Breastfeeding a child is a beautiful goal for many new moms, but often there is a big learning curve for both the mother and baby. The basic mechanics of it seem easy enough: you put the boob in baby’s mouth and he or she gets milk. But if only it were that simple.
New moms are also attempting to recover from birth, get some sleep, and take care of this tiny new human at the same time. For the baby, well, pretty much everything in their world is new to them!
However, there is so much focus on when initiating breastfeeding with your child that we often don’t think about what happens when it is time for it to end. Sometimes breastfeeding stops suddenly and sometimes weaning is planned, but either way being knowledgeable about how to dry up breast milk is important.
First, we’ll explore some breastfeeding basics. Then we’ll dive into the reasons why you may want to dry up your breastmilk early and the best ways to do that.
- The Health Benefits of Breastfeeding
- Reasons for Drying up a Milk Supply
- Ways to Dry up Breast Milk
- Staying Comfortable While Drying Up
- Some Side Effects of Drying Up
- Way to Go!
The Health Benefits of Breastfeeding
With such a tedious beginning, why do some women try so hard to breastfeed? Is it worth the hassle? According to doctors, it is!
Colostrum, or the thick, yellow milk that is produced during the first few days after the infant is born, is packed full of nutrition and immune boosters that give the baby’s health a jump start. Once the breastmilk comes in it provides the infant with numerous health benefits and immune system protections during their first, vital, stages of life. The milk contains antibodies that protect the infant’s undeveloped immune system and fights off infections and diseases that the child’s own body may be unprepared to tackle.
The contents of breastmilk can even change to accommodate what the child currently needs. If the infant is ill, the mother’s body will produce antibodies to fight off that illness. Researchers believe that this is signaled to the mother’s body through the infant’s saliva while he or she nurses.
Breastfeeding also has numerous benefits for the mother as well. It provides one-on-one bonding time with the baby and more skin to skin contact. Breastfeeding causes the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, can improve mood and anxiety, and reduces the risk of post-partum depression. Producing breastmilk can also help with post-partum weight loss as breastfeeding alone burns an extra 500 calories a day.
Potential Breastfeeding Issues
While it is smooth sailing for some babies, who latch onto mom’s nipple on the first try like little champs, more often than not a myriad of obstacles pop up during those first few days (or weeks) that can create a rocky start.
Some babies need to learn how to successfully latch on multiple times before they get it. There are few things as frustrating as trying to feed a crying baby in the middle of the night who has suddenly forgotten how to nurse (even though that is literally all they have been doing their entire lives).
Some moms have a delay in milk coming in and outside supplementation with formula or donor breastmilk is needed. Issues like tongue-ties, nipple pain, and nipple confusion can hinder the breastfeeding experience. But once mother and baby get it perfected breastfeeding can create a deep, long-lasting bond between the two.
While it is not possible for every mom to go the breastfeeding route, those that do may face a new challenge when it comes time for the nursing relationship to end.
Reasons for Drying up a Milk Supply
While a mother’s milk supply will eventually dry up on its own, there are several reasons why moms may want to dry up their breastmilk supply more quickly.
Your Baby Is Ready to Wean
The most common reason for trying to dry up breast milk is that a mother is done nursing and the child is in the process of weaning or has already self-weaned. Sometimes this happens slowly, with the child gradually nursing less and less as they are moved to a sippy cup and table food, and sometimes the child stops cold turkey and refuses to breastfeed again.
This transitional stage can be difficult, because it is different for every child and there is no tried and true answer as to how best to handle it. If the baby weans gradually it may be easier to prepare for, but if the child stops suddenly the mother needs to decide if she will continue to pump and provide breastmilk or if it is time for her to dry up her supply.
You Need Medication That Can Affect Your Breastmilk
A mother may also need to stop producing milk if she is ill and needs a medication that is incompatible with breastfeeding, meaning it is harmful if passed to the baby through the milk. Often medications are just short term and nursing can be avoided for a few days while the mother “pumps and dumps” the milk containing the medication, and then normal breastfeeding can resume.
Many medications, including some over the counter and depression medications have been deemed safe while nursing. But if the illness is serious or the medication is long term it may be a safer option to stop breastfeeding and switch to formula. Always be sure to speak to your doctor and pharmacist regarding the compatibility of breastfeeding and any medications.
Your Baby Has a Food Intolerance or Allergy
Sometimes infants have allergies to certain foods, and when the mother cannot figure out what the allergies are or successfully eliminate them from her diet, they may be passed to the baby through breastmilk. A baby allergic to cow’s milk, for example, may break out in hives after drinking breastmilk from a mother who regularly consumes cow’s milk.
Sometimes removing the allergen from the mother’s diet can help, but for multiple allergies often the cause of reaction is difficult to pinpoint. For a sensitive infant that keeps reacting to the mother’s breastmilk, the doctor may recommend a specialty formula instead, and the mother may need to dry up her milk.
Ways to Dry up Breast Milk
There are multiple methods to help you dry up your breast milk quickly and safely. We’ve gathered some of the most effective ones here.
Gradually Decrease Feedings/Pump Sessions
In most situations it is best to avoid stopping breastfeeding suddenly, because though the nursing stops immediately, the milk production will not. Breast milk is produced based on supply and demand, meaning the body will produce the amount of milk that baby demands from it. The more the baby nurses the more milk the mother’s body will be stimulated to produce.
The age of the baby may play a factor in how much milk your body makes and how long it will take to completely dry up. Younger infants may nurse more frequently and demand more than an older baby who has started solids and needs less.
If you were to stop cold turkey the amount of milk your body produces would begin to drop immediately following the missed feeds, but your breasts would still fill up the first few days and you could risk engorgement and mastitis. Engorgement happens when the breasts fill up with breast milk and get hard and painful to the touch.
