A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.