What Not To Say To A Breastfeeding Mom Who Has Oversupply

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I make lots of milk. I won’t hesitate to admit I’m satisfied with this fate. That said, it is a little harder to explain how my overly zealous breasts have also caused several of my main nursing challenges.

After a third official run-in with mastitis since giving birth seven months ago (fifth time between two babies), please hear me when I say… sometimes this blessing feels a bit like a curse in disguise.

So, where does all the milk come from?! This is what my four-year-old nursling wants to know when he asks incredulously, “Mommy, how do you make all this nanoo? Like, I mean, where do you even get it?!”

I want to tell him something easy like “I turn food into breast milk?” but that’s not exactly how it works (to oversimplify things, milk isn’t manufactured in my gut, it comes from my blood). So I’m like “Ask Daddy?” (And then I wish I knew how to science better with a preschool-aged child… but I digress).

I don’t know why I make a lot of milk, but sometimes it really is a thorn in my bra. Now, what the heck does a mother who makes ‘too much milk’ have to worry about? Is this even a condition, is it even a problem — like really? When can we roll our eyes?

Well, let’s not do the eye thing. To get acquainted with the idea of milk overabundance as a precursor to very real problems for many (not all) overproducing mothers, read my post “When Breasts Act Like Fire Hoses,” which covers some of the special issues associated with oversupply and/or overactive letdown.

A few examples:

  • A woman with one of these circumstances may be more prone to mastitis.
  • With overactive letdown, she may fear spraying milk like a geyser while nursing in public or that she’ll leak through her top and need to walk around looking like she’d leaned over a wet counter top.
  • If milk lets down heavy and hard, a baby may habitually pop on and off the breast until the flow regulates. When nursing in public, it can be embarrassing and nerve-wracking to worry about an areola staring a stranger directly in the face for several seconds or longer, and exasperating when baby repeatedly yanks himself off the breast without notice.
  • A baby may often sputter, gag, choke on his milk, vomit or spit up frequently, scream, and overall be agitated during feedings if he struggles to acclimate to his mother’s overwhelming milk supply. When feeding isn’t going well, hardly anything else tends to go well — fussiness can lead to breast refusal, hunger can lead to poor sleep, and the cycle continues.
  • Pumping can be a challenging experience because it may overstimulate the breasts, thus compounding the problem.
  • She may be vulnerable to milk mismanagement. A baby who receives too much foremilk and not enough hindmilk may suffer from gassiness and stomach pain, constipation (hindmilk has laxative effects), nursing strikes, and slow weight gain among other things. In this way, many babies whose mothers have oversupply may actually wind up underfed.
  • A baby may bite or clamp down on her nipples to halt the rush of milk. He may do better with very short feedings, which equates to very frequent feedings, which in turn means more stress for everyone involved.
  • She may have needed to throw out her underwire bras (and maybe all the regular ones, too) to ensure free-flow within her ducts. She may not be able to sleep on her stomach (didn’t pregnancy end like, forever ago?!) without risking another plug.
  • She may need to change more diapers and wash more laundry in general because her baby can wet and soil more often and spit up profusely between feedings.

Infant feeding can be tricky for anyone no matter how we do it or what we’re working with. Many mothers with oversupply may be thriving alongside their big-bellied babies, but to the contrary, many wish others could act with more sensitivity if and when they face unwanted side effects.

So here are 7 things to avoid saying…

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1. “I wish I had your problem!”

This is sometimes heard from those who endured the opposite troubles of low milk supply. The frustration, envy, resentment, or misunderstanding — these are all valid feelings.

Is it possible to avoid unconscious guilt-tripping of a friend who has expressed strife over her feeding complications, even if you’re unable to move past the projected image of her in your ‘dream scenario’?

Perhaps her overflowing milk does sound far more ideal than dried-out ducts. But remember both of your babies are crying at the breast!

So unless you’re willing to commiserate with her sorrowful tales of constantly plugged ducts, please let “Don’t complain!” fade from your vocabulary.

