Herbal Remedies and Supplements

This article is an excerpt from "The Nursing Mother's Problem Solver" by Claire Martin.

Many nursing mothers worry about whether they're producing enough milk. The general rule: If you're drinking enough water, juice, or other nonalcoholic fluids (8 to 12 ounces an hour), resting (such as you can), and nursing on demand, your breasts respond by making as much milk as your baby needs. If you're still concerned about boosting your milk supply, lots of nursing mothers swear by certain herbs-fenugreek, blessed thistle, and other herbs-to boost their milk supply, fight colds, and combat other problems. Often these herbs are in the form of teas, so it's hard to say whether a woman's milk supply is enhanced by the herbs or by the additional fluids she's drinking.

Do herbs work? The jury's still out. No medical studies prove the effectiveness of herbal milk-boosters. However, most cultures throughout the world identify certain herbs and plants as galactagogues. Some mothers and doctors believe that herbal remedies are largely responsible for their success in breastfeeding. Other moms report little measurable difference.

Some prescription drugs, as a side effect, do increase milk supply, so it's reasonable to believe that some herbs and plants contain similar chemicals.

However, even herbs and plants have side effects: A drug from what you think of as a "natural" source can be harmful or can have dangerous side effects. (And because herbal supplements are not tightly regulated in the United States, as they are in Germany and some other countries, the herbs used may be contaminated during preparation.) Even though your baby gets only a fraction of the dose you take, with certain herbs and plants, that may be too much for her immature digestive system. St. John's wort, a popular herbal alternative to prescription antidepressants, is not recommended for nursing mothers, partly because of its potential effect on babies.

Fenugreek, blessed thistle, raspberry leaf, fennel, and brewer's yeast are the safe herbal and over-the-counter treatments that seem to successfully increase milk supply. Many natural food stores carry Mother's Milk Tea, which combines those herbs. You can also take them in capsule form, but if you use tea infusions, you'll get the benefit of both fluid and herb.

It is difficult to drink enough tea to make a difference; tinctures and capsules are better. A typical dosage for fenugreek capsules or blessed thistle capsules is two capsules, three or four times a day, for a week. You can also take fenugreek or blessed thistle, or a combination, as a tincture if you don't mind ingesting the tincture's tiny amount of alcohol (which is the reason for the disclaimer that nursing mothers shouldn't take it).

Remember: Herbs or drugs alone probably won't solve the problem. You need to seek help from a lactation consultant to address other possible causes of your difficulties.

About the Author

Claire Martin is a parenting writer at the Denver Post. Her writing has won national and regional awards, and has appeared in publications such as the St. Petersburg Times, Good Housekeeping, and Sunset magazine. She lives in Denver with her husband and two daughters, both of whom were breastfed.

From THE NURSING MOTHER'S PROBLEM SOLVER by Claire Martin. Copyright © 2000 by Claire Martin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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