Insufficient milk syndrome

The day I posted that I was conceding defeat and putting my baby girl on formula, I spoke to three different women who all told me they had had to stop breastfeeding before they wanted to for at least one of their children. That got me thinking. I’m not the only person who has had problems with their breastmilk supply. I went onto the internet looking for information that would tell me this is a common problem (or a problem for at least a certain percentage of mothers). I found the term “insufficient milk syndrome”, meaning the inability to produce enough breastmilk. Apparently, this only applies to 5% of mothers and the majority of the articles I read spent their time trying to argue that this ‘syndrome’ does not exist, it is only perceived.

However, I found these on ‘I feel guilty about quitting breastfeeding‘ and ‘I feel like a failure for not breastfeeding‘. There are 1201 reader comments on the first one and 360 comments on the second one to these readers’ statements. Many readers commented that they had had to quit breastfeeding before they wanted to. If all these women are having the same issues, wouldn’t you think this is a real problem?

I asked the health nurse (at my daughter’s last immunization) if she finds that there are a number of women who have problems with their milk supply. Her response was, “No, not really.” I asked my doctor (who has been practicing family medicine for over 30 years) if she finds this phenomenon and she answered an emphatic, “Yes!”. There are a lot of women out there with problems with their milk supply. And for various reasons, too. So why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are mothers being left feeling guilty over their inability to adequately feed their babies?

The breastfeeding community says:

  • any mother can breastfeed; if she encounters problems, she can breastfeed if she just tries hard enough (link)
  • mothers only ‘think’ they have a low milk supply (link)
  • the formula companies are to blame for the perception of ‘insufficient milk syndrome’: “formula sales have tripled over the past ten years and the industry is now bigger then ever, generating an astounding $22 million every day in revenues. Suddenly a new disease called Insufficient Milk Syndrome has been diagnosed as women increasingly come to believe that they aren’t capable of producing adequate milk for their baby.” (link)
  • if a mother actually does have insufficient milk, it is because she didn’t feed the baby often enough or because of her breastfeeding technique (link)

While many of these things are true, they do not paint the complete picture. And because of that, they communicate that breastfeeding is a choice for every mother and the reason they can’t breastfeed would be the mother’s fault.

Take my story, for instance. I had problems with milk supply for my first two boys, so I was bound and determined that this would not be the case for my daughter. However, she was almost 10 pounds when she was born (meaning she would need more milk right off the bat). At first, I was trying to feed her every 3 hours minimum (like the lactation consultants and health nurses were telling me) and I was constantly waking her up, trying to feed a groggy, tired baby that didn’t want to eat for very long but just go back to sleep. My doctor told me feed her every 4 hours instead and that greatly improved things. She was awake enough to feed for longer and she had good growth in the first couple of months. I would try to feed her when she indicated she was hungry, but usually I was feeding her before she showed outward signs of hunger (throw the theory ‘if you just let your baby feed as often as she wants, you’ll have lots of milk’ out the window). Beginning in her third month, when my baby would feed, she would feed for shorter periods of time. I changed the routine to feeding her every 3 hours to try to bring my milk supply up. It didn’t really work. My doctor told me that due to her size, I should start feeding her solid foods at 4 months (something I had also done for my other two boys and which was the accepted practice at the time). The first time I gave her rice cereal, she literally inhaled it. It seemed as if I’d been starving her the way she acted. I knew then that I definitely was not producing enough milk to completely satisfy her. I gave her the breast before giving her solid food to try to keep my milk production up. I pumped. I took fenugreek and blessed thistle for a time. These things helped, but not enough to fill her up. Over the next two months, she kept feeding for less and less time when I fed her until I got to the point where I put her on formula. To prove that my ‘insufficient milk’ was not ‘just in my head’, my daughter only gained 4 ounces from month 5 to month 6, so I certainly wasn’t producing enough.

There are many women who have been wholeheartedly committed to breastfeeding and have tried everything they could think of to maintain their milk supply and it still didn’t work. Yet they are told that its their fault – they were coerced by the formula companies, its all in their heads, they didn’t try hard enough, etc.

When is this going to stop? Mothers have enough to deal with concerning post-partum depression, sleepless nights, lifestyle change, etc. than to have to face the guilt and condemnation that comes with not being able to breastfeed.