We all have to feed our babies. And it’s never exactly ‘easy,’ no matter how we do it.

2. “Your boobs are huge!” / “But your boobs aren’t huge…”

Breast size has nothing to do with milk-making capability. One cannot predict how much milk a woman will make based on the size of her breasts prior to breastfeeding.

Likewise, the amount of milk she ultimately makes cannot be assessed by her state of engorgement or emptiness. In fact, emptied breasts actually make more milk than full ones.

Unless she asks for this specific feedback, a mother juggling in the milk balancing act likely doesn’t want to hear your thoughts on whether her taut, uncomfortably full breasts meet your expectations, or whether they prompt suspicion of being too tiny for excesses.

Most importantly (and this should be painfully obvious), it’s just plain rude to comment on another person’s body short of some observation that requires emergency dialing 911.

3. “You’ll get more stretch marks and look awful after weaning, huh?”

People actually say this! (Not you of course. Other people. 🙂 ). I’ve seen it and, unfortunately, heard it too — the first part from the mouth of one person and the second from the mouth of another. These people weren’t related. Or friends with each other. Not even Facebook friends.

In any case, they hit the same mark: “I feel sorry for you.” (Interestingly, the opposite sentiment of #1: “I don’t feel sorry for you”).

Oh sure, they were just jokes (ha, ha….ha), but I wasn’t laughing (sniff…sniff).

I truly appreciate an honest, raw conversation about postpartum bodies any day, that ‘real talk’ about breasts that have been over-flooded with milk for too long, too often — breasts that eventually retire into literal shells of what they once were. Those of us who bear them should feel proud that they appear to have worked so hard for us and our babies.

But it’s so much harder to do that if we’re met by the nemesis of ‘real talk’ — that is, phony talk. Jokes. Those things said that offend the sensitive (new mothers), that refuse to be withdrawn because the targets are “too sensitive,” and those things said are “just jokes,” after all.

If you wish to be supportive, calling attention to the potential of wear and tear upon a woman’s body is not the way to go. If she bemoans the engorged flesh that barely fits in her bra by mid-morning, please don’t slap your knee and cackle unless you’ve been there, too.

Here’s a silver lining for ya (not the stretch mark kind of silver lines). Instead of citing the scientifically-unsound increased risk for less-elastic breasts, you could cheer her up with this fun fact: the longer she keeps cooking up all that milk, the more sharply her chance of breast cancer decreases! (“Beauty in health” — a mother’s mantra. Repeat as necessary when she’s down on herself!).

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4. “Overproduction is caused by overfeeding.”

If a baby is exclusively breastfed (not given formula, baby food, solids, water or other liquids), and also if he’s not given bottles, it’s impossible to overfeed him. This is because it’s impossible to force a baby to nurse.

Breastfeeding happens when a baby latches, creates a suction lock with his mouth, and pushes the milk out. His role in nursing is active and vital. There are no forced ‘spoon airplanes’ or fast-flow silicone teats involved in nursing. Whatever directly happens between the baby and breast is natural and mutual.

Overproduction of milk can be traced to many a thing, but ‘spoiling’ a baby with comfort and milk on demand is not one of them.

5. “The problem is you’re feeding too long/too often.”

A continuation upon #4: Babies are always nursing because they’re always growing, physically and emotionally.

Despite greater awareness of breastfeeding as the intended norm, our culture still defines it by formula feeding standards. This includes feeding schedules (“every four hours”), artificial top-offs, dummy pacifiers replacing the real deal, timed feedings (“ten minutes per side/feed”), even the way we see mothers portrayed when nursing as in the traditional propped-bottle, rigidly upright pose (instead of the more relaxed, reclined one that assists with overactive letdown issues).

Lactation experts often recommend block feeding to help manage troubles with oversupply. This involves finishing the first breast first, or in other words, only feeding from one breast per nursing session if her oversupply issues are mild. If baby wants to nurse again within about two hours, the mother may nurse again on that same breast if her issues are moderate.

