Thoughts on Breastfeeding and Herbal Galactogogues

‘’That’s how you can tell who the Mothers are,’’ the nurse at the Children’s Hospital told her colleague in training, ‘’they’re the ones walking across the hall with a breast hanging out and oblivious to it.’’ The observation was made as I brought my own little one into the blood test area. I was that Mother.

And it’s true; I’ve stopped thinking of my breasts as sexual objects. Their existence no longer has anything to do with feminism and has everything to do with feeding. Now they’re affectionately nicknamed ‘’Boob Café’’, ‘’Titty Trattoria’’, ‘’Breast’s Breakfast Bar’’ and ‘’Momma’s Milk Bar’’ (whenever I use that last one the décor from the Milk Bar in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘’A Clockwork Orange’’ comes to mind).

Anyone who’s been through pre-natal classes or by-passed them in favour of a Dr. Sears book has obtained their catechism at the school of ‘’breast is best’’. Seldom however do any bother mentioning that breast, when you start at the very least, is not necessarily easiest or even possible. Before it becomes both a wonderful bond and feeling, it can be very, very frustrating.

When my husband and I decided we would breastfeed while I was pregnant, we figured that it was a ‘’plug and play’’ alternative with a cheaper price tag and better health benefits than formula feeding. There were visions of breasts over-flowing with milk in my head and the notion that my beautiful baby would lovingly suckle, cooing and gurgling, taking his fill and then returning three or four hours later. Fantasy I tell you – pure fantasy. Reality was far harsher.

Reality was a newborn in the hospital howling for a full twelve hour night while he suckled because there was only colostrum to be had and he was hungry. Reality was the lactation consultant telling me that I had to get the areola into his mouth when scars from multiple piercings had left my nipples sufficiently big that just getting one into the baby’s mouth was a challenge. Reality was a gastro four days after giving birth, not only miserable and taxing to my already fragile nether-regions: it also ensured sufficient dehydration to dry up a budding milk supply.

The reality-check truly bitch-slapped me in the face at the one-week weigh-in when faced with a shrinking, screaming, starving baby and a nurse sounding the alarm, ‘’you’re going to have to supplement with formula.’’ All of my well-built sand-castles were washed away in that sentence, helped by the tears rolling down my cheeks carrying my wounded pride. I must be a bad mother, I couldn’t breastfeed (or so the postpartum hormones told me).

Since that day, I have found again the proverbial grain of salt and spoken to many women who have survived motherhood and confirmed to me that they too had trouble with their milk. The women of yore that are paraded as examples during breastfeeding indoctrination, with their broods of children having happily thrived on the titty, are myth just as surely as the fantasies that pregnant women have of the parents they will become.

My eighty-some year old neighbour and veteran mother of six stated quite flatly, ‘’thank goodness for the bottle. They would’ve all died otherwise.’’ My husband’s mother, pretty much of the same age echoed the same words. Another woman in her mid-fifties from the area confided, ‘’I was finally able to not supplement and just do the breast once I got to my fourth child.’’ Research also underlines that nurse-maids have existed since the dawn of times throughout the world and across cultures.

When nurse-maids are not available, milk-animals have been substituted, some even nick-named for their nursing abilities: take the ‘’nanny-goat’’ for instance. According to what Juliette de Bairacli-Levy writes in Nature’s Children,

‘’…animals such as goat, ewe, ass or mare, and in some regions, reindeer (are used). Gypsies, especially the Hungarian Gypsies, are known to have bears suckle their boy children to enhance their courage.’’

So all these alternative perspectives, combined with my Sister’s experience and advice helped me come to term with a mixed feeding arrangement combining formula and momma’s all natural white stuff. In her words, ‘’It’s a breastfeeding relationship that you’re developing and that is established over months, not days.  You do that any way you want to, combining supplementary and breast feedings in any amount that is a good balance between your beliefs, capacity and sanity.’’

