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Dr. Tori Hudson, Portland, Oregon, Blog Healthline Blog

by Tori Hudson, N.D.

Most pediatric health advisory organizations and practitioners recommend exclusive breast-feeding for all infants during the first four to six months after birth, with breastfeeding continuing for a minimum of 12 months. Exclusive breastfeeding is defined as an infant receiving only breast milk without addition of water, foods or supplemental formula. Decades of research indicates that breast milk is nutritionally superior to commercial formulas of artificial baby’s milk or cow’s milk. Infants who are premature or low birth weight receive additional benefits from the nutritional content and immune properties of breast milk. The antibodies in breast milk help protect the infant against infections.

A woman’s breasts naturally change in preparation for breastfeeding. Along with elevated levels of estrogen (ductular sprouting) and progesterone (lobular formation), placental lactogen, prolactin and chorionic gonadotropin play a part. Once 16 weeks of gestation is reached, the breasts will produce milk at delivery. Following delivery of a preterm infant, the breast produces ‘premie milk’ for 6 weeks. This milk contains a higher concentration of immune components than milk produced following a 40 week gestation and also has nutrient and calorie concentrations more conducive to growth of the premature infant. After about 6 weeks, the milk gradually changes to ‘mature milk’, the composition eventually matching that of a woman that birthed a term infant.

Glands surrounding the nipple produce a sebaceous oil that keeps the skin of the nipple area supple. That is why washing the breasts with only water is recommended. Soaps and other ‘toughening’ techniques actually damage tissue and remove this necessary oil. During later pregnancy, hormonal changes cause the nipple tissue to become more elastic.

No external physical preparation is necessary to breastfeeding mothers. The infant has reflexes that enhance the breastfeeding process and mothers receive hormonal priming to breastfeed at delivery and throughout lactation. Breastfeeding is a naturally occurring process for both mothers and infants, but some new mothers feel some instruction is helpful. When choosing a health care provider for the infant, a new mother might want to ask what specific resources they have for breastfeeding mothers. Hospitals and birthing centers designated ‘Baby Friendly’ are the gold standard for women wishing to receive the best support with lactation. There are a multitude of books available that can serve as a resource for breastfeeding mothers.

One of the most common complaints in the first days of breastfeeding is nipple soreness. There is usually a transient nipple tenderness that passes after an infant has spent roughly 24 hours at the breast. When an infant nurses, the mother should feel a ‘tug’, not a ‘pinch’. Many women and health care professionals think that pain is to be expected, but pain is produced when an infant is not latched on correctly. A proper latch-on has the infant tummy to tummy with the mother, the infant’s body in alignment with its head, and limbs in relaxed flexion. The infant’s mouth needs to open wide like a yawn, and its tongue needs to drop to take in enough areola to compress the milk sinuses. When latched on properly, the baby’s nose will be touching the mother’s breast, the baby’s chin will be compressing the breast a bit, and both the baby’s lips will be flanged outward. There will be movement visible in the infant’s cheek muscles, and one will be able to hear audible swallowing in bursts.

Nutritional demands on the physiology of a nursing mother are as important or even more important than during the pregnancy. Continuing a well balanced diet with extra calories and protein (400-500 cal a day more) continues to be fundamental, along with a whole foods approach with adequate fluid intake and a prenatal vitamin. A mother’s milk does reflect the specific fatty acids found in her diet. Thus, a diet of healthy oils including fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and nut butters that do not contain partially hydrogenated oils assures a good fatty acid balance. Nursing also takes extra energy. Sleep disruption is common, so it is important to be mindful of rest and relaxation.

Lactation support with herbs

For many women, breast feeding proceeds with no difficulty and a plentiful supply of milk, along with comfort and ease for infant and mother. For other women, it can be more difficult with varying challenges such as lack of adequate milk, pain, difficulty in getting the baby to suckle, fatigue, and medical problems of either baby or mom.

One of the problems that can usually be well addressed by herbal medicine is increasing the milk supply. Fennel has the advantage of not only increasing the breast milk, but easing after-pains and settling the digestion of the mother and the newborn, helping both to dispel gas and treat colic. Fenugreek has been a standard among lactation consultants and within herbal folk medicine to not only improve lactation but to promote digestion and stimulate the appetite while also improving the taste of the milk. Nettles and raspberry are nourishing herbs that encourage a greater supply of breast milk and supply a source of trace minerals and vitamins to enrich the milk. Blessed thistle and borage seed oil and flower tops encourage the supply while helping the mother with postpartum moods and settling the nerves. Blessed thistle is a bitter herb useful for liver and digestive problems as well as for increasing the flow and richness of milk. Hops can not only increase milk flow but also help to bring normal sleep for the infant. Oatstraw calms a nursing mother and stimulates milk supply as well as supplying some minerals such as silica, zinc and manganese. Goat’s rue is used in veterinary medicine for stimulation of milk secretion with reports of increasing the milk supply by up to 50%. The verbenalin in vervain has lactation-promoting properties as well. Milk thistle aids digestion, improves liver metabolism and increases milk supply.

Scientific validation, as well as a long tradition of using chaste tree as a lactagogue, has lead to the emergence of chaste tree as a leading herb to promote lactation. This perhaps seems paradoxical in that vitex is known to lower prolactin levels. It may be best to explain this contradiction by viewing vitex as amphoteric or having a normalizing effect. When the endogenous production of prolactin is a normal event as in lactation, vitex may work to support this action, but when there is a pathological condition causing high prolactin levels leading to amenorrhea and/or galactorrhea, vitex can have a treatment effect in lowering prolactin.

Two studies have shown that garlic increases the duration of breast feeding and the amount of milk consumed by their infant. , The study compared 1.5 gm of garlic capsules to a placebo in 30 women during breast feeding. The authors suggested that the positive effect was at least in part due to favorably altering the flavor of the breast milk. (And this wasn’t just in Italian women and their infants!!!) Adding a garlic capsule to any herbal lactation formula could provide added benefit to breast feeding women and their infants.

Prevention and Treatment of Complications

Women and their practitioners should always be mindful of herbs that are contraindicated in nursing, and the treatment of complications that can occur during lactation. Complications include breast pain, breast infection, cracked nipples and nipple pain. Each of these can be addressed by additional botanical considerations both internally and topically with creams and poultices. Some cases of mastitis may need antibiotics. If the symptoms of fever and localized breast inflammation persist after 24 hours, antibiotics are usually appropriate.


La Leche League International International Lactation Consultants Association
1400 N. meacham Road 200 N. Michigan Avenue
Schaumburg, Illinois 60173 Chicago, Illinois 60101

  1. Milewicz A, Gejdel E, Sworen H, et al. Vitex-agnus castus extract in the treatment of luteal phase defects due to latent hyperprolactinemia: Results of a randomized placebo-controlled double blind study (in German). Arzneim Forsch Drug Res 1993;43:752-756
  2. Menella J, Beauchamp G. The effects of repeated exposure to garlic-flavored milk on the nursling’s behavior. Pediatr Res 1993;34:805-808.
  3. Mennella J. Mother’s milk: A medium for early flavor experiences. J Hum Lact 1995;11(1):39-45.

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