August 1stmarks the start of World Breastfeeding Week, which aims to raise awareness about the health benefits of nursing your baby as well as resources for those struggling with breastfeeding. In this post we will look at a range of natural approaches to common breastfeeding problems, such as poor milk supply, and breast pain.
Let's start with one of the more serious problems that can affect a person's ability to breastfeed…
As the name suggests, mastitis is a condition where breast tissue is inflamed, usually due to an infection in the milk ducts. This kind of infection needs to be treated quickly to lessen the potential for complications such as scarring and damage to the milk ducts. If you suspect you have mastitis, consult your heath care practitioner right away to minimise your risk of complication and ensure that you and your baby are being well looked after.
Depending on what is causing the infection, it may be necessary to briefly discontinue breastfeeding, especially if your baby was born prematurely. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed to address a serious infection in breast tissue (Jacobs et al., 2013).
Although it may seem counterintuitive, one recommendation for managing mastitis is to feed more from the infected breast (check with your doctor first). Continuing to drain the breast helps to reduce swelling and pain.Natural products can also help, such as propolis or Manuka honey, which can be applied directly to breast tissue after feeding, to be washed away before the next feeding. Echinacea, a herbal remedy considered safe for use while breastfeeding, may help support your body's natural defences against infection.
To reduce your risk of mastitis, use olive oil or sweet almond oil to moisturise your nipples. This helps to maintain hydration and prevent cracking that increases your susceptibility to infection.
Blocked Milk Ducts
Blocked milk ducts are a common problem for people who are breastfeeding. In many cases, a blocked duct can be cleared using a warm compress for 5 to 10 minutes. Where there is swelling around a blocked duct, a warm compress containing cooked oats, calendula (marigold), marshmallow root, and parsley can be effective at clearing the duct and soothing tissue. For inflammation, you might want to try a cold compress containing grated potato.
Pain when feeding
Breastfeeding may be a magical bonding experience for many, but babies can also cause serious pain! Some babies are biters, while others are just very hungry. Coupled with the normal swelling as breasts fill with milk, this can lead to pain, chafing, skin irritation, and cracked nipples. And, as if that wasn't enough, the act of breastfeeding can require you to adopt a rather unusual and perhaps uncomfortable posture for an extended period, which may cause muscle pain!
If your baby is struggling to latch on, or if your breast pump isn't properly fitted, you're more likely to experience pain and irritation. And, because your breasts aren't being drained of milk, they will remain swollen, which can also be painful.
If you're experiencing pain while weaning or after switching your baby to formula or solids, you may want to use a natural astringent such as sage to reduce your milk supply. Using a breast pump to gradually reduce milk supply can also help with swelling and pain when weaning.
Hot and cold compresses, and cabbage leaves, can also help with pain and engorgement related to breastfeeding (Arora et al., 2008).
And finally, if you're breastfeeding and have neck pain, arm pain, or back pain, look at your posture while you feed. Staring lovingly down at your baby is all well and good, but it can really put a crick in your neck over time. To decrease your risk of muscle pain, try feeding while lying on your side with your baby beside you. Or use a support cushion designed to minimise pain while feeding.
Getting to know galactagogues
They might sound like space creatures, but galactagogues are simply substances that help increase milk flow to make breastfeeding easier.
If you have an especially hungry baby, or if your natural milk production is on the lower side, your physician may suggest certain medications that can help with milk flow. Natural products are also available that claim to increase breastmilk production, but the evidence in support of these is scant, with the notable exception of fenugreek.
A small number of studies have found that fenugreek, a warming spice, can enhance milk supply compared to placebo. In one placebo-controlled study, new mothers who drank fenugreek tea had significant increases in milk supply, and their newborns grew at a faster rate than those in the placebo group (Turkyılmaz et al., 2011).
Fenugreek is available in capsule and tablet forms, and as tea or tinctures (which may contain a small amount of alcohol, so check before use). For anyone having difficulties with milk supply, the German Commission E recommends using a dosage of 6 g of fenugreek in divided doses as part of a natural approach to nursing your baby.
Arora, S., Vatsa, M., & Dadhwal, V. (2008). A Comparison of Cabbage Leaves vs. Hot and Cold Compresses in the Treatment of Breast Engorgement. Indian Journal of Community Medicine : Official Publication of Indian Association of Preventive & Social Medicine, 33(3):160-162.
Jacobs, A., Abou-Dakn, M., Becker, K., et al. (2013). S3-Guidelines for the Treatment of Inflammatory Breast Disease during the Lactation Period: AWMF Guidelines, Registry No. 015/071 (short version) AWMF Leitlinien-Register Nr. 015/071 (Kurzfassung). Geburtshilfe Und Frauenheilkunde, 73(12):1202-1208.
Turkyılmaz, C., Onal, E., Hirfanoglu, I.M., et al. (2011). The effect of galactagogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life. J Altern Complement Med, Feb;17(2):139-42.