That’s when I was finally able to rest while the baby dozed rather than waking up and poking my sleeping husband to ask him for the tenth time in the past two hours, ‘’should I wake him up to feed?  Should I go and pump instead?  But what if he wakes up to eat and I’ve just pumped?’’  Surprisingly, once I was able to relax about it and thus get some much-needed shut-eye, my milk production improved and so did my husband’s mood.

I’d be lying if I failed to mention that a steady consumption of natural galactogogues also helped fuel a modest return of milk.  Fenugreek (trigonella foenum-graecum) specifically began to occupy a central place in my assortment of herbal friends.  Previously a seldom used herb in my apothecary, it has become a go-to of late.  Witness exhibit A in support of that statement: a full kilo of fenugreek seed still largely untouched after a year has now been seriously compromised in the space of a couple of months.

Fenugreek is a member of the pea and bean family (Fabaceae) that has been widely used to increase milk production in women although hard ‘’evidence’’ of its ability to do so, as with so many other herbal treatments, is ‘’anecdotal’’ if you believe the hard scientists.  Given the overwhelming lack of research in whole herb treatment as opposed to pharmaceutical creations, the mechanism of the small pea’s action in the lactating body is unclear.  It may be an oxytocic (stimulates the production of oxytocin in the body) although it is also possible that it simply works on the sweat glands.  Like all herbs, it most probably does a number of things at once that are hard to pigeon-hole into a single specific effect, a benefit to the herbalist – fallacy to the chemist.

Tangent aside, for those who’ve ever consumed straight fenugreek outside a capsule – you’ll know that although it may smell kind of like maple and be used in the manufacture of artificial maple flavouring, it tastes nothing like the sweet elixir of spring tree.  In fact it’s quite bitter.  Not the most bitter herb out there, it certainly doesn’t measure up when compared to gentian or wormwood, it does however weigh in somewhere around the dandelion root level – perhaps a bit more.

So that whole above paragraph to say that being more of a ‘’take your herbs as food’’ type than a ‘’take another capsule’’ type, I’ve had to find lots of ways to incorporate substantial quantities of ground fenugreek into pretty much everything from shakes to yogurt, herbal candies, spreads and rice dishes.  As a result my husband confirmed to me, ‘’your pee smells like maple.  I like this a lot better than when you fight off a cold with a raw garlic binge and I can smell you thirty feet away though.’’

My old friend milk thistle (silybum marianum) seed also came to be re-purposed from its place as a stand-by for all things liver.  I was looking for blessed thistle (Cnidus benedictus) actually, but couldn’t find any in my area on really short notice.  So I substituted with the only other thistle I had on hand (although it too has some anecdotal evidence supporting its use as a galactogogue) and was quite surprised at the improvement as a result.  We’re not talking Niagara Falls by any means, but we can say that the lone drips are up to a steady trickle.  Night feeding no longer needs supplementation since the addition of milk thistle to the supplement roster either.  

Galactogogues are all fine and dandy, but unless your nipple is being stimulated and your breasts emptied regularly, they aren’t really worth diddly-squat.  As a result, the second half of the milk production equation was the rise of the almighty breast pump and the establishment of a pumping station on the couch.  I pump when Daddy bottle feeds the baby, or if he’s available to take care of him following his regular breast visit, or if I wake up in the night, or any time looking at the pumping gear doesn’t make me want to howl.

The hum of a motor, teats being expressed into a recipient for storage; no we’re not at the farm half a kilometre over, we’re in my living room and my breasts are dangling with plastic contraptions, wires and tubing.  Pumping your breasts is an activity that allows you to feel like a milk cow and takes what little shame you have left after child-birth and throws it out the window.   Particularly when you see the neighbour walk by that window and wave…

I haven’t yet been able to steel myself for what’s known as ‘’the power pump’’: a solid hour of pumping, just for nipple stimulation’s sake.  Instead I compromise and do ‘’the power feed’’: letting the baby hang off my chest, alternating from breast to breast, for up to two-and-a-half hours at a stretch – far past the point of no more milk.  That’s usually when baby gets frustrated with said breasts and can be heard screaming with his mouth full.  My own frustration with all this hassle has semi-regularly over-flowed, usually onto my poor and unsuspecting partner who’s just doing his best to help.