There is evidence that shows that “insufficient milk syndrome” does not appear to have been an issue in previous centuries and that it seems to be much more apparent in Western society. (link) However, I would not agree with the blanket statement that this is simply a perceived phenomenon or that it is always the mother’s fault. Perhaps there are other factors that have not been considered that might be contributing to this problem in Western society. Research should be devoted to considering these factors. Just like cancer researchers take a look at many different variables in certain areas where specific forms of cancer seem to be more apparent, maybe breastfeeding researchers should do the same with “insufficient milk syndrome”.

I wish the breastfeeding community would address this issue honestly instead of devoting all their energy to trying to prove it does not exist. It does exist! And mothers are suffering as a result of their breastfeeding extremism. Why not admit that the problem exists and then look for ways to help mothers continue breastfeeding or if they can’t, assure them that sometimes this happens and that it is NOT THEIR FAULT!

(feel free to leave a comment: I would love to hear of your breastfeeding experience)

4 Replies to “Insufficient milk syndrome

  1. I completely agree. I find it very interesting that your health nurse denied she’d met many women experiencing what you were going through, and your doctor was the opposite. I would bet a lot of money that this is because of the way health nurses these days pressure and preach at women. With Ben I allowed it and felt pressure to pretend with my health nurse so she wouldn’t lecture me. With Sam I am completely comfortable telling them nothing or that I think their advice and information is biased and often faulty and that I am happy to hear their advice but, “I’ll do some reading and ask my doctor before I make a decision” or before I worry that I am doing something wrong because of what they’ve told me.

    (Funny story, sort of related… A friend of mine took her 18 month old in for one of his shots and during the visit the health nurse asked her how many words her son was saying. When my friend told her the health nurse immediately became concerned and recommended my friend take her son to a speech therapist. My friend took a deep breath and then proceeded to rip into this health nurse. I would have paid to be there… Because my friend is herself… A speech therapist. I’m telling you, if I didn’t have to deal with these women to get my boys their shots I would avoid them like the plague. I think they are a pretty big part of a lot of mother’s guilt and feelings of inadequacy when they have to stop nursing.)

    Oh yeah… And your blog… Is SO beautiful I just want to stay here forever! So soft and pretty… Just like it’s owner.

  2. Carol..very well written. I totally hear you and agree. being that my first 2 babies, I dried up my mild in the first 4 months, I understand your guilt and frustration. I was guilted as well from the nurses that I starved noah for nearly a month.
    By the time I got pregnant with faith, I was so scared to even begin, I didn’t want to go through it again.
    I decided not to go back on the birthcontrol pill to see if that would make a difference. I was able to hold on to her until she was 7 months old, but dried up as soon as I supplemented one bottle (due to a wedding that I was the maid of honor in i needed her to be able to take the bottle for just ONE day)
    But I struggled the last couple of months with dwindling milk supply as well.
    Right now I am nursing my 4th baby and nursing never goes smooth for me. It’s always a nagging battle. For a whole couple of weeks, I could barely get her to eat at all. All my kids seem to only like one side….there’s just always road blocks. there’s many times I just want to throw in the towel. And I can relate to looking at other moms, wondering how they can just effortlessly feed as long as they want.
    I will hold on as long as she can hold on. only time will tell how long i can do it. My goal is a year. but you’re right when you say that it’s not all about effort and “trying harder” sometimes, there just isn’t enough milk.
    Maybe our enviroment is just too different. all the drugs we’ve pumped into our systems and air….
    Thanks for sharing this. I get pretty heated when I read about those articles that you linked us to.
    the pushing and guilting and blaming HAS TO STOP! even tho i breastfeed right now, i just want to tell them off! they are hurting so many moms.

  3. I finally found you again! (thanks nin) my links quit working!

    Well written post and a beautiful blog by the way! I love it…I’m itchy to change mine but don’t have a clue how.

    While I had a good enough supply my kids cut themselves off at various times before I was quite ready for it (at least 4 out of 5 anyway). My mom, however, could not breastfeed us and was literally starving her babies. Fortunately for her at that time formula was considered better than breastmilk – go figure – so she didn’t suffer any stigma over it other than her own guilt and feelings of inadequacy.

    Perhaps if inadequate milk supply is just a myth and induced by the formula companies then the Viagra salespeople are promoting impotence. Whaddya think?

  4. My experience echos yours totally… the mindset seems to be if BF goes well it’s because you stuck to it and if it doesn’t, it’s becuase you’re a) lazy, b) selfish or c) not trying hard enough. I felt like the BF community dropped the ball to help women in a tough stage of life by condemning.

    I always tell women…no matter how you feed your child, you are giving them the best.

    Great post.

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