When a mother loses her baby, her aching breasts can monumentally compound her pain. Some mommas find healing in donating milk to another baby; others need their milk to dry up as quickly as possible to mend a broken heart. Still others find themselves in need of medical treatment that demands dry breasts. This article is dedicated to each of these mothers.
Peaceful parenting mothers are almost always concerned about increasing (or maintaining) milk supply in a culture that does little to support the normal breastfeeding relationship. However, in the past few months, at least three mamas in the peaceful parenting community have needed to dry up their milk supply as quickly as possible, despite their strong desire to nurse their babies for a normal duration of years. Two were sweet mothers who had their babies taken from them far too early in life (a little one week old son and a two year old daughter). The other woman is a young mom battling aggressive thyroid cancer who must undergo treatment that will "poison" her milk, and with a terribly heavy heart, she must wean her two year old son. In each of these cases, it was helpful for these mothers to have caring friends who could not only offer a listening ear, compassionate heart, and a lot of love during very tough times, but also some supplies to help with the engorgement and added pain that comes when your body longs to continue nursing a baby you can no longer feed.
Quite honestly, I cannot even fathom the pain of losing a child or being forced to wean early. My desire for these three has been to just hold and cry with them. But after finding that there are not many good go-to places for moms in similar situations, I've decided it is necessary to have a list of ways to help in the drying up process. One mother said that her aching, leaking breasts were terrible constant reminders of the sudden loss of her little girl. She longed to hold and nurse her again, but desperately needed her milk to dry up quickly.
As humans, we generally continue to produce milk for about 45 days after the end of weaning. During natural weaning, many women experience milk secretion for several months or more after their little one has weaned completely. Weaning starts when a baby or child, for the first time, consumes something other than his/her mother's milk, or the human milk from another mother. This 'something other' could be in the form of artificial baby feeds (like formula), another animal's milk, baby 'mush' (homemade or store bought), or first foods self-tasted through baby-led weaning. Weaning concludes when a baby or child has consumed his/her mother's milk (or that of another human mother) for the very last time. Typically the natural weaning process takes place over the course of many years, as it is designed to do among humans. However, when it is sudden - due to the death of a child or illness beyond our control - it may have extremely uncomfortable consequences that can rapidly impact the health of a sudden/early weaning mother (via abscesses, clogged milk ducts, mastitis, etc.). As a result, it is important to have effective strategies for drying up milk.
These techniques and the way they are presented here are *not* for use by mothers wishing to forcibly wean an infant who is nursing on cue and under the age of 24 months. Rather, they are for moms who have lost a nursing baby (either at birth, in infancy, or later childhood) or for mothers who must dry up their milk for urgent health concerns that do not allow for the safe continuation of production.
Drying up milk does not necessarily equate to early weaning. In these later cases (especially if a baby is under the age of 24 months), there are mother-to-mother milk-share programs like Eats on Feets with moms willing to donate milk for free so that human babies continue to get the human milk they need in their first years of life, even if a mother must suddenly dry up her milk supply.
Drying Up Milk Strategies:
manual hand pump
1) Express milk in small amounts with a breast pump or manually
The most effective way to relieve engorgement and encourage fast milk reduction is to borrow or rent a breast pump if you do not already have one (or use manual expression if this works for you) and pump just enough to relieve the pressure. This tells the body that no more milk is needed, which quickly drops supply. Don't attempt to cold-turkey stop nursing/pumping/expressing altogether. Some milk needs to be pumped/expressed in order to avoid clogged ducts, engorgement, abscess and possible infection.
