Using Chinese Medicine to assist with promoting breast milk

From the outset we make it clear that we are a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic and not trained lactation specialists. The information contained herein is intended to add to conventional breastfeeding education and should not replace the expertise and advice of your trained lactation consultant.

This information might be used by women for whom a conventional medical approach is not their first choice and who are looking for an alternative.

It might also be used by women interested in enhancing the effects of conventional advice and treatment, or those who have found such advice to be ineffective.

Please note that there is a wide range of opinion regarding what constitutes ‘how much’ breast milk is ‘enough’. For the purpose of this piece we define it as when, for whatever reason a woman identifies that she is experiencing insufficient lactation and is considering using Chinese Medicine to promote milk production and supply.

According to Chinese Medicine understanding, insufficient lactation has two main categories. Both need urgent attention if women intend to continue breastfeeding. If milk flow ceases for any reason it can be very difficult to restart. Women should if possible continue to breastfeed even small amounts, frequently while they are receiving treatment.

(a) Inhibited flow due to blockage

The identifying feature of this pattern is that there is abundant milk supply and the breasts are full of milk. There is adequate breast milk yet the breast is unable to empty partially or fully and milk backs up causing distension and discomfort.

The clinical characteristics of breast engorgement might fall into this category. Breast engorgement is a condition that commonly appears 3-5 days post-partum and is due to increased blood and lymphatic fluids congesting in the breast, just before true lactation comes in. The symptoms are essentially hard, swollen, painful breasts.

This pattern is seen more commonly seen in younger, strong, highly strung women. Additional symptoms might include the women being nervous, easily frustrated or irritable. Women who present with this pattern tend to be overly sensitive and react strongly to external stimuli, even the kindest words of advice.

When attempting to understand the Chinese Medicine explanation of this situation, one might consider the analogy of water flowing through a hose. In order to restrict or stop the flow of fluid, external pressure is applied. Once the pressure is released, then the normal flow of water returns. Stress and tension can lead to the restriction and binding of milk in the breast, holding back the natural flow. Some women will become increasingly frustrated as they punish themselves for failure to effectively breastfeed, thus exacerbating the situation and placing them at grave risk of giving up on breastfeeding completely.

This condition is relatively better treated using acupuncture, as it is a condition of blockage. Once the ‘energetic’ pressure is released the milk flow will hopefully flow.

(b) Insufficient milk production

Accompanying symptoms to this presentation may include little or no breast milk for several days post-delivery, absence of breast distension or engorgement, thin watery breast milk, and the mother reporting extreme tiredness and fatigue.

This situation occurs when there is not enough nourishment to support the woman’s health let alone provide the foundation for adequate breast milk production for her baby.

Unlike the previous condition, this is a pattern of deficiency and typically requires longer term treatment. To understand this pattern it is useful again to consider the analogy of water.

If there is insufficient water in a reservoir then there simply won’t be enough fluid volume to create flow. The easy remedy to this situation is to increase the water volume in the reservoir in order to flush and promote new fluid flow.

There are a number of reasons to explain why a woman’s natural ability to produce abundant breast milk might be affected. She may suffer from a pre-existing constitutional weakness, have experienced birth trauma, or had a long difficult labour with excessive postnatal blood and fluid loss. She may have experienced multiple birth, previous miscarriage(s), pregnancies with breastfeeding too close together for her body, or be an older mum.

This particular pattern is most effectively treated with a combination of herbal medicine and diet therapy. The aim of Chinese medicine in this case is to nourish and regenerate the mother’s blood and body fluids. The famous TCM gynaecologist Fu Qing-Zhu (1607-1684AD) claimed that with the correct treatment women experiencing this pattern will have their breast milk gushing like a spring in no time [1].

We hope that the information in this article will give breastfeeding women an alternative and informed perspective how to confidently, sensibly and safely access and use Chinese Medicine for the benefit of themselves and their baby.

[1] Yang, S. & Liu, D. Fu Qing-Zhu’s Gynecology. Boulder, CO, Blue Poppy Press: Boulder, 1996, p.130.