What Causes a Sudden Drop in Milk Supply?

Over the weeks or months since your baby’s birth, you’ve settled into a comfortable breastfeeding routine. Then one day, you notice that your pumped volume is significantly less than usual or your baby seems to finish their nursing session in just a few minutes. What happened to your milk, and is it gone for good?

As it turns out, this experience is a common one that most nursing mothers will probably face at one point or another, and many reasons behind the lactation lag respond well to changes on your part.

Low supply when pumping milk

In this article, we’ll go over the details of what causes a sudden drop in milk supply as well as the steps you can take to increase milk production again. We’ll also cover normal breastfeeding patterns that may mimic a loss of milk and warning signs that signal a true decrease in production.

What is Normal?

The process your body uses to produce and manage your milk supply is nothing short of astounding, and what may seem like a worrisome nosedive in the amount of milk you have available may be nothing unusual.

Here are some situations that can masquerade as a decreased milk supply.

Milk Supply Self-Regulation

Most moms experience an overabundance of milk during the early weeks following their child’s birth, and you probably got used to your breasts being so full of milk that they would leak or you could pump several ounces with ease.

By about six to 12 weeks after your baby’s birth, your body has finally gotten the proper lactation balance figured out. As your postnatal hormones start to return to normal levels, your body starts producing milk based on the volume you remove via nursing or pumping.

As long as your child is growing well and not showing any signs of a true milk shortage, it’s likely that you’ve just reached the next stage in your breastfeeding journey.

Cluster Feeding

Cluster feeds are a series of several short nursing sessions in close succession. During a cluster feed, your baby will show hunger cues, latch on for a short time, pull off the breast spontaneously and repeat the pattern a few minutes later. Often accompanied by fussiness, cluster feeding seems to happen most often during the evening hours.

There are a few theories as to why cluster feedings occur.

  • Milk flow slows down during the evening, and babies who prefer a faster flow may find a slower one frustrating
  • Your baby is loading up on milk and calories in preparation for a longer stretch of sleep during the night
  • Your child is stimulating your milk production in anticipation of a growth spurt

This phenomenon can certainly be a head-scratcher for parents, but rest assured that it is often completely normal behavior that has nothing at all to do with a lack of milk on your part.

Growth Spurts

As the name implies, a growth spurt is a time of rapid growth occurring over a short period. While your baby can enter a growth spurt at any time, it’s most common at the ages of three weeks and again at six weeks.

Since it takes a great deal of energy to produce rapid physical growth, your baby needs to take in more calories to make up the difference. Your child will probably want to nurse more frequently, so make sure to be especially attentive for hunger cues and nurse on demand.

Signs of a Sudden Drop in Milk Output

While the normal events we mentioned above can cause unnecessary worry that your milk supply has fallen, some moms experience a true drop in milk production. Here are some signs that your baby is not receiving enough milk volume.

Fewer Dirty Diapers

With less food coming in, it only makes sense that less waste will be coming out. Young babies typically produce at least six wet diapers every 24 hours, so if you’re changing less than that number, you need to make some changes to your feeding and daily routine.

Insufficient Weight Gain

Your child’s growth can suffer if they’re not receiving the proper nutrition. Your child’s health care provider should be keeping close tabs on your baby’s growth and weight gain at every well-child visit, but don’t hesitate to ask for an additional weight check if you have any concerns about your child’s growth.

Baby Resists Nursing

If your child isn’t getting the amount of milk they need at each nursing session, they may show frustration and resistance when you put them to the breast.

Dehydration

If your child isn’t getting enough breast milk to drink, they are susceptible to becoming dehydrated. A drop in the number of wet diapers is often one of the first signs of dehydration, but you may notice some of these other concerning signs.

  • Sunken skin in the fontanel (soft spot) or around the eyes
  • Changes in behavior including irritability and sleepiness
  • The inside of the mouth appears dry
  • No tears when crying

Dehydration can be life-threatening, so always err on the side of caution and act quickly to rehydrate your baby appropriately. If your child’s symptoms appear mild, nurse your child frequently and contact your baby’s health care provider for further guidance. If your child’s symptoms appear more advanced, take your child to a physician for an evaluation. In the event of severe symptoms, call for emergency medical help right away.

What Can Cause It?

Your body is a complex web of systems that all affect one another, and a wide array of issues can be behind low breast milk production.

