Low Supply vs. Perceived Low Supply

I think every breastfeeding mom has had a moment of worrying if the milk she is making is enough for her baby. I often joke how nice it would be if breasts came with fuel gauges, like those on a car. Wouldn’t that make things a whole lot easier? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. But, there are ways to tell if our babies are getting what they need or if we need to reach out for some additional help. 



Is my supply low if:


I don’t pump a lot, or my pump output has changed? We do not always respond to the pump like we do to our babies. Pumps can be awesome tools and allow us to continue breastfeeding even if we need to be separated from our babies. But what you can pump doesn’t always tell the whole story.


It is also important to be mindful of what is realistic to expect when pumping. When your baby is taking pumped milk from a bottle, they will need 1-1.5 oz per hour. So, if your baby eats every 3 hours, they could take anywhere from 3-4.5 oz each feeding. So that is likely what you are going to see when pumping, as our bodies regulate to our baby’s needs (aren’t they amazing?!). There are instances of oversupply, where a mom may produce a lot more than her baby needs, but that is more the exception than the rule. I know that social media makes it hard not to compare, but if you are pumping what your baby needs, then you are doing great!!! There’s no reason to stress over trying to make our bodies do something that’s not biologically normal. If you feel you are not getting what your baby needs when pumping, you may need to adjust your pump settings, flange size, or do some massaging while pumping. 


My breasts are always soft.  Did you know that soft, “empty” breasts make more milk than full or engorged breasts? Our breasts work like factories, so when they are super full, they send “shut off” signals to our bodies telling them we don’t need any more milk. When we frequently empty the breast, it tells our body to keep making milk. It’s very normal to have engorgement and fullness in the early weeks of breastfeeding, and then for the breasts to start to soften as milk supply regulates. I know it’s hard to believe, but some breastfeeding moms never experience engorgement! It’s important to remember that breast softening alone doesn’t indicate any supply issues


My baby wants to nurse frequently or for long periods of time. In the first 8-12 weeks, your baby will cluster feed (nurse frequently, sometimes in bursts or for long periods at a time) a lot. This is a good thing! Remember how breasts are like factories? Well this cluster feeding helps tell our bodies that we need to keep the storage capacity open. Every time your newborn nurses, you can think of it like ordering a feeding for the future. And once baby is out of the 4th trimester, as it is commonly referred to, cluster feeding is still common during times of developmental spurts, teething, illness, or if baby is needing extra comfort. 


Can frequent nursing also be a sign of low supply?  Yes, it can. If a baby is nursing constantly or for long periods of time, and never seems satisfied, isn’t producing appropriate diapers or not gaining weight appropriately, it’s time to seek help from a lactation professional. 


My breasts never leak. Leaking breasts is one of those things we don’t totally “get”. We know why breasts leak, but we don’t always know why some moms leak, and some don’t. But leaking milk really isn’t an indicator of how much milk you are making. Personally, I leaked a lot with my first baby, but not really at all with my second. If you are a leaker, products like the Hakaa or Milk Savers can be an easy way to store some extra milk up for work or other times away from your baby


My baby will take a bottle after nursing. Sucking is very comforting for babies. They even practice soothing, by sucking on their hands in utero. So, there is a good chance, that hungry or not, they will suck on a bottle nipple. And once that milk starts flowing, they really only have 2 choices—drink it or drown, and I don’t mean that to be silly. They are still coordinating their “suck, swallow, breathe” reflex, so a bottle dripping down their throat causes them to swallow, so they can breathe. So, a baby being willing to take a bottle after nursing, does not always mean their belly isn’t already full. 


As I mentioned above, there are times when a baby is not getting what they need at the breast, and supplementation is required. That is something that a lactation professional can help you determine, so you feel empowered and comfortable with your plan. Supplementation is not bad, nor does it have to mean the end of breastfeeding. But it’s also not something that every baby needs. 


I don’t feel my milk let down. A lot like leaking, this is another thing we don’t fully understand. Some moms feel it and others don’t. Some describe it as a heavy, true let down feeling, some tingly or itchy (that’s me!), others a tightening, and some don’t feel it at all. Or you may find that you felt it strongly in the early days of breastfeeding, but as your baby gets older, you no longer feel it. All of those are variations of normal and not feeling a let down sensation doesn’t mean your body isn’t making enough milk. 



So, how do I know my baby is getting enough?


Baby’s growth and weight gain. One of the surest ways to know is that your baby is growing appropriately. You can talk to your pediatrician about what they expect, but generally if baby is growing consistently on their own curve, you’re doing well. Breastfed babies tend to grow more rapidly in the first 6 months of life and then slow down. If you have concerns with your baby’s growth, please reach out for help from your pediatrician and a lactation professional. If you are concerned your pediatrician is not supportive or doesn’t understand how breastfed babies grow, don’t be afraid to ask questions and use a lactation professional to help you make a plan you feel good about! 


Diaper Output. If milk is going in, it’s going to be coming out! Watching your baby’s wet and dirty diapers is a great way to see that they are getting enough. 


Watch Your Baby. Your baby has many ways of showing you that they are satisfied. While your baby is nursing, you can hear them swallowing, and see their jaw moving in a slower, rocker motion. That tells you they are actively nursing. You can also see their little bodies relax, as they go from showing hunger cues to showing signs of satisfaction. Their hands will relax from fists, to open. They will often close their eyes, or sometimes even fall asleep. And they will end the feeding, or break the latch happily, and on their own. 


Sometimes babies will be fussy or frustrated, for various reasons.  There is a lot going on in their little worlds, and processing all that can be difficult for them. You may have days when it takes some extra patience or soothing to get them to latch or they may want to nurse more frequently than normal. This is expected and okay, occasionally. 


If you feel your baby is constantly upset at the breast or they never show signs of satisfaction, it is a good time to ask for some extra support. A lactation professional can do a feeding assessment with you, to make sure everything is going well and give you tips and tricks to make nursing feel more comfortable for both you and your baby. If there were something wrong, like low supply or baby not transferring enough milk, they can help you with that too! As a breastfeeding mom myself, I understand the anxiety that can come with not being able to “see” what your baby is taking in. It’s hard to trust your body to do something, that maybe it’s never done before. If you would like to talk to a Lactation Professional or need help finding one in your area, we would be happy to help!  


Did you have any of these concerns when breastfeeding? What has been most reassuring for you to learn?