TLDR: When you’re breastfeeding or pumping, you might start to wonder if you’re making enough milk to feed your baby. There are a few ways to figure it out. If you think your baby isn’t getting enough and you want to boost your supply—or if you’re trying to create a stockpile for later—there are a few techniques you can use, as well as foods, drinks, and medications, to help you reach your goals.
Did you know one of the biggest reasons women stop nursing is due to concerns about supply? There are actually a few reasons why milk supply can be low, and in most cases, it’s totally fixable. The first step is figuring out if your baby is eating enough, and determining if your supply is actually low. You actually may be producing enough, though it’s understandable if you’re not sure. Whether you’re breastfeeding, pumping, combo-feeding with formula, or juggling a mixture of them all, here’s all the info you need to increase your breast milk supply, including techniques to try, foods to eat, and resources to access—so you and your baby can both feel more satisfied.
How Much Milk Should You Produce While Breastfeeding?
Before we get into ways to increase your milk supply, let’s talk about how much milk is enough. Babies usually drink an average of 32 ounces of milk1 a day depending on their size and age, among other factors. How much you produce relies a lot on your baby’s needs, how often you breastfeed, how hydrated you are, and your diet.
While it’s hard to know exactly how much you’re producing—especially if you’re exclusively breastfeeding—one way you can measure how much milk your baby drank is by weighing them before and after they eat using an electric scale that shows grams. The difference in grams is the amount of milk they consumed. Make sure not to change their clothes or diaper before you weigh them the second time.
What are Signs that Baby is Getting Enough to Eat?
Before you explore ways to increase your milk supply, you’ll want to figure out if there’s even a problem. Here are a few ways to tell if your baby is eating enough:
Healthy weight gain
You may have noticed that your baby has a lot of doctor’s appointments in the first two years. One of the reasons for these visits is to make sure your baby is gaining the appropriate amount of weight. If your baby is breastfed and has stopped gaining weight or significantly slowed in weight gain, your pediatrician may talk to you about your milk supply and ways to increase it.
Producing enough dirty diapers
When your baby is born, especially in those first few months, your day will consist of feeding your baby, changing their diapers, and trying to get them to sleep—repeat. Babies typically use between eight to 12 diapers a day, and some of them should contain poop.
Normal poop from a breastfed baby may be yellow, green, or brown, with a seedy, pasty texture. If you notice those wet or poopy diapers start to lessen, you should reach out to your baby's healthcare provider and possibly think about increasing your milk supply.
More and more energy
Babies are not overly active in the first few weeks, but between months two and three, your baby will start to be a little more interactive and energetic. Making more faces and sounds to gauge their reaction, and keeping a tummy time routine can help you determine your baby’s energy levels. If you notice your baby starts to have less enthusiasm and participation in these activities, it may be because they need more nutritional support.
What Can You Do to Increase Milk Supply?
The biggest thing to remember is that breast milk production is all about supply and demand: the more your baby nurses or you pump, the more milk your breasts will make–at least in theory.
Whether you’re trying to up a low supply or stock up before going back to work, some things you can do to get more milk are:
Breastfeed more often
One of the most important things you can do—especially in the first four weeks—is nurse on demand. Anytime your baby wants milk, offer it. When your baby nurses, your nipples are stimulated, which produces more prolactin and oxytocin2 . Prolactin is a hormone that influences milk supply and oxytocin is the hormone that releases milk. By nursing more often, you’ll be increasing the amount of milk produced, and it will release more easily when your baby is feeding.
While you can increase your production after the four-week mark, if you can set the foundation early on, you will have an easier time maintaining your supply.
Avoid artificial nipples if you can
Lactation consultants and doctors may advise you to wait a few weeks after your baby is born to give them a pacifier, and one reason might be to help with milk production.
If your baby is fussing and you give them a pacifier, the opportunity for nipple stimulation (which creates prolactin) is lost. This is especially important in the first few weeks. As with anything, there are exceptions. While you should offer the breast to your baby if they’re hungry, if they’re sleeping, they can have a pacifier. There are also a few other situations when pacifiers may help3 .
Using bottles can also affect breastfeeding. When a baby drinks milk from a breast, they have to work very hard to get the milk out, moving their tongues in a wave motion to express the milk4 from the ducts behind the areola. Bottles are much easier. To get the milk out of a bottle, the baby will make the same motions as they do on a breast, but the bottle doesn’t require as much pressure. Your baby may begin to prefer the bottle if it’s easier for them.
None of this is to say you need to avoid bottles or pacifiers, but in your first few weeks of breastfeeding or if you’re trying to increase your milk supply, you might want to consider waiting or pausing your use of them.
Use a nursing supplementer device
If your milk supply is low, you’ll want to make sure you get the benefits of your baby stimulating your nipple because of its chain reaction for your hormones, but you also want to make sure your baby is eating. For this, you can use a nursing supplementer device5 , which is used to provide more milk to your baby while they nurse.