Physical Causes

Lactation requires a great deal of energy from your body, so if your health is suffering, your milk production may slow down as your body tries to compensate. These issues are common offenders when it comes to decreased breast milk.

Stress and fatigue

Waking up at all hours of the night to feed or comfort your baby can leave you seriously tired, and tending to the needs of a young baby can consume a large portion of your day. Add housework, running errands and taking care of older siblings to the list and it’s hard to see how any mom can avoid feeling stress and fatigue.

However, spending too much of your limited energy on other tasks while also not replenishing your stores through sleep can leave your body too depleted to make all the milk that your baby needs.

Dehydration

Breast milk contains almost 90% water, so if you’re not drinking enough fluids daily, your body will struggle to produce the volume of milk that your child needs.

Insufficient calorie intake. In addition to their baseline caloric needs, mothers who do not use any supplemental formula typically need an extra 300 to 500 calories every day to maintain a healthy milk supply.

Particularly if you consume less than 1500 calories consistently or have a sudden, sustained decrease in caloric intake, your milk supply can suffer.

Illness

When you’re sick, you likely won’t have your normal appetite, and you may have a harder time remembering to drink enough fluids. Additionally, your body requires extra energy to fight off germs. All these factors can lead to a temporary drop in your body’s normal milk production.

Hormone Changes

The hormone prolactin plays the primary role in milk regulation and production, so changes to your baseline hormone levels can disrupt the delicate balance your body needs to maintain for proper lactation.

Menstrual cycle

Your hormone levels fluctuate throughout your normal monthly cycle, and estrogen could overtake prolactin leading up to and during your period. If you notice a consistent dip in supply during ovulation or your period, hormones are probably to blame.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy causes changes in both estrogen and progesterone, and many expecting mothers find that their milk production slows as their new pregnancy progresses.

Decrease in Milk Demand

After the initial postnatal hormones wear off, the principle of supply and demand regulates the lactation process. Your body produces more milk in response to increased consumption, and the reverse is also true.

It’s not always easy to spot instances that lead to decreased demand, so here are a few suggestions to be aware of.

Your baby is starting solids

Once your baby starts getting any amount of nutrition from other sources, the demand for your milk can decrease and supply will follow suit.

Your baby is sleeping for longer stretches

Even though your baby sleeping for more than an hour during the night is certainly cause to celebrate, you may find that your production dips when you’re no longer feeding your baby frequently overnight.

Skipping feedings or pumping sessions

Whether you were so busy that you had to miss a pumping session or your child took an extra-long nap that messed up your normal feeding schedule, missing too many feedings in a short amount of time can be a signal to your body that demand is down and production can ease up.

Nursing on a strict schedule

Putting your baby on a strict feeding schedule can decrease your milk supply since your baby may not be taking as much milk as they would if they were following their body’s natural hunger cues.

Feeding supplemental formula

In some cases, supplemental bottles of formula are necessary. However, keep in mind that the volume your baby gets from formula means that an equivalent amount of breast milk isn’t being consumed from your body.

Feeding your baby a bottle of formula regularly gives your body the signal that there is less need for breast milk, and your milk production system will respond accordingly.

Milk Isn’t being removed properly

When available milk isn’t making its way out of your breast efficiently, your body interprets this as decreased demand. There are a couple of reasons why your milk may not be flowing out to its intended destination.

  • Your baby has a poor latch while nursing. A baby who can’t form a proper seal around your nipple will not be able to achieve the necessary suction pressure to effectively draw your milk out.
  • You may not be pumping optimally. Sometimes even a problem as small as incorrect positioning can make a significant difference in the amount of milk you’re able to pump at each session.

Lifestyle Factors

Certain choices or behaviors, even ones that seem minor or totally unrelated to breastfeeding, have the potential to wreak havoc on your body’s lactation process.

Overly aggressive exercise

In a way that is similar to insufficient caloric intake, excessive exercise can divert much-needed calories away from milk production.

Returning to work

This is a common trigger for a drop in milk supply. While you’re on maternity leave, you’re able to spend all day with your baby and nurse on demand. Once you return to work, however, you have no choice but to move to a more structured pumping and nursing schedule. Even if your workplace has a generous pumping policy, you can’t nurse your baby according to feeding cues while you’re separated.

Medications

Aside from their intended therapeutic benefits, some medications have the side effect of depressing lactation.

