Why Foods and Supplements for Lactation Aren’t Always the Best Solution for Breastfeeding Moms

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If there is one thing that is (often unfairly) hammered upon new mothers, it's the importance of breastfeeding. It’s also one of the most emotionally and physically demanding things you can ask of a new mother. You're expected to be the sole source of nourishment for a tiny human! In an overwhelming time with so many unknowns, a mother’s milk supply is constantly on her mind. (I should know—I had a baby in March of 2019 and I am still obsessing about my milk.)

A quick Google search will deliver literally millions of articles and references about the best foods for lactation. There are countless supplements and foods on the market that promise to increase a person's milk supply, from herbal teas, supplements, and even cookies and coffee pods loaded with ingredients like fennel, anise, fenugreek, and moringa leaf. But buying these products for months or years can become an expensive habit—one that may seem vital to moms desperate to ensure their baby is drinking enough to gain weight properly. Are these special ingredients really necessary?

How legit are foods for lactation?

“Every culture has traditions around birth and breastfeeding, and many involve eating certain foods or herbs to enhance milk production," says Tanja Knutson, a certified lactation consultant at baby product company UpSpring (which makes its own lactation-promoting products). Herbal remedies like eating fenugreek and drinking fennel tea, for example, have long been practices used by women in an effort to increase milk supply. Other examples of foods for lactation, says Carly Foti, RDN, include oats, brewer's yeast, blessed thistle, and goat's rue.

Unfortunately, the science (and lived experience) of these foods is not super clear-cut. “When it comes to galactagogues, the technical name for foods or supplements that are supposed to increase breastmilk production, there isn’t one that works for everyone,” says Molly Petersen, certified lactation consultant at Lansinoh. “Every mom is different, and her body will respond to supplements and foods in different ways.” Plus, there's not a ton of scientific evidence solidifying the efficacy of certain ingredients—in part because of the difficulties of doing research on pregnant or breastfeeding women.

However, that's not to say that these foods aren't beneficial to breastfeeding moms in some way or another. "Oats are a good source of iron, fiber, zinc, and magnesium, which are important micronutrients for maintaining a healthy diet. Pregnancy and lactation is typically a time in life of low iron in women, so the oats help to supplement that loss," says Foti. "Brewer’s yeast is a probiotic, so it helps to normalize and enhance the gut microbiome to keep it healthy. [Brewer’s yeast also contains] B vitamins to give you energy," which is crucial when you're producing enough food to feed another human (not to mention dealing with sleepless nights and all the other things that come with raising a baby.

"When it comes to galactagogues, there isn’t one that works for everyone. Every mom is different, and her body will respond to supplements and foods in different ways." —Molly Petersen, certified lactation consultant

Meanwhile, "although there are not enough scientific studies to support the use of fenugreek to increase milk supply, the USDA has given it the GRAS stamp of approval—generally recognized as safe—for use," Foti says. And for what it's worth, other lactation experts are into it. “[Many] mothers who take fenugreek report an increase in milk production, generally within 24 to 72 hours after starting to take the herb," says Kathleen E. Huggins, RN, author of The Nursing Mother’s Companion. "Most mothers have found that the herb can be discontinued once milk production is stimulated to an appropriate level. Adequate production is usually maintained as long as sufficient breast stimulation and emptying continues.”

Given the fact that breastfeeding moms should be eating an extra 300 calories a day in order to allow for healthy breastmilk production, it doesn't hurt that many foods for lactation can be turned into delicious opportunities for snacks. Out of all the lactation foods I tried while reporting this article (you know, for journalism), this mom says that the best ones were the Milk Money cookies from Halfsies Cookies Company. Founder Dave Maffei told me how the lactation cookie came to be in a very 2020 way—through Instagram. “Because we are so interactive with our followers on Insta, we are constantly fielding cookie requests,” Maffei says. “While a gluten-free version is our most requested, a lactation cookie has been a close second." Making one hadn't been a priority until his wife Heather gave birth to their son in December 2019, when they quickly learned just how important milk supply was. "I wanted to include well-researched ingredients, but my main goal was that they tasted delicious," he says. The cookie contains oats, dark chocolate, unsweetened shredded coconut, brewer’s yeast, flax seeds, and wheat germ—many of which, as mentioned above, are associated with some kind of benefits for breastfeeding.

Are there any downsides to these types of foods and products?

Some herbs and supplements designed for lactation can potentially come with side effects. "Specifically, fenugreek can cause urine and sweat to take on a maple syrup smell. It can also lower your blood sugar in higher doses, so if you’re diabetic or otherwise prone to low blood sugar it might be contraindicated for you," says Petersen. "Flax seed could be a problem for moms with specific digestive issues,” she adds, which is why she always recommends “talking to your health-care provider before adding herbal supplements or changing your diet."

At the end of the day, Petersen says that while some foods can definitely help some moms, the best way to make more milk is to simply nurse or pump more often. “While galactagogues can give some moms the boost they need in their supply, the best way to establish and maintain a good supply is through consistent feeding at the breast or pumping. If you continue to remove milk from the breasts and stimulate them by feeding or pumping, your body’s natural processes will take over and produce more.” Basically, it’s the rule of supply and demand. And if that isn't working and you're still struggling, be sure to consult with your doctor or a lactation consultant who can help you troubleshoot.

As a reminder, consult your healthcare professional before testing lactation products and try only product one at a time. “Just like any food or supplement, it is possible to have too much,” lactation consultant Petersen reminds us. “It’s important to remember that most things are better in moderation.”

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