breast milk supply difficulties

I was her…that mom that had to pump for days just to have enough breast milk supply to go out with my husband to a movie. The one who could sit for 45 minutes and get just barely enough to cover the bottom of the container attached to my pump. If I was working, I just couldn’t keep up. If you feel like your body is making plenty of milk but you just can’t get it to come out with a pump, you are not alone.

As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), I often hear from mothers who report that, while their milk supplies are great and their babies are very satisfied at the breast, they simply can’t get the pump to work effectively for them while they are away from their little ones. Very often, these moms are just back to work, stress and anxiety are high, and mothers are coming to grips with their new reality.

An overly simplistic explanation for the challenge is this: Oxytocin is a major hormonal player in breastfeeding. It is the hormone that is responsible for “ejecting” the milk from the body (another hormone, prolactin, is largely responsible for the manufacturing of the milk). Oxytocin is STRONGLY tied to emotion, stress, and how you FEEL…which is why moms who are newly back to work (and who wouldn’t be stressed in that situation?) are so often affected. So, actions that calm, sooth, and remind us of our babies can increase oxytocin and increase the volumes of milk that are pumped.*

I brainstormed with a number of other IBCLCs for ideas to help get the breast milk supply flowing if you’re feeling STUCK! Here are some of their brilliant suggestions:

  • Video of Your Baby Feeding at the Breast – I always get my best tips from moms themselves and several months ago, a client said that she recorded a video on her phone from her perspective looking down at her baby while they breastfed. She would then hold her phone in the same position and play the video while pumping. It allowed her to “mimic” the visual experience and the volume of her pumped milk increased dramatically!
  • The Use of Heat and Massage – Many mothers find that being cold can impact their milk ejection and so have found things like warming their pump flanges, drinking a warm beverage, or using a heating pad or warm rice sock on their shoulders or across their bellies (right where a baby would warm you if they were breastfeeding) to be effective.
  • Deep Breathing and Meditation – Classic relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation help a number of mothers. Some have found that guided imagery CDs designed to help breastfeeding mothers while pumping can be incredibly effective.
  • Distract Yourself – Think about anything BUT pumping! Watch TV, surf the web, read a magazine, cover up the pump with a cover or a blanket, wear headphones so you don’t hear the pump…put your mind on ANYTHING but pumping!
  • Try Hand Expression Instead – For some moms, pumping is just not a good fit and they find that hand expression is much more effective. A colleague recently told me that she could never express more than 1-2 oz. for a pump but could easily release 5-6 oz. very quickly with her hands.
  • Pavlov! – A wise lactation consultant with many years of her own experience as a pumping mom suggested that moms establish some sort of “trigger” for themselves (just like with Pavlov and his dogs!). Sing a song every single time you breastfeed your baby and then sing that same song when you pump. Or visualize a piece of art (a great suggestion would be “The Origin of the Milky Way” by Tintoretto!) in the same way. Or how about thinking about a fire hose?
  • Try Herbal Supplements or Essential Oils that Help to Reduce Stress – People all over the world use things from nature to impact health and mood. There are many options on the market so ask your health care provider to recommend one that could be helpful.
  • Examine Your Feelings – Let’s face it. If you’re struggling to pump because of emotions, those emotions are real and worth talking through and exploring. Sometimes mothers see their pump as everything they are frustrated with. They see it as a symbol that they aren’t with the baby and that they require a machine to do what they wish they could do themselves. They feel frustrated and that can impact pumping volume. Or maybe pumping doesn’t look or feel quite like mom thought it would. Seek out friends or professionals who might be able to help you through these feelings.
  • If All Else Fails, Eat Dark Chocolate – There is some anecdotal evidence that the consumption of dark chocolate can impact oxytocin levels and thus, increase pumping volume. We don’t know if it really works or not but hey, any excuse to eat chocolate, right?

If you feel like pumping is simply not effective and wonder about whether it is an issue of getting the milk OUT vs. milk supply, you are not alone. Hopefully these suggestions will be helpful.

*It is always a good idea to make sure that your flange sizes are correct and that your pump is in good working order.

If you experienced this same challenge with your breast milk supply, what solution worked best for you?

Thank you to my IBCLC colleagues in private practice who participated in the conversation that inspired this post: Erin Michaud, Diana Cassar-Uhl, Jeanette McCulloch, Mellanie Sheppard, Celina Dykstra, Linda Merli, Monique Jones, Ann Faust, and Brenda Dalton.