Late onset decreased milk supply
From the emails I receive and from the patients we see in our breastfeeding clinic, I believe that “late onset decreased milk supply” is common in the population of mothers we see at our breastfeeding clinic. It’s ironic because many, if not most of the mothers who have this problem, actually started out with an abundant milk supply and the milk supply decreased for one reason or another. “Decreased” does not mean necessarily “not enough”, only less than there was. And this is important because often the diagnosis is missed because the baby’s weight continues to be good, the mother will often say that her milk sprays across the room when she expresses or that she can pump large amounts of milk. Late onset decreased milk supply may occur as early as 3 or 4 weeks after birth, but usually the symptoms start to become obvious around 2 to 3 months after birth.
What are the symptoms of late onset decreased milk supply?
• Obviously, in some cases, though not all, not even the majority by any means, the baby’s weight slows down or even plateaus. Some may lose weight. But, and this should be emphasized, most babies continue to gain weight, but the baby’s behaviour shows that something is wrong.
• “Overactive letdown reflex”. If the baby cannot handle the flow, it’s not usually because the flow is too rapid, it’s usually because the baby’s latch could be better. Most of the mothers, almost every one, who have attended our breastfeeding clinic who told me in the email they sent me that the baby’s latch was good, had babies whose latch was far from good. Many of the latches were definitely “non-functional”.
• Because the baby is usually still gaining weight well, the baby is diagnosed and treated with anti-reflux medications or anti-reflux formula. Neither is appropriate because the baby doesn’t have reflux. I admit that I have no proof, but I just do not believe that exclusively breastfed babies have symptomatic reflux except rarely. Furthermore, anti-reflux medication like ranitidine and proton pump inhibitors are not harmless. They have been shown to cause kidney damage and increased risk of fractures. Breastmilk contains alpha lactalbumin, which, in the presence of an acidic milieu in the stomach, forms HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumour cells) which may help to prevent cancer in children by causing tumour cells to commit suicide (apoptosis). By decreasing the acidity of the stomach these anti-reflux drugs may prevent the formation of HAMLET.
• Colic. I think the term “colic” is not accurate: Exclusively breastfed babies cry, usually, because they want more milk. This is another diagnosis that I don’t believe should be diagnosed in exclusively breastfed babies. Even if they are gaining weight well, this doesn’t mean that the baby doesn’t want more milk and as a result, the baby cries. In any case, “colic” does not start when the baby is 3 months old or older.
• Allergy to something in the mother’s milk. This is usually felt to be a reaction to cow milk protein in the mother’s milk. But again, with no proof, I am not convinced that this occurs in exclusively breastfed babies except very occasionally. Indeed, small amounts of cow milk protein and other “accused” proteins are there to decrease the risk of reaction in the baby. Even blood in the baby’s bowel movements does not prove that the baby is allergic to something in the milk. So why the blood? I have a hypothesis, but I don’t know for sure. I think this is the one place where low fat, high fat milk actually may play a role. If the milk supply decreases and the baby pulls away from the breast when the flow slows, the baby drinks mostly low fat milk. The stomach empties rapidly, with the acid and other enzymes which normally wouldn’t enter the intestines and the fluid will move rapidly through the intestines to the large intestines and will cause irritation of the lining of the gut and bleeding. The endoscopy done by the pediatric gastroenterologist will show inflammation, diagnosis, allergic colitis. No!
• See also the next point. Typically, the baby will pull at the breast, cry at the breast, release the breast and latch on again, pulling again and releasing the breast again. The baby may even refuse to take the breast completely. This baby is squirming because of slowed flow.
• “Nursing strikes”. This was a common diagnosis made amongst many exclusively breastfed babies who refuse to breastfeed even though they never received any bottles and were growing well and gaining well for a while. This “nursing strike” tends to occur in babies of 4 or more months old. But the babies usually breastfeed well during the night. The baby feeding well during the night but almost not at all in the day is typical of late onset decreased milk supply.
• The mother may develop “late onset sore nipples”. Why should this happen? When milk flow slows, the baby may slip down on the nipple instead of maintaining a deep latch, the baby may “bite”, as the mothers say, and also the baby pulling at the breast without letting go can certainly cause the nipples to get sore. Mothers will often say that “they, the mother, had become lazy” in how they latched the baby on, but there is no reason to help a 4 month old latch on. The baby does it all on his own.