Mastitis is an inflammation and infection of the breast tissue, often caused by a clogged milk duct. Symptoms include breast pain, redness and swelling of the skin, fever, and body aches. Mastitis can be very serious and can escalate quickly, so it needs to be looked at by a doctor.
Ending your breastfeeding journey slowly is one of the best ways to avoid these problems. Planning for weaning and slowly eliminating feeding sessions or pumps over time will help your milk supply decrease gradually.
Start by eliminating one daily feeding session per week, or every few days, to allow your body time to adjust to the new amount of milk production. If your baby usually nurses 3 times a day, drop to 2 times a day for a week or two then drop another one. The same applies to pumping.
These gradual decreases are not always an option, especially for someone who must stop suddenly due to health concerns, and in that case, there are other options to try to decrease breast milk production quickly.
It may sound crazy, but cabbage leaves have been around forever as a method for drying up milk. Though there is little scientific evidence that cabbage leaves cause a decrease in breastmilk production, some people swear by it, and the leaves themselves do provide comfort and protection against engorgement.
The idea is to take cold, refrigerated cabbage leaves and place them in your bra around your breasts. Wash and separate the leaves and then keep them chilled so you can swap the old wilted ones out for cold ones. You may need to change them out around every 30 minutes. The cool leaves are soothing and work much like an ice pack to reduce swelling and engorgement. You can even sleep with them on overnight if you are trying to dry up extremely quickly.
Sage tea contains a natural form of estrogen that will help to dry up breast milk. It works much like the estrogen in birth control as discussed below. You can buy sage tea packets premade (and there is even a brand or two aimed at breastfeeding moms) or you can use the spice you have in your kitchen cabinet.
To make a tea from the spice, steep about 1 to 2 tablespoons of sage in hot water for about 15 mins. You can mix it with another tea or flavor it to make it more palatable.
Peppermint is another herb that is said to have milk reducing properties and can be consumed in a tea much like sage. Peppermint can also be found in some hard candies and mints as well.
Avoid Lactogenic Foods
Some foods, called lactogenic foods, are known to help increase breast milk supply, and are often encouraged when beginning breastfeeding. A good idea when trying to dry up is to avoid these foods, which include oats, fenugreek, fennel, flax, brewer’s yeast, and dark leafy green vegetables.
One of the side effects of using birth control is that it may affect milk supply. While weaning alone might not be a good enough reason to begin taking birth control, the estrogen in it is known to cause a decrease in breastmilk.
If birth control is something a mother had considered for other reasons, such as to prevent future pregnancy, timing it with weaning could dry up breast milk supply quicker.
While not their intended use, decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, like that in Sudafed, are known to decrease breast milk production. Typically this type of medication is taken during a cold or flu to help dry up the sinuses, but it has been noted to dry up milk as well.
Sudafed may pass into breast milk so this option may not be the best if the baby is still nursing often, so in this case it is best for the mother to consult with a doctor.
If a mother has an emergency situation where she has to dry up as quickly as possible, such as with a medical emergency, or in the terrible situation of miscarriage or infant loss, doctors can prescribe medications to aid the mother in the process. These options should be discussed with a doctor, however.
Staying Comfortable While Drying Up
Any method of drying up is going to cause some level of discomfort. The first day or two especially will likely give the mother some level of engorgement, and it is helpful to know what can help provide relief in these situations.
Wear a Firm Bra
Keeping the breasts properly supported, both during the day and overnight, can help reduce pain if they are overfull or engorged. It used to be recommended to tightly wrap breasts to stop milk production and reduce pain, but more recently experts have argued that doing so could lead to clogged milk ducts, which in turn may lead to mastitis.
It is better to wear a firm enough bra that milk filled breasts are supported but remain comfortable. The mother can wear a loose-fitting shirt over the bra to eliminate any extra unwanted pressure and reduce rubbing and irritation.
Use Ice Packs
Placing ice packs in the bra can help reduce swelling and pain in overfull breasts. Some breastfeeding companies make ice packs designed to go in the bra or mold around the breast, but any sort of cold compress will work. This is also a time when the cold cabbage leaves may come in handy and provide some relief.
Over the counter pain medicines like ibuprofen will help curb the pain of hard or engorged breasts and can help reduce inflammation. Many pain relievers are breastfeeding compatible but if a mother is still nursing her child while drying up it is best to double check any medications through her doctor.
If a mother has stopped nursing suddenly and does not intend to nurse again, her breasts may fill up quickly. Most women in the situation want to avoid pumping because they do not want to stimulate more milk production, but in the case of painful engorgement hand expressing small amounts of milk may provide a little relief.
If the hand expression does not seem to help, the mother could use an electric pump to relieve just a little pressure but not empty the breasts. It is better to pump a small amount even if it extends the drying up process by a few days than to end up with a terrible bout of mastitis.
Some Side Effects of Drying Up
Many women are unaware that the process of weaning and drying up can have its own set of side effects, mostly hormonal and emotional. When breastfeeding ends there is a decrease in oxytocin and prolactin, the feel-good hormones, as well as a rise in estrogen. This can result in mood swings, sadness, and even a temporary depression that can catch many off guard.
Other hormone-related side effects, like heavier periods and acne, may occur. Being aware of the negative body changes that can occur when drying up can help the mother prepare for them, and not get so down on herself for feeling like she has fallen into the baby blues all over again.
Way to Go!
Breastfeeding is a labor of love from start to finish. Drying up after breastfeeding can be as tedious a task as learning to breastfeed in the first place but going into it with knowledge will help make the transition easier for both mother and baby.