Milk supply is one of the top concerns breastfeeding moms have, and insufficient milk supply is often the reason women stop breastfeeding or start supplementing. Many women turn to various herbs, drinks and foods (known as galactagogues) to increase milk supply naturally—but do they actually work, and are there any risks?
Let's have an honest talk about galactagogues and look at what the research has uncovered.
A galactagogue is a Greek word for something you ingest—whether it's medication, food or herbs—that is believed to promote or increase milk supply. We're going to focus on herbs and foods for our discussion since these tend to be the most commonly used.
While there is anecdotal evidence (aka personal experiences) that some of these substances may improve milk supply, much of their reported benefit may be a placebo effect (when we subconsciously trick our brain that treatment will work).
Unfortunately, there is little to no scientific evidence that shows herbs and special foods can directly increase milk supply.
Herbs have been widely used as natural galactagogues across various cultures, and many will swear that this is what helped their milk supply. Here's the challenge—herbs are unregulated and carry possible risks (such as cross-contamination). The general consensus among lactation professionals is that there just isn't enough research that supports using herbal remedies to improve milk supply.
For example, fenugreek is one of the most widely known herbs for use as a galactagogue. Fenugreek is believed to promote sweat-production, and since mammary glands in the breast are a form of sweat-gland, some believe it can also promote milk production.
Most mothers can take fenugreek without any serious negative reactions (other than possible diarrhea and smelling like maple syrup). However, serious allergic reactions can occur for those with nut, ragweed, chickpeas and other legume allergies, and some infants may respond with colic behaviors. Fenugreek can also have adverse reactions in diabetic mothers, those with thyroid issues and those taking certain medications like insulin, MAOs, anticoagulants, among others.
While there seems to be anecdotal support that fenugreek improves milk supply, currently, there are limited scientific studies evaluating the effectiveness of fenugreek in lactation, and those that have evaluated fenugreek produce weak and inconsistent results.
There are other herbs such as milk thistle, fennel, goat's rue, blessed thistle, anise, caraway, hops and lemon balm to name a few. However, these herbs have little to no scientific research on their effectiveness or whether they benefit or even harm lactation. Many of these herbs also carry risks.
The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) says, "Because current research of all galactagogues is relatively inconclusive and all of the agents have potential adverse effects, ABM cannot recommend any specific pharmacologic or herbal galactagogues at this time."
Some foods are anecdotally believed to increase milk supply. Some of the commonly-recommended foods include oats, garlic, barley, brewer's yeast, flax and even beverages such as coconut water and blue Gatorade.
Currently, there are almost no studies showing whether these foods and drinks impact lactation at all. We also are unsure how certain foods may impact lactation—whether its certain nutrients, simply getting in more calories, or whether it's about feeling nourished and energized. There are any questions to be asked and answered. While suggested foods are typically harmless, always double check for allergic reactions and potential risks.
So, with the lacking evidence, what's the hype with lactation snacks?
We've all the seen the cookies, bars and teas that claim they will boost your supply. Many of these lactation goodies have some combination of the above galactagogues in them. However, many of these ingredients have no scientific evidence that they aid in lactation and some do carry significant risks.
That being said, we do believe in the value of nutrition. As moms we often find ourselves coming in last, and we often forget even the most basic self-care tips like drinking water or eating throughout the day.
So, while the science is lacking for these products, and we can't vouch for the efficacy of lactation-specific products for increasing milk supply, we do believe there are lactation snacks that can work as delicious and nutritious, on-the-go snack options. When we are feeling nourished and energized our bodies, can function more effectively. And that's not something to be ignored.
(Psst: Get some ideas for lactation snacks here!)
Here's the takeaway: While some lactation snacks may be beneficial at helping provide nutrition for the lactating mother, not all lactation snacks are made equal, and some have ingredients that carry risks for adverse reactions (e.g., fenugreek). Additionally, there is no current evidence that these lactation specific snacks are any better than another healthy snack alternative. The choice is, of course, yours, but always do your research to evaluate the risk and benefits of what you consume, especially while pregnant and nursing.
This is what it boils down to: Galactagogues should not be the first line treatment for insufficient milk supply. Galactagogues, if they work and if your body responds, are a temporary fix to a potentially more serious underlying issue—whether it is an improper latch, oral restrictions in baby, hormonal issues in mom or something else.
If milk supply is a concern, the first step of action should always be to ensure baby is nursing often and is able to effectively remove milk from the breast. Never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant for guidance.
For mothers who are deemed to have true low supply despite on-demand feeding and draining of the breast, medical evaluation for underlying health issues is the best plan of action. In these cases, galactagogues may be recommended as support alongside steps such as increased expression/nursing, skin to skin, etc., as long as the risk of adverse reaction is low.