Natural suppression of lactation
What is suppression of lactation?
This is the term used to describe the steps taken to stop lactation ie your body’s production of breast milk once you have given birth. Lactation suppression can be undertaken using ‘chemicals’ – ie specific prescribed medications or through ‘natural’ approaches which help to stop breast milk production. This article will only look at the natural approaches to suppressing lactation. Where there is an indication to consider chemical suppression; this medication would need to be prescribed by your doctor.
Suppressing your milk supply at the start of lactation
There are a number of reasons why women may wish to suppress their body’s production of breast milk from the time of their baby’s birth. They may have decided that they would prefer to formula feed their baby or there can be more difficult circumstances, for example, where the baby is going into foster care or is to be adopted, or very sadly dies.
Lactation works on the basis of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’, so where your baby suckles at the breast, this will stimulate your body to produce breast milk for them. See also our article on ‘Breastfeeding’.
If you decide not to breastfeed your baby, your body will stop producing breast milk after a few days. Breast milk usually ‘comes in’ around day three following the birth and you may notice that your breasts become full and tender for most of the first week post birth. However, providing you don’t try to express off any milk, this fullness should subside within a matter of days.
Should you start off breastfeeding your baby and then later change to formula feeding, you may find that suddenly stopping breastfeeding after so long, leads to breast engorgement. This is where your breasts become overfull with milk and feel hard and very painful. See also our article on ‘Management of common breastfeeding problems’. In these cases, it can take much longer for breast milk production to cease and you may need to suppress your lactation gradually over a longer period of time. You may also find that you have to express off a small amount of breast milk to ease the fullness. However, this should only be done in small quantities and not too often, as this could effectively stimulate your breasts to produce even more milk. Try to remain patient and after a few weeks, you should find that your milk supply has stopped.
Is there anything I can do to relieve the discomfort?
If your breasts become engorged during suppression of lactation, there are a number of measures you can take which soothe and support painful breasts:
- Wearing a well-fitting firm support/sports bra both day and night. NB. You may need to size-up for awhile!
- Using breast pads (disposable or reusable) to soak up any leaking breast milk – you should change these as soon as they become wet
- Taking regular pain relief such as Paracetamol and/or Ibuprofen These belong to different groups of drugs and can be alternated to provide additional relief. NB. You should never exceed the maximum stated dosage
- Applying cold flannels/compresses or cooled gel pads to your breasts, especially after you’ve showered or bathed
- Chilled Savoy cabbage leaves are a cheaper but equally effective remedy. The cabbage leaves should be kept in the fridge and washed and dried before use. You should cut out any large raised veins on the surface of the leaf as these can cause discomfort and bruise you. Wear the cabbage leaves inside your bra cups and change them every couple of hours, or as and when the leaves become limp
- Be careful when handling your breasts because they are likely to feel extremely painful and can bruise easily
- Try to sleep lying on your back. Using an extra pillow to support your breasts when lying on your side can make you feel more comfortable.
What about binding my breasts?
Breast binders were once popular in helping to suppress lactation and support engorged breasts. However, studies have found that breast binding can lead to blocked milk ducts which can cause mastitis. See also our article on ‘Management of common breastfeeding problems’. If you find wearing a bra too uncomfortable, take a length of stretchy cotton or towelling fabric and wrap this around your chest instead. This should then be fastened so that it is firm enough to support your breasts without being uncomfortably tight.
Women’s experience of lactation suppression is very individual. Some women will sale through the entire event without any problems; while others find it extremely painful and unpleasant. Should you have any concerns, start to feel unwell/’flu-like’, or develop breast pain, lump(s) or area(s) of inflammation on your breasts (which could be a blocked milk duct or mastitis); contact your midwife, health visitor or GP for their advice.