So for those who are considering it, having a child is not the way to save your couple: it will challenge and test it.  Choose to breast-feed and you’d better both be rock solid at the start to avoid divorce.  For some, breastfeeding may be a simple and unilaterally rewarding way to go but in many cases, for all of the drama discussed above, it sends husband, wife or both, running to the pharmacy to raid the formula aisle.  It also helped me understand why in the maternity ward all the first-time Mothers were breast-feeding their young whereas many of the more experienced mothers of multiple offspring were strapping their breasts into tight bras and flipping out the bottles.

For those who choose to persevere, it does become easier with time and for us by about week five postpartum the whole family was evolving into a semi-functional, more-or-less-regular routine.  The baby was drinking more of my milk and so we found out that he was also more susceptible to the effects of what I ate.  If I’m gassy because I love eating beans on a regular basis, I can deal with that both in smell and sensation.  If baby’s gassy because I ate beans, he thinks that the sensation is permanent and that the world is coming to an end.  His pain becomes our pain via sound waves and their corresponding decibels.  

To keep the peace, beans, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts (bloody hell, the whole damn brassica family), dates, figs, prunes and unfermented milk products have all been temporarily removed from my daily diet.  Unfortunately, save the milk products, these accounted for a relatively large portion of my food intake.  But faced with the choice of a restrictive diet or a wailing and miserable child – you pick the easier of the two.  You also add every carminative (flatulence relieving) tea you can think of or read about since those are transferred to the baby via breast milk.

Keep in mind however that drinking a little cup of fennel tea once a day is probably not gonna cut it if you want to dose your child with herbs so that he or she leaves the gas behind.  It’s the herbalist in me here saying (and the mom in me who’s done it backing it up) that it takes 3-4 cups of a medicinal-strength tea taken consistently, 5-7 days a week, for a positive outcome to be seen.  Herbs that can be used include dill (anethum graveolens), anise (pimpinella anisum) and fennel (foeniculum vulgare) to name a few.  The fennel also ‘’anecdotally’’ helps with milk production making it a particularly good herb to consider whether you like the taste or not.

In my personal experience and as per the recommendations of much of the herbal literature, it’s also wise to combine carminative herbs with child-safe nerviness (nerve-nourishing and/or soothing) in equal quantity.  Lemon balm (melissa officinalis), passionflower (passiflora incarnata), chamomile (matricaria recutita or chamaemelum nobile) and most specifically catnip (nepeta cataria) are all good choices.  Not only do the nervines calm baby, induce deeper napping and less emotional fussiness; they also soothe Mom’s frazzled nerves and after-birth hormonal edginess, making her more tolerant to said fussiness and less unpleasant to be around generally.

Six weeks postpartum now, some days I feel like my mixed feeding arrangement and my milk production are fine.  Some days I feel like I’m losing my milk because of mixed feeding and an insufficient adherence to the pumping protocol.  And sometimes I can step back, try and be objective and just figure that whatever’s happening is fine the way it is (that’s a combination of my husband, sister and therapist talking in my head).

I obstinately insist on continuing to develop a breast-feeding relationship with my boy not only for the nutritive reasons or because formula tastes nasty (yes I’ve done the taste test).  As important are those moments when he falls asleep at my breast mid-afternoon or talks to it as he feeds in the middle of the night. It help off-set the disappointment from having him cry inconsolably at the end of the day when my milk production falls and he can’t get enough.  It’s the eye-contact we exchange and the warmth of his little body against mine that are all an irreplaceable bond that makes it worth every ounce of trouble (and expressed breast milk).

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