Nine years ago, before giving birth to my first daughter, Zoe, I immersed myself in childbirth books. Most of these books talked about breastfeeding and I figured nursing would be a natural, easy process. What could go wrong?
One small thing: Zoe wouldn’t latch.
I spent the next eleven months exclusively pumping her milk supply. And like other new moms who rely on the pump, I became acutely aware of my milk production. When my milk volume was low, the stress was almost unbearable.
I thought something must be wrong with me. I felt like I was letting Zoe down. And the stress (surely) wasn’t helping my milk supply.
I wrote this blog because many new moms are in similar situations now. Stressed because breast milk production seems low, or discouraged because the baby is finicky with the bottle, won’t latch, or both. And tired... SO tired.
Okay, feeling worn down is kind-of inevitable in the postpartum period. It comes with the job. But we can do something about the milk supply. There’s several levers you can pull, actually. One lesser-known lever I wish I’d pulled nine years ago was to up my sodium intake.
Many moms have even reported that LMNT (our salty electrolyte drink mix) has helped them produce more milk. I’ll share one of these stories later—but these reports make sense given the importance of sodium in the formation of breast milk. Certainly not the only way moms can increase milk supply, but an interesting piece of the puzzle for sure.
Being a new mom is hard enough without having to worry about how much milk you’re producing. That’s why I’m grateful to share this knowledge with today’s moms. But before we dive into the other levers, I want to cover the basics of milk production. Let’s do it.
How Milk Production Works
Any nerds out there? I can be sort of nerdy from time to time, and I’m married to one! So, if you will indulge me a bit, I think the changes that occur in a woman’s body around childbirth are fascinating to think about (and a wild ride to experience).
The breasts in particular are remarkable organs. Unlike other organs, they don’t fully develop until pregnancy and childbirth.
During pregnancy, the mammary glands significantly expand, preparing a woman’s body to produce milk for the baby. This expansion is signaled by three hormones: progesterone, prolactin, and placental lactogen.
Now a woman’s body is ready to start making milk. The two stages of milk production are:
- Stage 1 lactogenesis
- Stage 2 lactogenesis
Stage 1 lactogenesis occurs around mid-pregnancy. From this time until shortly after childbirth, a woman secretes small amounts of milk, including colostrum—an antibody-rich form of milk that seeds the infant’s gut and immune system.
Stage 2 lactogenesis is when the milk production goes into overdrive. Progesterone goes down, prolactin stays high, and milk supply goes up (hopefully).
Milk production in this stage depends largely on how much milk sits in the breasts at any given time. Why? Because breast milk contains a protein called Feedback Inhibitor of Lactation.
This protein inhibits lactation. When the breasts are full of milk, milk production shuts down. When the breasts are empty, milk production goes up.
This is why more frequent (and higher volume) nursing and pumping increases overall milk supply. It keeps the mammary glands in milk production mode. I’ll talk more about this later.
Right now I want to cover nutrition for nursing.
Proper Nutrition While Nursing
Producing breast milk raises your nutrition requirements. You’re now feeding two people: yourself and your baby.
This starts with eating more calories than you normally would. About a 500 calorie surplus is a good starting point, but your mileage will vary based on your height, weight, age, activity levels, and other factors.
A nice chunk of these calories will come from protein. (Protein needs go up while breastfeeding). Start with 20 extra grams of protein and work up from there.
On a related note, I don’t think fasting longer than 14 hours per day is wise for new moms. I know you want to lose the baby weight; I’ve been there. But when you compress your feeding window, you may unintentionally short yourself on essential calories and other nutrients.
Also keep in mind, one of the benefits of fasting is the mild stress we call “hormesis”. But as the saying goes: the poison is in the dose. And for a new mom, MORE stress is rarely a beneficial thing. Consistent eating to reduce stress is likely not a bad idea, especially during the first few months.
What about going keto while nursing? I’m not sure about this one. I haven’t seen much data on keto during pregnancy, so my instinct is to recommend dialing up carbs a bit. This will activate hormones like insulin that are important for growth. It also will prevent the rare complication of lactation ketoacidosis in which unchecked ketone production increases acidity in the body to dangerous levels. Some moms navigate pregnancy and breastfeeding while keto without any issue—just keep in mind it may not be the best fit for all moms or all situations.