Expressing a small amount (enough to relieve pressure and discomfort) will not prevent your milk from drying up. Whereas adequate milk removal (completely emptying the breasts often, by a nursing baby or hospital grade breast pump) causes milk volume to stay the same or increase, "inadequate" milk removal with a shelf-bought pump or manual expression causes milk production to decrease. When small amounts are removed from the breasts, but they are never fully emptied, the body is told that milk is no longer needed, and production ceases.
sage tea2) Sage tea
Nursing mothers are advised not to drink sage tea - but for those who need to dry up supply, it can be very beneficial. It has been suggested that 2-6 cups of warm sage tea a day for 7 days is capable of dying up milk supply. There are several ways that sage can be consumed:
Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and steep 8 teaspoons of dried or fresh sage leaves in the water for 45 minutes, covered. Then strain, add honey and drink.
Take 1/4 teaspoon of sage 3 times per day for 1-3 days. The sage can be mixed into vegetable juice (like V-8) or can be added to small food pieces and swallowed - a small bite of sandwich, peanut butter, cheese, etc. If you do not like the taste of sage, add a small amount of sage to the food item and swallow without chewing.
Take 30-60 drops of sage tincture, 3-6 times a day.
Research in the Australia New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology applying fresh, crushed jasmine flowers (Jasminum sambac) to the breasts over the course of several days will decrease milk flow. (1)
4) Cold compresses, frozen vegetable bags, or cabbage leaves (nothing hot!) to decrease swelling
Just as warmth increases milk flow, cold temperatures decrease swelling and discourage milk flow. Cabbage leaves work so well for this cause because they are already shaped perfectly to fit over the breasts and under a sports bra.
- Use cabbage leaves chilled or at room temperature, or a cold compress of your choice.
- Wash the leaves (or wrap ice or frozen veggie bags in thin cloth) and apply to breasts between the times you express/pump excess milk.
- Cabbage leaves are nice because they can also be left on the breasts until they wilt (no melting or hardness), and new leaves applied as needed. A comfortable (not tight!) sports bra or nursing bra can be worn over the leaves.
Additional information on using cabbage leaves (2, 3, 4, 5) and links included in reference section below.
5) Avoid hot showers or hot water on the breasts as this stimulates milk flow.
6) Ibuprofen - take as needed to reduce discomfort and inflammation. Be sure to take with a little food or milk, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
7) No nipple stimulation - do not engage in any activity that stimulates the nipples other than the necessary time to pump/express excess milk and relieve breast pressure/fullness.
8) A good sports bra - use one that will hold the breasts securely but not tightly. You want your breasts, nipples, and lymph nodes to breath. Binding or tight fitting bras and clothing will only increase soreness and swelling and does not decrease milk supply as one old myth suggests.
9) Keep drinking water! Another myth is that decreasing water consumption will decrease supply. This is not true. In fact, reducing your water intake will only lead to dehydration, which in turn increases your risk for a breast infection. So keep drinking lots of water!
10) Hormone Contraception. Although I do not advise this or the use of artificial hormones (especially if you are dealing with an illness already), birth control pills, and especially those containing artificial estrogen, are well known for decreasing milk supply. (6, 7) Hormone contraceptives that regularly decrease milk supply include:
- Combination birth control (Alesse, Yasmin, Seasonale, Mircette, Loestrin, Lo/ovral, Demulen, Desogen, Nordette, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, Triphasil, Norinyl, Ortho-Novum, Ovral, etc.)
- Monthly injections (Lunelle)
- Birth control patches (Ortho Evra)
- Vaginal rings (NuvaRing).
11) Pseudoephedrine (brand name: Sudafed, a decongestant), or phenylephrine, also decrease milk supply, especially when taken regularly (120 mg/day). In fact, Sudafed is especially potent in reducing milk supply in late stage breastfeeding mothers (i.e. those who have already nursed a baby 24 months or more). Pseudoephedrine has been shown to decrease milk supply by 24%, and while similar studies have not yet been done on phenylephrine, its similar compounds suggest relatively equal impact. This is another avenue of decreasing milk production that is not 'natural' and I do not recommend it as a first course, but I include it in this list in an effort to be thorough. (7, 8)
12) Various Herbs. Other than Sage and Jasmine mentioned earlier, the following herbs are also known to decrease milk production:
- Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
- Black Walnut
- Stinging Nettles (not Nettle which has been shown to increase milk supply)
- Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
- Lemon Balm
- Periwinkle Herb (Vinca minor)
- Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Sage, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, oregano, and cabbage leaves can all be hot or cold pressed into a pressed oil to make massage oils for milk suppression. To be effective, they do not need to be massaged into the breasts, necessarily, but can be used all over.