The device involves hanging a container of milk (which can be previously expressed breast milk or formula) around your neck, and attaching the connected fine tubing to your nipple. While your baby is eating, they are also pulling milk from these tubes. This device allows your baby to get continuous milk and improve their latch and sucking ability, while you are increasing your supply through the hormone released by the baby's latch. As your supply increases, you can gradually reduce the amount of milk supplied in the device.
Use a breast pump
Milk production is a delicate balance, with prolactin and oxytocin creating milk and helping it flow while a polypeptide called the feedback inhibitor of lactation6 (FIL) prevents your production from going overboard. The FIL is independent in each breast and learns how much milk you need. If one of your breasts doesn’t get fully emptied, the FIL will cause it to stop producing milk.
This is where your breast pump comes in. If your baby isn’t completely emptying each of your breasts when they eat, you can use the pump to finish the job. The breast pump is also important when you’re not with your baby. If you’ve gone back to work or are on a trip, pumping your breasts will train them to continue to make milk.
There are a few times when nursing both sides is not recommended, like if you have mastitis in one breast or if your baby has colic. Otherwise, make sure that your baby is either nursing fully from both breasts or that you are pumping completely
While breastfeeding seems like a physical experience, there is also an emotional component. Being stressed, scared, or anxious can inhibit oxytocin production.
A couple of studies showed that using relaxation techniques helped mothers of preterm infants7 increase their milk supply. Put on some calming music or your favorite meditation (like this one specifically for nursing), and relax while you’re in the feeding zone.
See a lactation consultant
A nursing mom’s best friend is a lactation consultant. Lactation consultants will help make sure your baby is latching properly to express the most milk. They can also teach you new ways to hold your baby while you nurse to make sure all of the milk ducts are being stimulated. Most importantly, they can provide you peace of mind if you are new to breastfeeding and worried about your supply.
“A prenatal breastfeeding visit may help you understand warning signs for low milk supply," she says. "A trained IBCLC can also help you start harvesting colostrum prenatal, which helps kick off the milk supply right after birth.”
Foods and Drinks to Increase Milk Supply
Nursing often and emptying your breasts are very important for your supply, but so is how you support your body through breastfeeding. While you’re taking care of your baby around the clock, don’t forget to give yourself a little TLC.
It’s important to get the nutrients you need, and don’t forget that you need 450-500 more calories a day while you’re nursing9 . If you’re trying to increase your milk supply, you can also add in certain herbs, foods and drinks to help.
Hydration is very important in maintaining and increasing your milk supply. There’s little research on this topic, but if you ask any nursing mom, she’ll tell you to drink lots of water—usually while she’s taking a big sip from her reusable water bottle. Coconut milk can also help you stay hydrated and provide natural electrolytes. Hydration can come in the form of fruit and vegetable juices, herbal teas, milk, and nut milks.
Many women have sung the praises of oatmeal for increasing their milk supply. Oatmeal is full of protein, fiber, vitamin E, and minerals like iron. There is research that shows that anemia—a lack of iron—can be the cause of lower milk production10 .
Papaya fruit is known to boost breast milk, but to get the benefits, the fruit needs to be unripe or green (it can be raw or cooked, and works in sweet or savory dishes). Papaya leaf juice is another option12 . This juice increases the prolactin hormone, which influences the production of milk. Making papaya leaf juice is easy—all you need is a blender, water, and papaya leaves (which you can find online or in a specialty grocery store).
Thoroughly wash the leaves, then give them a rough chop. Add them to a blender with your water, and blend them up. They are a bit bitter, so you can add a little lemon, salt, or sweetener to your juice.
Many women use herbal galactagogues13 to boost their supply. Galactagogues are food sources that are known to increase milk supply, and some of these herbs have been used for thousands of years for this purpose. While there isn’t a ton of research on the use of herbs, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. One caveat: Before using certain herbs, Dean advises you to talk to your doctor to make sure they’re okay for you.
“There are herbs that are contraindicated with certain medical conditions, so you should have a professional guide you through herbal use for safety,” Dean says.
Here are some herbs that are commonly used to increase supply:
Many of these herbs are ingredients in lactation teas and can also be added to lactation cookies, smoothies, or oatmeal.
Lactation cookies have probably come up in any conversation you’ve had with a nursing mom. The name says it all: These cookies are made with certain herbs—usually fenugreek—as well as other ingredients like coconut oil, oats, dates, chia seeds, and almonds to increase milk supply. You can buy them in stores or online, or there are recipes you can make at home.
The added benefit of enjoying lactation cookies is that having an easy snack to reach for during the day can help you get the extra calories you need while breastfeeding. Put a little tin of cookies by your nursing station, so you have a little pick-me-up while you’re nursing your baby.
In addition to herbal galactagogues, there are also prescription medications that act as galactagogues14 . While these medicines may increase prolactin, it’s still important to continue to let your baby nurse as often as possible and completely empty your breasts each time. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if one might be right for you if you're dealing with a low milk supply.
The Key: Supply & Demand
Supply issues can be a challenge for many women, often leading them to stop breastfeeding altogether, but this doesn’t have to be the case. There are many ways to increase supply. The key is understanding the supply and demand aspect of milk supply. The more your baby—or a pump—expresses milk from your breast, the more milk your breasts will produce.