  • Certain birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs). Since they work to alter normal hormone levels, these medications are frequently to blame for decreased milk production.
  • Decongestants. This may come as a surprise since a decongestant doesn’t seem to have much to do with the lactation process. However, a research study found that taking one dose of pseudoephedrine (brand name Sudafed) lowered the release of the hormone prolactin, and the mothers in the study showed a 24% decrease in milk volume production.

Exposure to certain substances

Some habits and chemicals are detrimental to both your and your baby’s health. In addition to slowing your natural lactation pattern, these substances can also produce other negative consequences.

  • Excessive caffeine
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol

Eating certain herbs

A few common herbs contain compounds that can depress your milk production. Particularly if consumed in large quantities or a concentrated form, these herbs may be responsible for low milk supply.

  • Parsley
  • Sage
  • Mint or peppermint
  • Oregano

Problems with Your Pump

If you can’t identify any changes in your diet, hormones or other lifestyle factors, your breast pump may be to blame for your sudden drop in milk supply. Here are a few ways that your pump’s function could be a problem.

Worn-out pump parts

Especially if your pump is over a year old or you use it frequently, the motor may have lost some of its power over time.

Your pump is not strong enough

Not all pumps are created equal when it comes to suction strength, and you may need more power than what your current pump has to offer.

Your flange size is incorrect

Your pump flange is the funnel-shaped piece that sits directly on your breast, and using the correct size for your body is essential for both comfort and optimal function.

If your flange is too small, your pump may only be applying suction to some of your milk ducts and leaving others full of trapped milk. Additionally, trying to pump with a flange that is too small can be painful, and you may be ending your pumping sessions too soon due to pain.

Using a flange that is too large usually results in a poor seal around the nipple, inadequate suction pressure and leftover milk remaining in your breast.

Ways to Increase Your Breast Milk Supply

While you may not be able to combat low milk supply due to a short illness, your monthly period or a new pregnancy, many of the other causes of decreased lactation can improve with changes to your daily routine.

Decrease Stress and Prioritize Rest

While having a young baby is full of unique joys, it can also be a really tough time for parents. Unhealthy stress can hinder your body’s ability to produce enough milk for your child’s needs, so do what you can to maintain a calm routine that lets you focus on caring for your child and yourself. Here are a few suggestions for relieving some of the daily pressure.

  • Ask for help from your partner, family or friends.
  • Consider hiring help.
  • Let some chores slide for the time being.
  • Say no to as many extra commitments as possible.
  • Realize that not everything has to be perfect.

Scale Back on Exercise

The desire to get back to your pre-pregnancy body is totally understandable, but you’re probably better off taking the slow, steady approach.

f the weather is nice, take your child for a walk in a baby carrier or stroller. Getting out in nature can be relaxing, and you can also get in some gentle exercise while enjoying time with your baby.

If you need to stay indoors, some light calisthenics or aerobics can be a good option. Your child may also enjoy watching you from the safety of an infant seat or baby swing.

Drink More Healthy Fluids

Keep a large water bottle within easy reach throughout the day, and make it your goal to drink at least eight ounces of water every time you nurse or pump. Add some sliced fresh fruit for a little flavor burst if you struggle to consume that much plain water every day, and remember that low-sodium broth and 100% fruit juice can help make up a small part of your daily fluid intake goal.

Eat a Balanced Diet

You need to consume a certain amount of calories every day to maintain healthy milk production, but the type of calories you eat matters, too. An occasional treat is totally fine, but try to get the majority of your calories from healthy sources.

  • Whole grains
  • Fresh fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lean meats
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Nuts and seeds

Besides being a source of highly nutritious calories, these foods seem to have a special ability to encourage milk production.

  • Oatmeal
  • Leafy greens
  • Garlic

Pump or Nurse More Often

The more milk you remove from your breasts, whether through nursing or pumping, the more milk your body should produce to fulfill the increased demand. Even if you already nurse or pump on a frequent schedule, do your best to add a few more sessions every day.

If your baby is sleeping through the night, try offering one more feeding before you go to bed. Your baby probably won’t fully wake up during this sleepy feed, but it’s likely that they will readily accept the chance to nurse. You could also add a midnight or early morning pumping session if you prefer to let your baby sleep.

Try Some New Nursing Techniques

Your goal here is to provide additional stimulation and help your baby take as much milk volume as possible.

