Breastmilk: Can you have too much of a good thing?

The Chinese postpartum (坐月子 zuo yuezi) diet that I was recently on features many lactogenic foods designed to increase breast milk supply.  Given the nutrition of breast milk and proven health benefits to infants, surely the more milk the better, right?

Well, that’s what I thought until I opened baby Taiwanxifu’s nappy recently and was shocked to find bright green poo in place of the usual fluorescent yellow.  Oh no, we have a problem.

After my first child was born — a premature baby who surprised us two months early — I suffered from low milk supply.  When I look back on that time I can see that it was an inevitable result of exhaustion and stress.   But at the time I just felt guilty and inadequate.  I knew that breast milk was especially important for premature babies, so I hired an industrial strength pump from the Australian Breastfeeding Association and expressed up to ten times a day.  I also went to see my doctor and got a prescription for domperidone, which I took on and off for months.  I read The Breastfeeding Mother’s Buide to Making More Milk from cover to cover, and then kept referring to it as my constant companion.

This effort eventually paid off, but it took a long time and there were many obstacles to obtaining a normal supply.  In the meantime, I suffered from bad-motheritis.  I knew how horribly low my milk supply was when I placed the plastic containers with my meagre offerings next to my son’s name in the nursery fridge; I could just see by looking at the other names how much more abundant their mothers’ milk was.  And I was embarrassed when pumping in the communal breastfeeding rooms next to the other ladies whose milk just seemed to gush out in comparison, and tried to hide away my bottles so that my own lack was less obvious.

Mr Taiwanxifu used to do several milk runs to hospital a day, trying to provide new breast milk to avoid our baby being given formula.  But my breast milk always seemed to fall short.  And when baby came home, he wasn’t putting on weight so Mr Taiwanxifu used to insist on giving formula topups.  It was a constant battle.

If only I realised how easy it can be if you are relaxed, (relatively) well rested and eat the right foods.

While in confinement and eating zuo yuezi foods cooked by my confinement nanny, I started each day with a restorative soup made with liver or kidney (or sometimes with fish and/or seafood).  Lunch was several vegetable and meat dishes served with a wholegrain rice dish, with two soups on the side; at least one of the dishes was always specially designed to assist with producing more milk.  Afternoon tea was a sweet congee soup, again usually made from galactogogues such as millet or red beans.  And dinner was similar to lunch, except with slightly more dishes.  Many of the foods I was eating were galactogogues and/or helped restore my health.  No wonder I was producing so much milk.

Mrs Yang, my confinement nanny, took a keen interest in how much breast milk I produced.  Every day she wanted to know (if he was bottle fed), how much he drank and how long in between.  If he latched on and I fed from the breast, she always tried to calculate how much breast milk she thought baby drank and how much I was likely producing.  Being sensitized given my history as a milk bar with not enough milk, I sometimes over-reacted to her well-meaning guesstimates assuming she was implying the baby wasn’t getting enough.  I found it strange and overly familiar to have the production of my breasts monitored that closely, and became even more determined to prove that this time I could definitely produce enough milk.

And Mrs Yang also obliged in achieving my goal of being a good milker.  From hearing her (and other confinement nannies) discuss the various mothers she had worked with, it was clear that lactating abilities were a clear reflection of their work in providing food and nurturing.  It was up there with having fat and healthy babies (and I was also in the running for having the chubbiest baby as well).

Then I discovered green stools.

While this is not a condition that is of itself harmful to babies, it can indicate gasiness and discomfort.  It often appears in situations where there is an oversupply of milk, caused by lactose overload.  The baby guzzles on the lactose-rich fore milk and does not drink enough of the rich hind milk.  The baby appears unsettled due to the gas, so usually the mother feeds the baby more, which creates more milk and exacerbates the problem.  The solution is block-feeding, i.e. feeding only once every four hours from one side only to ensure the baby drinks enough of the good creamy stuff.  Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to reduce milk supply a bit, either, to prevent having too much milk to start with.

I have not quite made the mental shift from increasing supply to decreasing it.  I am still wired to do everything possible to increase, including squirreling away milk supplies in the freezer ‘just in case’.  I find it quite confronting to now deliberate produce less, not more.  But sometimes less is enough, and being healthy after undergoing zuo yuezi, I must trust that my baby already has what he needs in abundance.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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