Ketoacidosis isn’t a concern on a Paleo-style low-carb diet that Robb and I recommend. Assuming it’s rich in leafy greens, this kind of diet also contains plenty of folate—a B vitamin essential for fetal development.
When breastfeeding, you also need more:
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
Taking prenatal and postnatal vitamins makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Garden of Life is one brand I like, but there are many other reputable companies.
For the full treatment on prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal nutrition, check out Chris Kresser’s The Healthy Baby Code. I need to move on and talk about sodium now.
Sodium During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
- Low birth weight
- Delayed growth
- Shrinking of the cardiovascular system
- Impaired kidney function
- Intrauterine death
It makes me sad and angry that so many sources continue to recommend salt restriction during pregnancy. The claim is that less dietary sodium prevents a high-blood pressure pregnancy complication called preeclampsia, but according to a review of the scientific literature, this just isn’t true.
After birth, sodium continues to matter. One study, for instance, found that premature babies who consumed more sodium had better IQs, motor function, and memory than their lower sodium counterparts.
Where does the baby get its sodium? Mostly, from breast milk.
Breast milk is naturally high in sodium. It’s especially high during phase 1 lactogenesis, during which milk takes the form of colostrum.
And research suggests that when electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chloride are low in breast milk (probably from mom’s dietary deficiency), it could impair the child’s development.
So the first reason to get enough sodium is to support your baby's proper development. But does getting more sodium boost milk supply?
Sodium and Milk Supply
In animals, more sodium means more lactation. It’s an old trick of dairy farmers. Cows fed more salt produce more milk.
I haven’t seen clinical data on sodium for breast milk production, but humans are animals after all. And the anecdotal evidence is more than a little promising.
I’ve been lucky enough to have a front-row seat to these beautiful stories. We’ve heard from dozens of moms who have seen remarkable increases in milk supply while using LMNT.
One of these new moms is Kelsey Albers. And she’s been kind enough to share her story.
After her daughter was born, Kelsey went low-carb to lose her baby weight. She didn’t anticipate, however, that her daughter would completely refuse the bottle.
Breast milk was the preferred option, and Kelsey knew she needed to keep her supply up while eating low-carb. So she did some research, read up on electrolytes, and started making electrolyte homebrews.
On the homebrews, her milk supply was looking good, but eventually Kelsey switched to LMNT. It was easier, cleaner, and tasted better than the homebrews. And it got the job done.
I mean it really did. Over the next six months, Kelsey donated over 1,000 ounces of breastmilk to a friend in need. And this, remember, was on a low-carb diet, which probably isn’t optimal for lactation.
How to Increase Milk Supply at Home
I put together a list of steps new moms can take to increase milk production naturally. If you’re a new mom—or know a new mom—I think you’ll find this helpful.
#1: Nurse more frequently
When the breasts are full of milk, milk production slows. The main way to speed up milk production is to nurse more frequently.
The more you clear the stores, the more milk gets produced. About eight times per day is a decent target.
If your baby doesn’t want to suckle this frequently, go to the pump. You can oscillate nursing and pumping sessions.
And if your baby doesn’t want to latch (like Zoe), use the pump exclusively. The important thing is to get the milk out.
#2: Empty the breasts fully
Empty breasts signal the mammary glands to produce more milk. To empty the breasts, make sure the baby is feeding properly, use compression or massage, and offer both breasts at each nursing.
If the baby finishes and you still have milk left, pump out the rest. This practice—called nurse and pump—will encourage continued lactation.
#3: Consider galactagogues
A few herbal supplements—including fenugreek and milk thistle—may increase milk production. These are called galactagogues.
But the research on these herbs remains unconvincing. If it were me, I’d try the other steps first. And be sure to talk with your OB-GYN before trying any herbs or medications.
#4: Get enough sodium
Most new moms need more sodium to support breast milk production. Something like 5 grams a day (2.5 teaspoons of salt) is a good baseline, but needs will likely be higher for anyone eating a low-carb diet or exercising. You lose a good dose of sodium in your sweat.
I wish I had more salty support when I was nursing Zoe. My milk supply was a constant source of anxiety and frustration, and the extra sodium would have helped.
That’s also why I’m thrilled to hear from all the moms increasing their supply with LMNT. It’s one less problem for new moms to worry about, and that’s a wonderful thing.