Rob MacDonald, CH
You've just gone through a grueling nine-hour labou.
You've just gone through a grueling nine-hour labour. You're exhausted, your whole body aches and when your new bundle of joy is placed in your arms for her first feeding, you nestle her into your breast apprehensively. Your heart begins to speed up as your baby fusses and does not latch on. You begin to have doubts in your ability to naturally feed your child. This unpleasant scenario is all too common for many new mothers beginning to breastfeed.
Fortunately, there are some safe and effective herbal remedies that can increase both the quantity and quality of breast milk. Herbs also have the added benefit of being highly nutritious, providing a natural source of vitamins and minerals for both mother and child. Herbs that boost breast milk production are termed galactogogues and they work in one of three ways. Some have a direct hormonal action on the pituitary gland in the brain that is responsible for the secretion of prolactin, the hormone that initiates and maintains the flow of breast milk during lactation. Other herbs work directly on the breast tissue, stimulating the glands of the breast. The third mode of action is via the nervous system.
Many herbs calm and reassure the nursing mother and aid in the "let down" response. This response acts like a reflex or a valve. The valve won't open to eject milk from the breast if the mother is stressed or overly occupied with other things.
An example is chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) a herb that works on the pituitary (a gland responsible for the secretion of milk). Chasteberry is a hormone-regulating herb that directly stimulates the production of prolactin from the pituitary and is an amazing herb for ensuring a healthy supply of milk. Ideally it's best taken the first 10 days after birth to ensure adequate milk production. It's a safe herb that can be taken long-term without fear of side effects. Take 40 drops of chasteberry tincture in a cup of boiling water every morning.
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) and blessed thistle (Carbenia/Carduus benedictus) are both herbs that work directly on the glands of the breast to stimulate and aid in ejecting the milk. Fenugreek is a South Asian spice that's especially good for diabetic mothers as it also has a blood sugar regulating effect. A tea can be made with the seeds. Simmer one teaspoon of fenugreek seeds in one cup of water for 15 minutes, strain and drink three cups per day.
Blessed or holy thistle has a long history of stimulating milk production. This herb is best consumed cold as it also possesses diaphoretic properties (it can make you sweat) and breast feeding itself also tends to raise your body temperature. Therefore, make your batch of tea one day in advance. Steep four teaspoons of blessed thistle in four cups of boiling water in a covered pot and allow it to steep overnight. The next day when it's cool, drink your four cups of tea in small amounts throughout the day.
Vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a gentle relaxing herb that has a calming effect on both the mother and the nursing baby. This herb is excellent when the let-down reflex is blocked due to emotional stress. Also a nervous system tonic, vervain is recommended for post-partum depression. Verbena works well as a tincture (one teaspoon three times a day) or as a tea (one teaspoon of herb in one cup of boiling water, drunk three times daily).
Fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare) are also worth mentioning. Fennel has a positive influence on the total quantity of milk and its fat content. It also helps to settle colic and flatulence, while stimulating digestion and appetite. Pour a cup of boiling water onto two teaspoons of slightly crushed seed and allow this to infuse for 15 minutes. Drink three cups per day.
Not all herbs are safe to take when you are lactating. Some herbs, such as sage (Salvia officinalis) can actually dry up milk production and can be employed when the time comes to wean your child. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) in high doses can also reduce mammary secretions.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
Choosing to breastfeed lends incredible benefits to both mother and child. Breast milk provides infants with optimal nutrition and increased resistance against ear infections, diarrhea and respiratory infections. Breastfed babies are less likely to experience food allergies, diabetes and certain types of cancer during childhood.
Since the taste of breast milk varies with the mother's diet, breastfed babies experience a wider variety of tastes than do formula-fed infants. In addition, the unique assortment of fatty acids in breast milk enhances brain development and intelligence.
Women who breastfeed lose an average of five pounds more within the first year after delivery than women who do not breastfeed. When infants breastfeed, the hormone oxytocin is released and stimulates the contraction of uterine muscles which stops bleeding caused by the detachment of the placenta and helps the uterus to return back to its normal size. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer later in life. The longer women breastfeed, the less likely they are to develop these disorders.
Breastfeeding is cleaner and simpler no bottles to wash or formula to mix and it costs nothing, yet its benefits are priceless.
Get Off to a Good Start
Ninety-nine percent of women who want to breastfeed are physically able to do so. The psychological disposition of the mother and a supportive environment are the key factors involved in success, along with time, patience, understanding and a sense of humor. Breastfeeding is a learning process for both mother and baby.
Expectant mothers should familiarize themselves with La Leche League (800-665-4324), a group that provides information and counseling. Lactation consultants are available through most hospitals to teach mothers how to properly hold their babies while feeding, ensuring proper latching on to the nipple. The consultants answer any questions that may arise. Clinical herbalists are also trained to recommend a healthy diet and safe herbs to promote and enrich breast milk.