The health advantages of breastfeeding for both mothers and infants have been clinically proven. For infants breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and increases IQ, brain development and immunity to childhood illnesses. For mothers, breastfeeding significantly reduces the likelihood of developing breast cancer. Lastly breastfeeding supports the development of a deep emotional bond which has the potential to positively impact on the emotional and psycho-social development of mother and child. Despite all these benefits though, encouraging women to start and continue breastfeeding remains challenging.
For many women the motivation to stop breastfeeding centres on their belief that they have insufficient milk to adequately feed their babies. Issues of whether this perception is accurate aside, many women turn to herbal preparations in an effort to boost their supply. A number of herbal preparations are recommended by midwives and lactation consultants, and a number of manufacturers have created breastfeeding teas in a bid to combine the perceived milk building properties of multiple herbs. Some women find these preparations enormously helpful, others report little benefit. In the absence of scientific proof on either value or safety the question is, do herbal preparations really increase breast milk supply?
Researchers recently conducted a literature review in an attempt to determine whether the use of herbal preparations is in fact beneficial in boosting breast milk supply. Six trials were selected for review, which involved the use of five herbal preparations – fenugreek, milk thistle, shatavari (asparagus racemosus), torbangun, and a Japanese herbal medication. Of these trials, five demonstrated an increase in breast milk production, which would seem to recommend the use of herbal preparations. However the way in which participants were selected, how the trial was conducted (methodologies and controls) and how success was gauged varied widely in each trial. A broad range of factors were identified which could skew results across the six trials. These included small groups of trial participants (small sample size), varying level of knowledge and experience of participants in breastfeeding, differing levels of instruction from professionals, and the potential for bias of some researchers and results.
In addition not all participants adhered strictly to the guidelines of the trial in which they were involved. This included some participants using supplementary (formula) feeding when instructed to exclusively breastfeed, where the measure of success was infant weight gain. It should be noted too that the amount of milk produced was gauged in some trials by expressing milk and measuring its volume. Breast pumps are not as effective as babies when it comes to drawing milk from breasts so this measure might not be accurate either! These factors make it hard to truly pinpoint whether the herbal preparations were responsible for perceived increases in supply or not.
While many women might choose an herbal preparation over a pharmaceutical one, herbal preparations do carry risks and side effects which have not yet been fully researched. This combined with the lack of conclusive evidence that they actually work seems to make a case against using herbal preparations. However the fact remains that some women do use herbal preparations and seem to succeed in building their supply as a result. If this leads to prolonged breastfeeding then it is undoubtedly a good thing.
Further research is required to more conclusively determine whether herbal preparations increase breast milk supply. In the meantime, the choice to use herbal preparations, as well as whether or not they work, is a very individual thing. As with all such decisions, discussing whether or not to use an herbal preparation with a knowledgeable midwife, lactation consultant or doctor can help to ensure an informed decision. In addition seeking support to address issues which might impact on breastfeeding success is also recommended.