When the land isn’t really flowing with milk and honey
A galactagogue is a fancy Greek name literally meaning “milk leading” – essentially a medicine, food or herb that can increase your milk supply. In theory, breastfeeding is the most natural thing on earth that doesn’t need any concoctions or contraptions to work perfectly. But for something that is supposed to be the most natural thing on earth, breastfeeding sure does get a lot of Google hits. Indeed, although breastfeeding is mostly a simple and beautiful experience, most moms will experience a few hitches and need some outside help. And if you are dealing with unusual circumstances – a very prem baby, or exceptional stress, or no maternity leave, or your own illness – you can become pretty desperate for solutions to increase your milk supply.
Firstly, for any breastfeeding difficulties, I strongly recommend a lovely lactation consultant or breastfeeding counsellor to walk you through your breastfeeding journey. These ladies are a group of angels.
How do we assess galactagogues?
Galactagogues can be divided into three kinds: (1) Medical, which require a doctor’s prescription; (2) herbal, which can be found in health shops and pharmacies but generally do not require medical permission to use (although they can be dangerous); and (3) dietary, foods available at your grocery store that can be incorporated into your diet.
There are a couple of things to consider when looking for a galactagogue. Firstly, of course, is whether it is safe for you and baby. This takes priority! Secondly, we need to know whether it will work or not, so that you’re not wasting your money and time. Thirdly, we want to be aware of any side effects that could make life uncomfortable for you and baby.
Repeat after me: Herbal does not equal harmless. Just because it is natural, does not make it safe. Herbal drugs are still drugs!
Herbal galactoagogues are commonly taken because they are relatively easy to access, BUT, because they don’t require medical supervision, can be potentially ineffective or worse, dangerous. The tricky thing with pregnancy and breastfeeding is that it is so hard to do good quality research. We are dealing with developing little humans, so ethically we don’t want to conduct large scale trials and studies that can give us firm conclusions.
We reviewed all studies and all we can say is: we do not know enough about herbal treatments to safely recommend their use in high doses to lactating mothers. Even the most researched galactagogue herbs (such as fenugreek, asparagus root, milk thistle) do not have quite enough research to guarantee their safety. Yes, some research shows us that many of these herbs may indeed have an effect on breastfeeding hormones and mammary tissue. However, we have no idea about how much of those herbs are getting into baby, and the long term effects of those herbs on baby’s body and brain. In addition, as many of these herbs have an effect on hormones, they are dangerous to take during pregnancy as they can be toxic to unborn baby or cause miscarriages. If you choose to take herbs in high doses, such as herbal tinctures, capsules or alcohol preparation without supervision, please do so with medical supervision.
We rather recommend that you focus on good lactogenic foods, and add lactogenic herbs in moderate amounts to your cooking and perhaps some tea.
Thankfully, there are lots of safe, readily available foods you can try that can help increase your milk supply according to many centuries of moms’ and grannies’ advice.
Cover your basics
Make sure you’re getting enough fluid. Whether it’s water, tea, milk, pregnancy/breastfeeding shakes – at least 10-12 glasses a day. Try avoid fruit juice and sugary drinks.
Don’t forget the importance of getting enough calories and proteins to support you and baby. Several small meals a day, smoothies and pregnancy/breastfeeding shakes will help this happen. If you’re struggling to get enough, snack on energy dense foods such as cheeses, raw nuts, seeds, biltong, and dried fruit. Use healthy fats in cooking – real butter, coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, or flaxseed oil. Read our other Nutripaeds posts on a good diet for lactation.
Variety, variety, variety. The more kinds of unprocessed, whole foods you manage to eat, the better your nutrient intake will be.
Fill up on fibre
A lot of moms swear by high fibre foods, especially oats, to increase milk. Oats are good for you for a number of reasons, so there is no reason not to go crazy. Enjoy oats in the morning or even as a snack in a variety of ways – add an egg to hot cooked oats to increase protein, enjoy with cinnamon, honey and cream, mix with nuts and fruit, or make chocolate oats with raw cocoa, some melted dark chocolate, and maple syrup.
Nursing moms also recommend flaxseeds – whether whole or milled – used in baking or in porridges. These are filled with great omega 3 fats and healthy fibre so go for it!
Don’t forget other high fibre foods that can help – think chickpeas, lentils, millet, or barley.
Introduce lactogenic herbs in moderation
Instead of using pharmacological grade powders, capsules and concentrates, gently incorporate helpful galactagogues herbs into your cooking. Make curries, stews and soups with fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, aniseed, and caraway seed. Make salads with fresh fenugreek, fennel and dill.
Chat to your doctor or dietitian about trying a gentle lactogenic tea made by soaking ¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds in a cup of hot water for ten minutes. Do not drink more than 2-3 cups a day without supervision! Note: Fenugreek can have side effects of nausea and vomiting for mom, and diarrhoea for baby if taken in excess. It can make you and baby (or your urine) smell like maple syrup – this is harmless, don’t get a fright. It is part of the legume family so avoid if you have a peanut allergy. DO NOT USE if you are pregnant.
Go for garlic
Research shows that infants may drink more milk if you eat garlic prior to breastfeeding! Slowly incorporate garlic into your cooking to see how baby responds. Remember, exposing baby to a variety of flavours in our breastmilk is a good thing for helping them accept a range of foods later in life!
Give Brewer’s Yeast a try
Although there is no research to back this up, a lot of mom’s claim Brewer’s Yeast help up milk supply. Brewer’s Yeast is essentially a live yeast rich in iron, chromium and selenium, as well as B vitamins (but not B12 – important for vegans). South African products tend to be in powdered form – take 1-2 tablespoons daily and use it in baking instead of baking powder. Check with your doctor first, as this is inappropriate if you or baby struggle with candida, and it can mess with blood glucose. If you find you or baby becomes gassy, it is likely the Brewer’s Yeast, so discontinue!
Sip on soothers
Focus on warm, comforting foods and liquids – relaxing hot drinks, porridges, soups and stews just before you breastfeed can make a huge difference.
Avoid alcohol (including beer) – the alcohol in any alcoholic drinks will cause reduced milk supply. Rather focus on trying Brewer’s Yeast than fermented beer.
Also watch out for herbs like sage, thyme, sorrel, oregano, parsley and mint if you are struggling – They can reduce your supply in high doses.
A lot of moms tout the use of Jungle Juice – a mixture of juices, oral rehydration solution, elixir and Rescue Remedy. There is no evidence that shows that these ingredients will help your milk supply. On the other hand, it is a concentrated source of sugar, salt, and fructose which can wreak havoc with your blood glucose, blood pressure, mood, and health. Rather focus on good nutrition, and if you need some help with your stress levels, chat to your doctor about using Rescue Remedy or an alternative. A calm, happy you is a priority, as happy mom = more breastmilk + happy baby!
A lot of moms rave about lactation cookies – oatmeal cookies made with oats, Brewer’s yeast and flaxseed. Unfortunately these cookies are also filled with sugar and refined carbs, so we wouldn’t recommend you overdo them. We rather recommend you eat these healthy foods in more creative ways, such as smoothies or energy bites (see recipes below).
And don’t forget…
No matter what galactagogues you use, they will not work if you do not reach the root cause of the problem – whether that is stress, or infrequent feeding, or an incorrect latch. And once again, if you are struggling, please get in touch with a qualified lactation consultant.