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Common Problems Encountered by Breastfeeding Women

Overabundant Milk Supply
I have made so many references in this book to low milk supply that you might wonder whether anyone really produces excessive quantities of milk. While many more women seek help for too little milk than for too much milk, an overabundant supply is a frustrating problem for some women. Obviously Mother Nature prefers to closely match a woman's supply to her infant's need. The process of lactation is not efficient when a woman's body makes surplus milk that isn't needed by her infant. I don't know why some women produce extra, unwanted milk, while others fail to produce enough. Although low-milk problems often result from improper breastfeeding management, overabundant milk production is usually unrelated to a mother's breastfeeding practices.

I am convinced that women vary widely in their capacity to produce milk. In earlier times, some mothers with overabundant supplies sought employment as wet nurses. I suspect that an overabundant supply results from a triple combination: exceptional production capacity, a brisk and well-conditioned milk ejection reflex, and a superefficient nursing baby. While generally preferable to low milk, the problem can still be a source of frustration and discomfort for both mother and baby. Women with an overabundant milk supply often voice the following complaints:

  • Breasts that easily become uncomfortably engorged
  • Dramatic (sometimes painful) sensations of the milk ejection reflex
  • Chronic leaking milk
  • Repeated clogged ducts
  • One or more breast infections
  • Rapid weight loss due to the high metabolic demands of producing so much milk
As if the problems that an overabundant supply cause a mother aren't troubling enough, having superabundant milk can also be frustrating for babies. Many women are more upset by the distress their overproduction seems to cause their infant, including the following:
  • Choking and sputtering when milk lets down
  • Excessive gas and abdominal discomfort from overeating
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Inability to enjoy "comfort nursing" since the baby obtains unwanted milk even when trying to nurse to sleep
  • Frustration with breastfeeding that leads to early weaning or a nursing strike
Fortunately, the problem of overabundant milk usually im-proves with time. The baby may "grow into" his milk supply as he gets a little older. Furthermore, the supply tends to gradually diminish since the mother's breasts don't get well drained. Ordinary life stresses like returning to work, becoming ill, skipping meals, or suffering a breast infection all can cause milk production to decrease.

Meanwhile, you can try some of the following strategies to help your baby enjoy nursings better, to prevent the risk of clogged ducts and mastitis, and to gradually reduce your milk production:

Position your baby so that his head and throat are higher than your nipple. By nursing "uphill," he will be better able to control your overly fast flow of milk. Use the football hold and lean back to elevate your baby's head. Or, try the cradle hold, with your baby elevated higher than usual, while you lean back in a recliner.

If your let-down is causing your baby to choke and/or cry, temporarily interrupt the feeding until your milk stops spraying. Then allow your baby to resume feeding after the milk flow has slowed.

The two key ways to reduce milk production are to remove less milk at each nursing and to remove milk at less-frequent intervals. To prolong the interval at which milk is removed, you can try nursing on only one breast at each feeding, alternating the breast you use. Using one breast at each nursing might also make feedings go more smoothly for your baby. After the initial rapid flow tapers, your baby may be able to comfortably handle the milk volume from a single breast. However, the unsuckled breast may be left uncomfortably full and place you at risk for mastitis. If you decide to use one breast, you probably will need to express sufficient milk from the opposite breast to relieve some of the pressure and keep you comfortable. Eventually, the milk supply should decrease.

Another way to modify feedings is to allow your baby to nurse from both breasts at each feeding, but to avoid emptying either side well. The first breast will be left softer than the second, but neither will be thoroughly drained. You'll want to nurse at the first breast for at least five to seven minutes after your milk lets-down to assure that your baby gets ample hindmilk. Once he switches to the second breast, some mixing of foremilk and hindmilk already will have occurred. What isn't desired is to have your baby take only the watery foremilk from each breast.

Some women with overabundant milk choose to obtain a hospital-grade electric breast pump so they can soften their breasts whenever the need arises. They simply freeze their excess milk for later use-perhaps after they return to work.

Where feasible, supermilk producers can collect and donate their surplus milk to a Donor Milk Bank. This is an option available in Denver since we have a large distributing Mothers' Milk Bank. Being able to provide extra milk for infants in need serves to reframe a woman's "problem" and turn it into a positive.

Note: As unlikely as it seems right now, you actually can go from too much to too little milk in only a few days. I have seen this happen a number of times when women started skipping nursings and leaving their breasts engorged. Remember, extra milk is preferable to insufficient milk!

Nursing Strike
Occasionally, a breastfed infant starts refusing to nurse without apparent explanation. Nursing strike is an apt term used to describe this sudden breastfeeding refusal. It occurs most commonly between four and seven months of age. In a typical case of nursing strike, a mother will report that when she offers her breast, her baby cries, arches his back, pulls away, and essentially rejects the breast. He may latch on for a few seconds, but does not suckle for any appreciable time. The baby usually accepts a bottle well and is content to bottle-feed. Faced with this frustrating behavior in her infant, it is not uncommon for a woman to give up nursing and explain that her baby "weaned himself." Other women are distressed at the prospect of not being able to continue breastfeeding and seek advice from their doctor or a breastfeeding counselor. With prompt intervention, nursing strikes can often be remedied, thus preserving the opportunity for a woman to continue to breastfeed.

