Natural Breastfeeding Remedies: Do They Work?
Nurse More Frequently
We know it seems counterintuitive: Nursing is painful, so feed...more? But experts regularly recommend it to help women with a variety of ailments, including engorgement, early mastitis, plugged ducts, and low milk supply.
Does it work? Absolutely. Emptying the breasts -- whether through nursing, pumping, or hand expressing -- has been proven effective time and again. Your lactation consultant may even suggest that you place your baby in different positions to help with milk flow and speedier drainage.
Sure, lanolin cream does a great job protecting and sealing your overworked nipples, but so does your very own breast milk. (Bonus: It's free!) "Mamas should express a little on their nipples after a feeding and cover with a nursing pad, preferably one that's made from a natural fiber like organic cotton or bamboo," says Liz Abbene, a birth doula at DONA (a doula organization) and founder/owner of Enlightened Mama and Enlightened Wellness. "It's best to keep nipples covered to protect them, as opposed to the outdated advice to air-dry nipples after feeding."
Does it work? It can't hurt. "A recent Cochrane review showed that neither lanolin or breast milk was more effective than doing nothing," says Michelle Leff, M.D., newborn hospitalist at the University of California San Diego Health System. That said, Dr. Leff often recommends rubbing either lubricant on sore, cracked nipples.
Edible Oil Massage
Forget Calgon -- relief from breastfeeding pain can be found no further than your kitchen pantry. This saucy-sounding solution involves gently massaging your breasts up, toward the armpit, with an edible oil, like olive or coconut. Do this before nursing sessions to help with mastitis or engorgement, and before and during/afterward for plugged ducts.
Does it work? Yes. Research shows that the gentle, upward strokes can go a long way toward reducing inflammation and increasing milk flow, explains Diana West, director of media relations for La Leche League International.
It's no wonder this timeworn bit of advice is so readily passed down from generation to generation. What new mom wouldn't enjoy a well-deserved brewski? That the hops and brewer's yeast (supposedly) boost milk production is just another reason to pop open a cold one, right?
Does it work? Sorry, moms. Even though some studies show a link between drinking beer and cranking out more milk, experts say to give the pilsner a pass. "It is now known that alcohol inhibits the milk ejection reflex or, in other words, temporarily decreases the amount of milk coming out of the breast," Dr. Leff explains. "Alcohol also transfers easily from mom's blood to her milk, and no one knows the acceptable amount of alcohol for a baby to consume."
Placing warm, wet tea bags on top of irritated nipples -- it even sounds soothing. This well-worn bit of advice has been employed by generations of moms, but experts say it may be time to reserve those bags of Lipton for your afternoon cuppa.
Does it work? The warmth may feel good right now, but recent research discovered that tea bags could leave your nipples in worse shape than before. That's because the tannic acid can actually dry and crack your already aggravated skin. Ouch!
Breastfeeding can do a number on your nipples, so if yours are chapped, cracked, or sore, reach for the saltshaker. Lactation consultants often advise nursing moms to dunk their chewed-up nipples in a warm saline bath.
Does it work? Indeed it does. In fact, West even includes saline soaks as part of a regimen to treat infected or broken skin on the nipple. "A shot glass holds the water nicely against the nipple," she adds.
This age-old DIY remedy got a high-profile shout-out when actress Amanda Peet revealed that she stuffed her nursing bra with cabbage leaves to help with engorged breasts. To try it yourself, remove several leaves from a fresh head of cabbage and tuck them around the boobs. Refresh the leaves every few hours, or when they start to wilt, for up to 24 hours. (Any longer than that and you may start to see a drop in milk supply, Abbene says.)
Does it work? Possibly. "Cabbage leaves have been long reported to be effective for reducing the swelling of engorgement so that the milk can flow more easily," West explains. "There isn't yet good research to support the practice, but since it's an external treatment, there's little risk either, so some mothers may find that it's worth trying."
The rainbow of herbs claiming to help nursing moms with their milk supply are as funny-sounding as they are plentiful. But women have found success with some, like fenugreek, milk thistle, and brewer's yeast.
Do they work? Maybe. "All evidence is anecdotal," says Dr. Leff. "Some women swear by these [herbs]. Others see no change. Given that side effects are low, it's reasonable to try."
One caveat before you hit the health food store: Not all herbs are suitable for nursing mamas. When taken in large quantities, some -- like oregano, sage, peppermint, and thyme -- could decrease your supply. Others, like buckthorn, ginseng, kava kava, ephedra, star anise, wormwood, and herbal fen-phen, may be dangerous for breastfeeding moms and their babies. Your safest bet? Consult your lactation consultant or your doctor before taking any herbs.
Warm Compresses and Frozen Peas
When your boobs start feeling like they're reaching their bursting point, try alternating between warm and cold packs on them to help the milk flow more easily. Yes, the heat can increase swelling, but it can also encourage milk flow -- a must if you have mastitis. "Put warm packs on or take a warm shower just before a feeding," Abbene says, "then put cold packs on after a feeding to help with the swelling." Her chilled-out choice? A bag of frozen peas.
Does it work? It depends on your ailment and whom you ask. For example, West recommends the warm-cold combo for mamas with mastitis but not engorgement, as the warmth promotes swelling; Abbene swears by it for early engorgement pain.
Some moms swear they found relief from plugged duct pain by grating a cold, raw potato, laying the shreds over their aching breasts, covering them with a cloth, and waiting for the heap to dry (and presumably, the clog to dissipate).
Does it work? Save yourself the work. As West points out, there's no research to back up the super-spud claim.
Studies have found that lecithin, a fat found in foods like soybeans and egg yolks, can help ease your plugged duct woes. But hold off on that double order of edamame -- lecithin is most effective in easy-to-take supplement form.
Does it work? It often does. "Lecithin has been shown to be effective in both breaking up plugs and preventing them from happening," West points out. A typical regimen involves taking one tablespoon of lecithin granule supplement three or four times per day to resolve a clog, then one tablespoon daily to prevent any more from forming.
The supplement is also useful in treating chronic clogged ducts. Abbene regularly recommends it along with the homeopathic remedy phytolacca.
Does it hurt your breasts to nurse your baby? Get advice from a lactation consultant on the best way to breastfeed without pain.
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