baby’s thirst and liquid needs.
Hindmilk is the milk which follows foremilk during a feeding. It is richer in fat content and is high in calories. The high fat and calorie content of this milk is important for your baby’s health and continuing growth.’ carries a similar description:

‘Foremilk, a bluish-white milk that is lower in fat than the hindmilk is the milk your baby receives in the first part of the feeding.
The hindmilk, which follows the foremilk, is richer and higher in fat than the foremilk. The hindmilk provides most of the nutrients your baby needs to gain weight and grow, and it satisfies his hunger.’

Valorie Delp on goes a step further, and says you can actually see the difference between the two:

‘If you’re really into science, pump a bottle of milk and let it sit out on the counter for awhile. You’ll see the milk separate into two distinctive layers. . .one being much fattier than the other. That’s hind milk and foremilk.’

Valorie’s demonstration is appealing, but it’s unfortunately some way off the mark. The separation she describes is simply the fat in the milk rising to the surface, not a different type of milk. This illustrates quite neatly the problem with using the terms ‘fore’ and ‘hind’: it reinforces the impression that the breast produces two types of milk, when in fact it makes only one. The descriptions shown above aren’t entirely inaccurate – milk does indeed change consistency during a feed – but this happens gradually, rather than suddenly.

The change occurs due to an increase in the fat content of the milk as a feed progresses – hence the ‘creamy’ label attached to hind-milk. It isn’t simply the case of the longer the feed, the fattier the milk, however. A study published in Experimental Physiology demonstrates that the fat content is related to the ‘emptiness’ of the breast: the less milk it contains, the greater the proportion of fat in the milk1. This means that if a baby has a 4oz feed when the breast is only storing half its potential milk volume, it will contain more fat than a 4oz feed taken when the breast is three-quarters full.

The amount of fat in your milk therefore varies considerably throughout the day, depending on the time since the last feed, the amount of milk consumed at the last feed, the amount of milk consumed at the current feed… It sounds complicated – how on earth do you make sure that your baby is getting enough? The short answer is that you don’t need to. Whilst fat is an important constituent of your baby’s diet, so are protein and carbohydrate, and both of these are found in the watery rather than the fatty part of the milk. The evidence also suggests that weight gain is related simply to the volume of milk consumed, and not its fat content2, underlining the nutritional importance of all the components of breast milk.

If you are breastfeeding on demand, the bottom line is that you don’t need to worry about the ‘type’ of milk your baby is getting. Babies can show a wide variety of feeding patterns, suckling for varying lengths of time and at varying intervals over the course of a day, and maintain a healthy weight3. The terms ‘fore-milk’ and ‘hind-milk’ do have their place: in scientific studies, they are used to describe the samples of milk taken at the beginning and end of a feed. In more general usage, however, they often produce a confused and inaccurate picture. They split milk into two types (when there is actually only one), and imply that the fat contained in milk is somehow more nutritious than the rest of it. In fact, nutrients that are important for health and growth are contained in both components of breast milk, so the implication that the fatty part is for ‘eating’ and the watery part for ‘drinking’ is somewhat misleading. The important thing to remember is that ensuring your baby’s thirst and appetite are satisfied is not a complicated undertaking – it’s simply a matter of letting her feed when she wants to.

  1. Exp Physiol. 1993 Nov;78(6):741-55.
  2. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2002 Oct;16(4):355-60.
  3. Pediatrics. 2006 Mar;117(3):e387-95.Click here to read