Peppermint oil has been used traditionally for decreasing milk supply. While peppermint tea is a very weak form of peppermint and it would take very large amounts (quarts a day) to decrease milk supply, some women have reported that consuming a lot of strong peppermint candies (like the Altoids® Curiously Strong Peppermints) has decreased their supply.
It is important to note that no matter a mother's reason for needing to dry up her milk - whether it is due to the loss of a baby, severe illness that needs treatment, or necessary early weaning for reasons beyond her control - her sadness and potential depression may be compounded by the change in hormones that occur when weaning takes place.
Prolactin is one hormone that stimulates milk production and also brings a mother a natural feeling of well-being, calmness and relaxation. Oxytocin is a powerful 'love hormone' that is released while nursing a child. When weaning happens, we find a drop in both prolactin and oxytocin levels. This means that sudden (often unwanted) weaning can take a real toll on a mother's hormones and emotions. The faster the weaning process occurs, the more abrupt the shift in hormone levels will be, and the more likely a mom will experience these adverse effects.
Mothers who are forced to wean before they are ready (or for reasons beyond their control) and those with a history of depression are also more likely to experience depression after weaning. (9, 10, 11, 12, 13) Hormones are very powerful factors in women's (and men's) lives. We have yet to understand all the rolls they play in our bodies and brains, or their intricate influence on human health, behavior, and emotion. Yet, in the cases of early weaning and drying up milk, some of the same strategies that are used for reducing post-partum depression may also help with early weaning depression and sadness. See Combat Postpartum Depression without Medications for some related suggestions. (14)
A poem in honor of peaceful parenting weaning mommas: Wean Me Gently
1) Shrivastav P, George K, Balasubramaniam N, Jasper MP, Thomas M, Kanagasabhapathy AS. Suppression of puerperal lactation using jasmine flowers (Jasminum sambac). Australia New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 1988 Feb;28(1):68-71.
2) Yount, Paula: Cabbage? Why Use It and How Does It Work? Instructions for Use
3) Newman, Jack: Cabbage Leaves for Engorgement
4) Davis, Marie: Engorgement: The Cabbage Cure
5) Smith, Sandra: Cabbage Leaves for Prevention and Treatment of Breast Engorgement
6) Guthmann RA, Bang J, Nashelsky J. Combined oral contraceptives for mothers who are breastfeeding. American Family Physician. 2005 Oct 1;72(7):1303-4.
7) Hale, Thomas (2008). Medications and Mothers' Milk: A Manual of Lactational Pharmacology. (Hale's site also located here with information)
8) Aljazaf K, et. al. Pseudoephedrine: effects on milk production in women and estimation of infant exposure via breastmilk. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2003 Jul;56(1):18-24.
9) Susman VL, Katz JL. Weaning and depression: another postpartum complication. American Journal of Psychiatry. 1988 Apr;145(4):498-501.
10) Berkeley Parents Network: Depression and Weaning
11) Highton, Brylin. Weaning as a Natural Process. Leaven. December 2000-January 2001; 36(6):112-114.
12) Trad PV. The emergence of psychopathology in a previously adaptive mother-infant dyad. American Journal of Psychotherapy. 1990 Jan;44(1):95-106.
13) Bering, Jesse (2009) Breasts in Mourning: How Bottle-Feeding Mimics Child Loss in Mothers' Brains.
14) KellyMom: Combat Postpartum Depression without Medications