At first consideration, a nursing strike appears to occur suddenly and without obvious reason. Upon more careful examination, however, I find that one or more contributing factors are usually present. Some infants begin their distressing behavior during the course of an upper-respiratory infection. A stuffy nose can create distress when a baby tries to breath while nursing. Or an ear infection can be more painful when a baby reclines to nurse. The refusal behavior sometimes coincides with teething and may be the result of discomfort while sucking. I'm also aware of a few instances of nursing strike that started after a teething infant bit his unsuspecting mother and caused her to shriek in surprise and pain-which, in turn, startled and upset the baby. A busy mother may find she has been hurrying feedings to get to other activities instead of permitting her infant leisurely nursings. Another baby may go on strike because he has been frustrated by an overabundant milk supply or an overactive milk ejection reflex. The common theme in these examples is some type of unpleasantness associated with breastfeeding.

While any number of reasons-recognized or overlooked-may contribute to a nursing strike, I have come to conclude that many cases also involve a gradually dwindling milk supply. After the early months of frequent, round-the-clock nursing, many mothers begin giving supplemental bottles and spending increased periods of time separated from their babies. A mother's milk supply may decline after her baby starts sleeping through the night, causing her breasts to go eight, ten, or twelve hours without emptying. At first a mother may not even be aware that her supply is less abundant or that her baby is becoming frustrated with the increased effort to obtain milk. Without consciously planning it, she actually may have started weaning, and her baby may decide to escalate the process abruptly through a nursing strike. Thus, I believe the common denominator of nursing strikes all too often is low milk supply. When diminished milk flow is coupled with a baby who has been exposed to the ease of bottle-feeding, abrupt refusal to nurse can result. Low milk volume and bottle use aren't always to blame, however. Other cases have been described in which the mother had an abundant milk supply and the baby was being fully breastfed.

If your baby is manifesting a nursing strike, seek consultation with a lactation consultant or other breastfeeding specialist. You also should let your baby's doctor know that your infant is experiencing this feeding problem. The physician will want to make sure that no illness is present to explain your baby's behavior and that the infant continues to receive sufficient nourishment during the period of breast refusal. Effective treatment of a nursing strike involves three key strategies:

1. First, try to get your baby to return to breastfeeding by attempting to nurse him in his sleep. Fortunately, most infants will cooperate, although some may cry upon awakening and finding themselves at the breast. Eventually, your baby may awaken and continue to nurse without protest. Some mothers have found that they could keep their child nursing by walking with the infant. Bottle-feeding should be avoided if at all possible. If your baby requires supplemental milk, several options are available for providing it without using bottles. If regular bottle-feeding is inevitable, try to have another caretaker give the bottle. If breastfeeding frustrates your baby because it does not satisfy his hunger, you may be able to woo him back to the breast beginning with "comfort nursing" after he has been given supplemental formula to curb his appetite.

2. Eliminate any unpleasantness associated with nursings and remedy any exacerbating factors. If your baby has a cold, nurse your infant after clearing the nasal passages with a bulb syringe. If you think an ear infection could be present, have your child checked and treated. Attempt to nurse in subdued, quiet surroundings to minimize distractions, and let your baby take all the time he wants. If discomfort from teething seems to be contributing to difficulty nursing, soothe your baby's gums with a cold teething ring.

3. Evaluate your milk supply and, if low, attempt to increase your milk production. Even if your supply was normal prior to the nursing strike, your milk can rapidly decrease if your baby refuses to nurse. Once the original problem is compounded by low milk, it will be even harder to get your baby back to breastfeeding. So, unless your infant immediately can be enticed to resume breastfeeding at the normal frequency and for a suitable duration, you will need to obtain an effective breast pump to maintain (and increase) your milk supply. While hand expression and manual pumps prove highly effective for some women, in general, I recommend an efficient hospital-grade electric pump to regularly empty your breasts and keep your milk production up until your baby is nursing well once again.

Pumping can create a potential dilemma since you can't predict when your baby might be willing to cooperate and nurse. It's possible you will finish emptying your breasts with the pump just when your baby acts like he might be willing to breastfeed. On the other hand, if you leave your breasts unemptied while waiting expectantly for your baby to suckle, your milk supply may dwindle. I would advise putting your baby to breast every couple of hours (preferably with the infant asleep or drowsy at first). Then, you should pump both breasts immediately after your nurs-ing attempt to assure they are well drained.

With sufficient reassurance, a strong commitment to nursing, and the temporary discontinuation of bottle-feeding, a nursing strike often can be overcome. Increasing your milk if it is low and nursing your baby in his sleep are your best strategies.

From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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