When I was pregnant with my first child, I was convinced I would be a successful breastfeeder. No bottles, no way. Then I had my baby.
My son was nearly a month old and I was still struggling to produce an adequate supply of milk. The stress of a natural childbirth, combined with blood loss and a poor latch caused by a tongue-tie, had left my supply virtually dried up and my son was using a bottle the second day we came home from the hospital.
I wouldn't start producing until the third week; by then, the anxiety surrounding my milk production had made the situation seem so desperate that I dove head first into the quest to make more milk.
What follows below is a detailed description of my two attempts at becoming a productive milk maker. With my firstborn, I followed all of the advice given to me by my lactation consultant. With my second baby, I followed the advice given by my Chinese friends and Eastern medicine professionals.
Round One: The Western Approach
During the first few weeks of my son's life, he saw the lactation consultant more than his pediatrician. Every three days, we'd drive to the office, strip him down, nurse him and weigh him to see how much milk I was producing.
My lactation consultant had a list of recommendations. Here's how they worked out for me:
Power pumping for 20 minutes every 2 hours was definitely helpful, and it helped my supply grow from about 1 ounce per session to 3 ounces per session. The only problem with it was that it became a major stressor and sleep robber in my life, which may have suppressed my supply further, not to mention that it aggravated my postpartum depression.
Oats and lactation cookies were a lifesaver as they didn't require much cooking, but I found that, other than improving my mood (chocolate chips for the win!), they had little impact on my supply and a much greater impact on my hips.
I also tried $200 dollars worth of tinctures and nursing supplements featuring fenugreek, milk thistle, blessed thistle, goat's rue and more, but didn't see much of an impact.
At this point, I was making about half of what my son needed, so I went back to my doctor and got a prescription for Reglan/Domperidone, which finally brought my supply to about 75 percent of demand by the time my son was 7 months and held it there until he was nearly 18 months old. I knew it was working because as I weaned off the drug, my milk supply began to dip.
While I was beyond proud of myself for reaching the 18-month mark, by the time I was finished breastfeeding, the bad experience was definitely a factor against deciding to have another baby.
Despite having just pumped, she managed to get another four ounces out of my breasts.
Round Two: The Eastern Approach
Between my first and my second child, we made one major change: We moved to Los Angeles, where the amount of Chinese people in my life increased dramatically, from my Chinese husband and best friend to pretty much everyone we knew.
When we announced the pregnancy, endless pieces of advice from our new friends started pouring in. I was suddenly surrounded by women who had a whole other take on breastfeeding and I slowly got excited about nursing again.
Now, to be fair, my daughter and I got off to a much better start. She was born quickly and swiftly, and latched immediately. Nonetheless, I found myself beginning to supplement at nights and decided to pursue another milk-boosting adventure.
I began my journey with the traditional postpartum soups and drinks that Chinese women have been consuming for thousands of years. While the diet wasn't always pleasant, I did notice that my supply grew more quickly than it had with the Western approach. My theory is that the minerals from the soups and the use of grain-based drinks do a better job at nourishing and keeping blood sugars steady, which also helps improve mood and supply.
Another piece of advice that everyone gave me while I was pregnant was that I should maintain a positive attitude and get lots of sleep. My tortured former self from three years ago wanted to whack everyone who said that with my breast pump, but I decided to give it a try.
I avoided most sugars to keep blood sugar and dopamine levels in check. After the initial withdrawal period, I quickly noticed feeling calmer and being able to sleep more.
My supply, even in those early days, was at 80 percent, more than I ever had with my first, and I was supplementing no more than 30 milliliters a day.
Curious about Chinese herbs, I asked my sister-in-law to send me an assortment of teas from China, including ingredients like paper root, lulutong, wangbuliu and papaya. As opposed to Western lactation teas, which helped me stay hydrated but little else, I did start feeling fuller. Sadly, I ran out and, with that, my supply dipped again.
To tide me over until the next batch arrived, I visited a local acupuncturist who placed needles in my scalp, under my breasts, on my belly, and on my knees and feet. During our initial exam, I mentioned that I'm the anxious type and she informed me that the lactation points are actually related to stress. I definitely noticed that visiting her could restore my supply during severe periods of stress.
I also asked a friend for her lactation masseuse's number and quickly scheduled an appointment. She arrived at my house and began massaging away. She inspected my nipples and had milk flying everywhere for an incredibly awkward two hours. Despite having just pumped, she managed to get another four ounces out of my breasts.
Her verdict was in line with what I'd always suspected: slightly insufficient mammary tissue. While I had sufficient milk ducts on the left, there were fewer on the right, and they were smaller—which explained why one breast always produced half the amount of the other.
She also noticed I had many small clumps in my breasts, which prevented the milk from coming out and sent my brain the message that the baby was getting enough. I followed her advice about not eating too much fat and massaging my breasts every day, and my supply has held steady at around 100 percent of Baby's needs ever since. Even without the tea.
Going through both experiences, I definitely preferred the Eastern technique for being so much gentler on the mother. That being said, I've come to the conclusion that, for a successful breastfeeding experience, what we drink or eat doesn't matter nearly as much as how much we take care of ourselves. At the end of the day, I'm convinced it was better sleep and less anxiety that finally helped me reach my breastfeeding goals.