A more severe approach would involve some pumping as well, but usually sticking to one breast per feeding is all that’s needed to ensure her baby gets a full-course meal as often as he wants, and takes as long as he needs.

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6. “You need to donate if you have so much extra!”

The decision to donate milk is an extremely personal one. No mother has a duty to donate just because she prepares enough to feed a football team.

It’s great to promote breast milk donation — in fact, we should all be far more prioritizing of the matter. However, there’s a fine line between encouragement and pressure…

I expressed milk for my first son (“in case of emergency” and for babysitting). I was pumping at least 1 ounce per minute, sometimes 2 at the start of the session.*** I consciously stopped at 20 minutes of pumping because I kinda felt like I’d turn inside out or some more gruesome fate would befall me by the half-hour mark.

Many factors can affect expected milk output, but consider this: According to Breastfeeding USA and KellyMom, an exclusively breastfeeding mother who takes well to pumping can expect to express about 1/2 – 2 ounces total for both breasts in one pumping session. The average baby needs to drink between 19 – 30 ounces of breast milk per day and a newborn full-term or premature baby requires even less with his marble-sized stomach.

So with the results of that number-crunching I declared the only obvious next undertaking. If I could feed a milk-poor baby for an entire day with just fifteen minutes of my time, I must do it. When my first son was still very young, I donated bags upon bags of my liquid gold.

And I’m not doing it again.

My heart responded well to donating milk in those pumping days, but my body did not. It suffered, and I felt sacrificed for purpose. It was too enthusiastic to make more milk — more, more, more, however much my baby needed and their babies needed.

When do you stop? Twenty minutes? Four months? A year? Theoretically I could make milk until the revolt of post-menopausal hormones as long as I insist upon its removal. Am I morally obligated to apply this gift to the betterment of others? Do I ignore the fact that my body is my own and autonomy plays an important role in this quandary?

Can pumping become an addiction? I worry that it might.

So today, acknowledging this compulsion to fulfill some imagined obligation to feed the world, I no longer need to prove that I can provide. I can make milk, all the milk, I can feed, nourish, give all the best parts of me in one sitting from the most aesthetically-designed platter nature ever imagined.

I can provide for more souls beyond myself. But there will always be more little souls to feed, and for now I will feed myself and my own.

Telling a breastfeeding mother that she really must take the time to pump for other babies if she makes excess breast milk is akin to pressuring a formula-feeding mother to donate extra containers to other families if she can afford it.

*** (Now, please note that many mothers who have oversupply don’t necessarily respond this easily to a pump. It is a strange, cold, whirring machine after all. I only mention my experience because it’s one way I can possibly apply numbers to my milk output — those numbers to which we all seem to cling so direly [and often to our own detriment] for clarification, evidence, or reassurance in this bottle-fed culture).

7. “Try switching to formula/switching to bottles.”

For a mother who desires to breastfeed, advising her to “just” supplement is the opposite of helpful. You fix breastfeeding problems by finding breastfeeding solutions, not by advising her to not breastfeed — which is exactly what “just supplement with an alternative milk” means.

Supplementing with formula can cause a mother to produce less milk because her breasts aren’t as stimulated and her milk isn’t emptied when a formula feeding replaces a nursing session. Producing less milk isn’t a solution for oversupply — better milk management is the solution!

Don’t tell a mother who complains about breastfeeding struggles to just give up. That’s what “maybe just switch to formula” means.

So she wanted to breastfeed. Her baby wants to breastfeed (they all do). She’s having a rough time, at least sometimes. “Just switch” minimizes the importance of breastfeeding, dismisses the meaningfulness of her efforts, and fails to support her feeding choice by suggesting she try another route.

Most people don’t realize once a baby has formula, there is no going back. With just one dose of formula, he no longer boasts the ‘virgin gut,’ will never get 100% of the same benefits as his ‘Exclusively Breastfed’ peers, and his mother’s supply can be affected in the long run.

That may all be fine and dandy, but is that what she wants? Or did she only want someone to validate her grief over, say, confusion about block feeding ?

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