Ensure your baby has a good latch. As we already covered, a poor latch translates to inefficient nursing and decreased milk production. When your baby has latched on properly, the dark skin surrounding your nipple should be completely inside your baby’s mouth, and your baby should have their lips splayed open to form a tight seal.

Switch sides frequently. Even if your baby has a preferred breast, make sure to nurse your child on both sides during every feeding. This method helps provide equal stimulation and breast emptying, so your body gets the signal to produce greater total milk volume.

Use breast massage and warm compresses. These techniques provide outside stimulation and may help keep milk ducts clear and working optimally.

Take away the pacifier and nurse for comfort. Your baby finds the act of sucking to be very soothing, so take advantage of your baby’s drive to suck to help stimulate your body to produce more milk.

Comfort nursing, also called non-nutritive nursing, is allowing your child to nurse for no other reason than to satisfy their need to suck. Especially if your child normally uses a pacifier frequently, be prepared to offer the breast several times throughout the day.

Try Different Pumping Techniques

Even if your pumping routine worked well in the past, you may need to make a few adaptations throughout your breastfeeding journey.

Allow enough time to thoroughly pump. Make sure to dedicate at least 15 minutes for every pumping session, and make sure to empty both breasts as much as possible.

Replace old pump parts. Check your owner’s manual to see which parts are susceptible to decreased function over time, and replace any parts that you can. If a large piece like the motor has started to fail, it may be more cost-effective to get a brand new pump.

Upgrade your pump. Double electric pumps tend to be the most powerful options on the market. If you’re struggling to pump effectively with a manual or single electric model, purchasing a stronger pump could be the answer.

Try a different flange size. Your pump may have come with more than one flange, so check to see if you have another size on hand. If not, consult on the manufacturer’s website or mass retailers.

Use the Paced Bottle Feeding Technique

When another caregiver feeds your child a bottle of expressed milk, have them use the paced bottle feeding method. This technique more closely mimics the experience of nursing at the breast, so your child can avoid developing a preference for an easy meal from a bottle rather than the extra effort it takes to nurse correctly.

While paced bottle feeding is a great technique for any baby, it may prove to be especially useful for moms who have recently returned to work.

Take an Herbal Supplement

Certain herbs have traditionally been thought to support a woman’s milk supply, and many anecdotal accounts claim that they are indeed effective.

Lactation-stimulating teas. These teas are usually caffeine-free, and you should be able to find a good selection at specialty grocery stores and online retailers.

Fenugreek. Fenugreek boasts a long list of general health benefits, and it can act as a powerful lactation stimulant for some women.

If you choose to use an herbal supplement to help stimulate milk production, remember that it is only a part of the potential solution. You still need to take a holistic approach and carefully assess your overall health and other lifestyle factors.

Discuss Your Medications with Your Doctor

If you suspect that your hormonal birth control is causing a dip in your milk supply, ask your doctor about other medication options that might be available.

Get Help in Quitting Harmful Habits

Never be ashamed to reach out for help if you are struggling to cut back or stop taking addictive substances. Your own or your child’s health care provider can connect you with resources for quitting smoking or alcohol, and they may also be able to help you develop a plan to reduce your caffeine consumption to a safe level.

See a Lactation Consultant

As certified professionals who have completed extensive training to identify and help correct breastfeeding problems, a lactation consultant can help mothers facing a variety of concerns.

  • Latch problems
  • Positioning issues
  • Proper pumping technique
  • Assist in determining your correct flange size
  • Breastfeeding during pregnancy
  • Potentially identifying physical barriers to nursing, such as a tongue or lip tie
  • Provide support and encouragement
  • Answer specific questions

The facility where you gave birth may have a lactation consultant on staff, or your child’s health care provider may be able to give you a referral. Depending on the area that you live in, there may also be private lactation consultants nearby who offer office or in-home visits.

Conclusion

Dealing with a sudden drop in milk supply is enough to make any breastfeeding mother worry, and many factors could be contributing to your current low production. However, while your body’s lactation process is a delicate balance, it is also a powerful drive that often responds well to simple changes in your daily routine.

Don’t be afraid to try new techniques or reach out for help if you need it, and never feel ashamed for doing whatever works best for your child’s needs.

What have your experiences with breastfeeding challenges been like? Did you go through a time of low milk production, and what was going on in your life during that time? What steps did you take to increase your milk supply, and what was the outcome? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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