By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Many women seek out herbs to help increase their breast milk supply. There are a number of plants that are believed to promote breastfeeding and boost milk production. So, if you feel you need to or want to make more breast milk, you may be interested in adding one or more of the 10 breastfeeding herbs below into your diet.
However, note that while it’s very common to be concerned about whether or not your baby is getting enough breastmilk, sometimes, this worry is unwarranted. In fact, studies show that many women perceive that they have an insufficient milk supply, but they are often producing adequate amounts, particularly those that breastfeed exclusively.1 Tracking your baby’s weight gain and wet/soiled diaper output are good indicators of proper newborn nutrition.
Additionally, check with a lactation consultant and/or your baby’s doctor to check on whether or not your supply is actually low. If you do have a low supply, there are many effective ways to increase it, the most effective one being breastfeeding exclusively and more often. Adding safe herbs to boost your supply may be helpful, as well.
When Herbs for Breastfeeding May Help
There are many reasons why your supply may (or may simply seem to be) low. As noted above, your breasts will often produce more milk in response to your baby’s sucking, so breastfeeding more often usually can help. Also, your breasts never fully empty, so even when soft, trust that your breasts are still producing some milk for your baby.
However, there are times when your supply may not meet demand, these times of decline may include when:
- You are menstruating
- You are pregnant
- You begin supplementing with formula
- You begin to take hormonal birth control
- You have a schedule change
- You have additional stress in your life
- Your baby is having a growth spurt
During these times, or if you just feel that your milk supply is low, talk to your doctor or a lactation professional to see if adding an herbal treatment is right for you—or if they recommend other interventions, such as modifications to your nursing technique or schedule. Since different herbs have different actions, it’s important to get professional advice to address the specific issues you may be experiencing.
Your doctor or a lactation consultant can help you determine which, if any, herbs may work the best for your situation and in conjunction with any health other conditions you may have. They can also advise you on how much of each herb you should take.
How to Get the Best Results
Herbs and other galactagogues (breastmilk promoting substances) do not often work on their own. To increase your breast milk supply, you still have to stimulate your breasts while you’re taking the herb. Again, you can accomplish this by breastfeeding more frequently, nursing for a longer duration at each feeding, and/or pumping after and in-between each feeding.
Precautions and Side Effects
As noted above, always talk to your doctor or a lactation consultant before taking any herbal treatments (or medications). For many centuries, herbal remedies have been used as medications, but this does not mean that lactation herbs are without risks, so you should always use caution.
- Be extra careful if you are pregnant. Some herbs can be dangerous and lead to preterm labor or miscarriage.
- It’s important to let your baby’s doctor know if you’re taking any herbal supplements while you’re breastfeeding.
- Just like prescription drugs, herbs and plants can have side effects, and while they may be “natural,” that doesn’t mean they are always healthy for you or your baby. In fact, depending on the preparation and concentration, some herbs can be toxic.
After discussing the use of breastfeeding herbs with your healthcare provider and getting their go-ahead, be sure to purchase them from a reputable company. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbs, be sure to use caution. However, most reputable tea preparations are not harmful, and the commercial brands that you see in the supermarket are generally safe.
A good rule of thumb is to never exceed the recommended doses, as an herb that is beneficial in small quantities, can quickly become harmful if you consume too much. However, the herbs here have a long track record of being used to increase supply, can often be safely added into your food, and generally, when used appropriately, are considered beneficial for breastfeeding mothers.
Fenugreek is the herb used most often to increase breast milk supply2 and is the primary ingredient in many lactation teas. Fenugreek is also available as a capsule or supplement. Native to the Mediterranean and Asia, this herb is known for its maple syrup smell and bitter, burnt sugar taste.
Although not considered harmful when used in moderation, fenugreek can cause your breastmilk, sweat, and urine to smell like maple syrup. Your baby’s urine and sweat may start to smell like maple syrup, too. Note that the latter should not be confused with maple syrup urine disease.
