Nine years ago, I remember sitting down to breastfeed my son. I smiled at him as he latched to the breast…and then watch as he immediately came off coughing and choking, getting sprayed in the face with milk in the process. That’s when I realized that I had an oversupply of milk.
Milk production is based on a supply and demand system in the few first weeks. In other words, the more a parent breastfeeds, the more milk they will make. The less a parent breastfeeds, the less milk they make.
Usually when something goes haywire with this supply and demand system, it results in low milk supply. But sometimes, a breastfeeding parent will develop an oversupply of milk, which in IBCLC world is called “hyperlactation.”
Oversupply can be caused by breastfeeding mismanagement in the first few days to a few weeks, or too much prolactin in the parent’s body. There may even be a genetic disposition in some families. While making “too much” milk may seems like a cool situation to be in, it’s not always rainbows and unicorns and a picture on Instagram of an impressive freezer stash. It can cause a lot of problems for both the breastfeeding parent and the baby as well.
If you find yourself wondering if you have an oversupply, here are three things you need to know:
How oversupply affects the breastfeeding parent
1 Oversupply can make the breastfeeding parent uncomfortable.
I’m not just talking about the uncomfortable feeling you get when you accidentally squirt your sister-in-law at a cookout because your milk flow is so fast (awkward). Parents with oversupply often feel that their breasts are never “fully drained” by the baby and always feel full.
I have seen 24 hour engorgement in a parent with oversupply – which if you have ever tried to sleep when your breasts feel hard as rocks, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Because babies will often cope with the overflow of milk by biting down at the breast, parents with oversupply will often have sore, cracked nipples.
They also have an increased risk of mastitis and plugged ducts, due to the constant fullness of their breasts. Add that to the constant barrage of laundry because they are always leaking through their shirts and all over their sheets at night, and you get the picture of how inconvenient this can be.
2 Babies can be unhappy with oversupply too.
Babies whose parents have oversupply may either gain weight too slowly or too quickly. They may be uncomfortable during feedings, squirm and gulp harshly, and unlatch frequently to cry (and sometimes get sprayed in the face by milk when they do. Then the couch gets sprayed, the dog gets sprayed, and maybe even the ceiling).
They may cough and choke at the breast; arch their back; and sometimes even refuse to latch. They may suffer from reflux and gas, and have green, frothy stools. They may start to associate breastfeeding with discomfort and pain. These babies are not happy babies and usually if baby is not happy, no one in the house is happy.
It may not be oversupply!
3. If you feel these symptoms describe you and are checking off all the boxes in your head – wait! Before you ask Professor Google “How to lower my milk supply” – be aware that it may not be oversupply. Strong letdowns/flow of milk (or overactive letdown) often runs hand in hand with oversupply, but you can have an overactive letdown that creates the same symptoms described above without the extra abundant supply of milk.
Other times there is not an oversupply of milk present, but baby has the same or similar symptoms due to the way they latch to the breast or move their tongue while feeding.
In these cases, if a parent were to intentionally reduce their supply, you might end up with a baby who has the same symptoms but now isn’t gaining weight well anymore.
If you suspect you have oversupply, then your best bet is to work with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who can watch a feeding and determine if oversupply is actually the cause of the symptoms. They can then help you manage your supply safely and carefully, without messing with the baby’s intake and weight gain.
And there is it! The three basic facts you need to know about oversupply. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out (right after you are done scrubbing breastmilk off the couch. Or ceiling).