• Breastfeedings may be very long, or, more commonly, very short, very short being more common, I think. When the feedings are very short, the baby may start sucking his hand much of the time. This is not normal for the baby to suck his hand or fingers much of the time, though we used to say it was.
• A baby who was sleeping through the night, may start to wake up again frequently. On the other hand, a baby who was waking up to feed during the night may start to sleep through the night, perhaps to the delight of the parents, but this may not be a good sign.
• The baby is “self-weaning”. Babies under the age of 3 or so do not “self-wean”. This is thought to be the case because of the baby refusing the breast.
• In the older baby, one may see a baby not gaining weight and yet refusing to eat solids. This is taken as proof by many pediatricians and nutritionists that there “is nothing in breastmilk after the first few months”. But they can only say this because they do not watch the baby on the breast, and even if they did, they would not know what to watch for. So, triumphantly, the mother is told that the baby is using too much energy sucking all day long and getting no calories. But why would the baby refuse solids if he’s gaining little weigh? It is true that the baby is not getting a lot of milk, not because there is nothing in breastmilk after the first few months but rather because the baby is not getting much milk. And this makes the baby ketotic, just like someone on some diets that try to induce ketosis in the dieter. When you are ketotic, you lose your appetite. So the baby has no interest in eating solids but continues on the breast because he gets comfort and security from the breast.
Why would the mother have a decrease in her milk supply?
• Often the baby’s latch is not as good as it could be. The mother may or may not have sore nipples because of the less than good latch but often she overcomes the sore nipples because the baby gets good flow at the breast. These are the mothers who were told years ago “It’s normal to have sore nipples but you won’t have any more pain after three weeks”. Years ago? When I first started the breastfeeding clinic, mothers were almost universally told this from what I could ascertain, at least from what the mothers coming to the clinic were telling me.
And why would the baby’s latch not be as good as it could be? Because of 1. How the baby goes to the breast and positioning and latching the baby on the breast 2. Use of artificial nipples such as bottles and nipple shields 3. The baby has a tongue tie. Some tongue ties are obvious, but many tongue ties are more subtle and require an evaluation that goes farther than just looking, but includes feeling under the baby’s tongue as well and knowing what to feel for. Unfortunately, few health professionals, including lactation consultants, know how to evaluate whether or not the baby has a tongue tie. 4. The mother has had a decrease in her milk supply. Late onset decreased milk supply is common. And when the milk flow slows, the baby tends to slip down on the nipple and the latch is even worse, so that decreased milk supply itself can lead to more decrease. And click these links Really good drinking with English text, Twelve day old nibbling, English Text, “Borderline” drinking for video clips showing babies drinking well at the breast, or not. Watch the videos, read the texts and then watch the videos again. Following the Protocol manage Breastmilk intake may change things so he does gain well.
• The mother has been feeding the baby on one breast at each feeding, without offering the other breast. It used to be usual, when mothers were breastfeeding, to automatically offer the other breast. In the past few years, mothers have been advised to feed the baby on just one breast at a feeding, even to offer the same breast only for several feedings at a time (“block feeding”). But if the baby is not drinking, the baby is not getting the hindmilk because the baby is not getting any milk. And the result of feeding on just one side to follow a rule? A decrease in the milk supply.
• The mother has started the birth control pill, an IUD with progesterone or another type of birth control which is hormone based. These methods undoubtedly cause a decrease in the milk supply in many nursing mothers. Mothers are usually told that these hormonal methods of birth control do not affect the milk supply. They are told wrong.
• It is well known that a new pregnancy will decrease the milk supply. In the exclusively breastfeeding mother whose baby is not receiving bottles, a pacifier or where the mother is not holding off on feedings and the mother has not yet had her period, the chance of pregnancy in the first six months is very low, about the same as with a birth control pill.
• Other medications may decrease the milk supply. It is obvious that bromocriptine (Parlodel) and cabergoline (Dostinex) should not be used in breastfeeding mothers. The two drugs are supposed to turn off milk supply. But imagine that in Eastern Europe and in Greece and probably some other countries they are used to prevent postpartum engorgement (the treatment for postpartum engorgement is to prevent it by getting the baby breastfeeding well) and for mastitis (no words can describe how ridiculous this approach to treating mastitis is). Oral antihistamines, especially the older ones, also decrease the milk supply, based on multiple reports from breastfeeding mothers. It is possible that pseudoephedrine can also decrease the milk supply. Both antihistamines and pseudoephedrine can be found in over the counter cold and allergy medicines. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) an antidepressant unlike most other antidepressants may decrease the milk supply, but we don’t know for sure.