Blessed thistle is often combined with fenugreek to increase a low breast milk supply. It is a typical ingredient found in commercially-available supplements and nursing teas for breastfeeding mothers. Blessed thistle is believed to be safe as long as you take it at the recommended doses.3
Fennel is a sweet, licorice-flavored herb considered indigenous to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. This aromatic herb has both culinary and medicinal uses. Fennel has been used to treat a variety of health conditions, including digestive problems and menstrual issues. It is also believed to help increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers.4
Fennel can be consumed in teas or in food. It is often used fresh in salads or sautéed with other vegetables.
Stinging nettle is a nutritious, dark, leafy green plant. It is high in iron and packed with vitamins and minerals. When taken after childbirth, stinging nettle is believed to treat anemia, fight fatigue, and increase the supply of breast milk.5 It can be taken as food (similarly to spinach or other dark leafy greens), a tea, or in a capsule.
Alfalfa is one of the oldest and most cultivated crops in history. It is full of vitamins and minerals, rich in antioxidants, low in saturated fat, and high in protein and fiber. It is one of the main sources of food for dairy animals because it is believed to increase milk production. You can add alfalfa to your breastfeeding diet, as long as you follow safety precautions.
Because sprouts are grown in warm, moist environments, conditions that are conducive to bacteria-growth, alfalfa sprouts can easily become contaminated with germs. This is why sprouts are sometimes associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness, including salmonella.6
For this reason, anyone with a compromised immune system, including pregnant women and children, should avoid eating raw sprouts and use extra caution. Wash them thoroughly before consuming them, and consider cooking them, as well.6
Goat’s rue is a member of the same plant family as fenugreek. In its dried form, goat’s rue is believed to be a safe supplement. The properties of this breastfeeding herb may help a mother to build up breast tissue and make more breast milk.7 However, the fresh goat’s rue plant is dangerous and should never be used.
Milk thistle, or Mary thistle, has been associated with breastfeeding for centuries. Many believe that the white veins of the milk thistle plant represent breast milk. So, legend has it that if you consume milk thistle, your milk production will increase, though there are no human studies supporting this claim. It is often consumed in a tea made from the plant’s seeds.
Brewer’s yeast is a nutritional supplement that can help to increase energy levels and fight off the baby blues. It contains B vitamins, iron, protein, and a variety of minerals. It’s also believed to help increase the supply of breast milk. It can be taken as a tablet or powder, which can be added to foods (such as sprinkled on popcorn).
Ginger is a traditional herb that adds flavor to food and treats a variety of health issues. It’s often taken for motion sickness or digestive problems, but in certain parts of the world, ginger is believed to help mothers increase their breast milk supply.8 Ginger can be grated or chopped and added to food or it can be brewed into a tea.
Fresh ginger root is a healthy addition to your diet, and it’s not known to be harmful to moms or babies. But like any herb, it’s a good idea to use it in moderation as there are no established safety guidelines.
Throughout history, garlic has been used as a flavoring in cooking, a dietary supplement, and medication. It is believed to help increase milk supply, but it can also change the flavor of your breast milk. It can be added to your diet, however, note that some people are allergic to garlic and/or may experience gastrointestinal side effects. It can also be taken as a dietary supplement.
Though some babies seem to like the taste of garlic, others may not tolerate garlic well and it may increase body odor in the mother and baby. It may cause gas, colic, or fussiness, as well. If you notice an adverse reaction in your baby after consuming garlic, you may want to eliminate it from your diet. Otherwise, there are no established limits on safe garlic consumption.
A Word From Verywell
Breastfeeding supplements don’t work for everyone—and sometimes, aren’t even needed. But if you want to include them in your diet, along with increasing nursing frequency, they may help to increase your milk production. Note that your confidence about breastfeeding also may impact your supply.1 So, trust your body. That said, if you have concerns about your supply or other nursing issues, working with a lactation consultant often works wonders.
If your supply really is low, but herbs, increased breastfeeding, and other interventions don’t prompt an adequate supply, know that even small amounts of breast milk (supplemented with formula) are still very beneficial for a baby. Furthermore, feel good about any breastfeeding you do (and time spent one-on-one with your baby), as studies show it provides your baby with immense benefits, even in small quantities.1