• Can postpartum depression, exhaustion, mother’s diet affect milk supply? Everyone seems to believe it, and it could very well be true, I don’t know, but there is no good evidence for these factors.
So, what can be done to prevent and to treat this problem?
It is always best to prevent problems than to treat them, or perhaps better said, the best treatment is prevention. And what does that imply? Get the best latch as soon as possible after the baby is born. If the mother has painful nipples, then the baby’s latch is not good no matter how it looks from the outside. In the first few days and even later, a good latch and breast compression are useful ways of getting more milk into the baby and helps prevent frustration and early introduction of bottles or nipple shields which result in decreased milk getting to the baby from the breast. Skin to skin contact is also very important to the initiation of breastfeeding.
When we ask our patients whose baby has a very significant tongue tie whether the hospital staff checked the baby for tongue tie, the answer is most frequently “no they didn’t even look”. Next most frequent answer is that they said there might be a tongue tie but it’s not significant. These tongue ties, when we see the mother and baby, are obviously very significant. And finally, the answer is often also, there is no tongue tie.
And what else?
• It is not a good idea to feed the baby on just one side, to follow a rule. Yes, making sure the baby “finishes” the first side before offering the second can help treat poor weight gain or fussiness in the baby, but rules and breastfeeding do not go together well. If the baby is not drinking, actually getting milk, there is no point in just keeping the baby sucking without getting any milk for long periods of time. The mother should “finish” one side and then offer the other. The approach of feeding one side without “listening” to the baby ends up with a decrease in milk supply.
Furthermore, babies tend to get less milk in the late afternoon than in the morning, so what works in the early morning may not work in the early evening. If the baby cries and fusses in the evening, mothers who has been advised “one breast/feeding” may keep putting the baby back to the same breast and finally conclude that she needs to give the baby a bottle of formula. And as the milk supply continues to decrease, the problem may get worse and worse. Even if the mother puts previously expressed milk into the evening bottle, that does not prevent the problem.
On top of that, what may work when the baby is a month od, say, may not work when the baby is 3 or 4 months, yet, believing that one breast/feeding is the way to go, the milk supply continues to decrease and many symptoms of late onset decreased milk supply may occur.
• Medications that decrease milk supply should be avoided. These are discussed above. It is almost always possible to avoid oral antihistamines. For seasonal allergies, local treatment is preferable, not only to prevent decreased milk supply. Why give the whole body a drug when it is only the eyes or nose that needs treatment? There are nasal and eye drops which can be used, and inhalers for respiratory symptoms. The use of cabergoline (Dostinex) and bromocriptine (Parlodel) is contraindicated in breastfeeding mothers because they may turn off the milk supply.
• Early intervention for breastfeeding problems is important. Problems that are difficult to treat when the baby is 8 weeks old, could have been easy to treat when the baby is 8 days old.
If the problem of late onset decreased milk supply already exists?
First and foremost, eliminate whatever medications the mother is taking that might decrease her milk supply.
If the mother is feeding one breast at a feeding, she should start offering both breasts at each feeding.
It’s not too late to release a tongue tie.
If the baby is four months of age or older, solids can and should be started rather than formula, especially by bottle, though if the baby will take the lactation aid at the breast, then formula is an option. So is donated breastmilk. But a bottle interferes with breastfeeding and in the context of a decrease in milk supply, may result in the baby refusing the breast altogether. And how much of the solids should be given? As much as the baby will take, as frequently as the baby will take them without forcing. Commercial infant cereals, though beloved by pediatricians, are low in nutrients, except iron, most of which ends up in the baby’s diaper. They taste, at best, blah, are often constipating. There is nothing magical about them. For more information on Starting solids,
But it’s even more important to increase the milk supply than to give solids. Domperidone can increase the milk supply and milk flow. We start with 30 mg (3 tablets) 3 times a day and sometimes go up from there in two steps, first to 40 mg (4 tablets) 3 times a day and then 40 mg (4 tablets) 4 times a day, or 50 mg (5 tablets) 3 times a day (for convenience). Click this link to see the section from my book on Herbs and domperidone. If your doctor is reluctant as well as New Zealand Medical Journal Vol 128 | No 1416 | 12 June 2015) and show these to your doctor.
Need breastfeeding help? Make an appointment at the International Breastfeeding Centre.
Copyright: Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC, 2017