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New moms dream of making too much breast milk. They imagine a freezer full of milk pouches and absolutely no worries about feeding their babies. However, most people don’t realize the difficult ramifications of breast milk oversupply, the pumping time required to get all the milk out, and how painful the symptoms of oversupply can be.
Sure, having an oversupply of breast milk has its benefits.
I was able to donate thousands of ounces of milk to desperate mamas who needed it for their babies, and that was among the most rewarding experiences of my life.
But on the whole, oversupply is not as peachy as it sounds.
This is my story of breast milk oversupply. I also talk about my time exclusively pumping, and tell you everything you need to know based on advice from lactation expert Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC, CLC, NOMAS, BRMT.
We’ll talk about:
- Symptoms of oversupply
- Why it occurs
- How you can manage it
- Reducing it
- Ideas for what to do with all that excess mama milk
What It’s Really Like Dealing with Breast Milk Oversupply
My milk came in the first night we were home from the hospital, and when it came in, it came in HARD.
I woke up. No, scratch that. We all know I hadn’t slept.
I got out of bed that first morning at home with the largest, fullest chest I’d ever imagined.
Everyone warned me I’d feel full and potentially have sore nipples, but I never imagined this.
My boobs were solid like rocks, and oh so sore. Achey, even.
Jack couldn’t latch due to micrognathism (meaning he had a recessed jaw as a new baby), so I was exclusively pumping using a hospital-grade pump. I’m guessing that’s part of the reason I made so much milk.
I Had Fast Flow and Crazy Amount of Milk
I immediately plugged in to my breast pump and experienced a let-down like never before.
Milk was spraying all over those tiny little bottles, like a faucet with your hand over the center, spewing everywhere.
I was stunned.
Until I came upon the 10-minute mark (at that point, I was supposed to pump for 12 minutes at a time), and the bottles were overflowing.
Yes, you’d think I’d have noticed this sooner, but I was 3 days postpartum, ya’ll. I vaguely remember worrying that they’d overflow, but honestly, I kind of didn’t think they could.
I was like, my boobs know how to do this. I’m following the hospital’s instructions. These sized bottles came with the pump.
Surely everyone knew what they were doing, right?
So I went with it, ignoring the obviously inevitable, until milk began spilling all over my pajamas.
This was the beginning of my battle with breast milk oversupply.
Symptoms of Breast Milk Oversupply
Obviously, not everyone with oversupply overflows their bottles the first time their milk comes in. I like to think that my body was trying to make up for lost time.
Lost 4 pregnancies before having this one? Let’s just make enough milk to feed them all.
It felt like my hormones’ twisted way of proving to me that my body could, in fact, do this whole mamahood thing.
But if you aren’t overflowing bottles when you pump, or even if you aren’t pumping at all, you could still have breast milk oversupply. And it’s harder to diagnose when you’re feeding an actual baby.
Symptoms typically associated with oversupply include:
- Baby gagging, choking, or pulling away from breast, as if milk is coming too fast or too hard
- Baby pulling off the breast or clamping down hard on it
- Gassy babies or babies who spit up a lot
According to Danielle Downs Spradlin, IBCLC (and tons more impressive letters), owner of Oasis Lactation Services, symptoms aren’t as easy to diagnose as we often think.
Spradlin emphasizes the importance of receiving a diagnosis from a qualified lactation consultant to avoid accidentally treating the wrong problem.
“People mistake coughing and choking on milk as oversupply and then try to reduce their production with block feeding or peppermint tea,” Spradlin explains.
But coughing or choking may mean things other than oversupply.
Or, you may have oversupply, but your baby could have feeding struggles that lead them to need it, for a time being. For instance, what if you have symptoms of oversupply but your baby is gaining weight slowly?
To be sure you’re treating the right issue, Spradlin gives this advice.
“Always have your baby’s oral function assessed before blaming your breasts for anything. Some babies rely on oversupply until they can learn good feeding skills.”Danielle Downs Spradlin, BCLC, CLC, NOMAS, BRMT, Oasis Lactation Services
Does Exclusively Pumping Cause Oversupply of Breast Milk?
If you’re exclusively pumping, it’s much easier to recognize that you produce an abundance of breastmilk.
Like, you know, I overflowed my bottles the first time I pumped after my milk came in.
But even that doesn’t guarantee a diagnosis of oversupply because production is still regulating in the early days.
According to Spradlin, “Overproduction is common in the first few weeks postpartum. It’s easier to manage from the beginning by avoiding unnecessary milk expression, focusing on feeding on demand, and getting adequate postpartum recovery rest and nutrition. The body is designed to regulate this.”
Reducing milk supply at this time can be tricky, and potentially problematic, without guidance from a qualified professional.
I really believe that part of my body’s struggle to regulate came from the fact that I was exclusively pumping, but there’s no conclusive evidence to say so.
It is logical, though, that since my body was not receiving my baby’s saliva to tell it that it was only one baby feeding, and for how long, that it might’ve been confused by the pump.
Plus, a hospital-grade breast pump expresses more milk than a traditional, at-home pump.
Again, this could’ve confused my body.
There’s Little Research on Oversupply
I wasn’t a mom whose supply regulated quickly. For me, it took work and effort (thanks to Danielle’s help!)
I had what she calls “chronic overproduction,” an under-researched area for a few reasons.
“Science hasn’t looked at this,” Spradlin says, “because it’s not seen as a problem or a widespread health issue.”
“Lactation consultants share cases, anonymously with identity and privacy protected, and are working on ways we can identify the root cause of chronic overproduction.”
She does provide some possibilities, though, which, quite frankly, fit my circumstances quite well.
“Inflammation and histamine may play a role. My clinical experience has often been that the most robust over producers also had a chronic condition that can cause inflammation and/or atypical immune activity.”Danielle Downs Spradlin, BCLC, CLC, NOMAS, BRMT, Oasis Lactation Services
Note: I’m one of her robust over producers, and I was recently diagnosed with an immunodeficiency that we think started around the time Jack was born. It’s hard for me to ignore that math.
How much milk should I make?
This is a tricky question, particularly if you’re wondering if you have oversupply. There are clear answers, but the fact of the matter is that all bodies produce milk differently.
“Normal milk production is around 30oz per 24 hours. A typical pumping session yields 2-4oz.”Danielle Downs Spradlin, BCLC, CLC, NOMAS, BRMT, Oasis Lactation Services
She also highlights the key difference between production and storage capacity. Some women produce adequately, but do not have the capacity to store the milk.
And for the record, storage capacity does not directly correlate to breast size.
“Storage capacity is different from production. Some people have productive breasts with low storage capacity. They may only yield 3oz max pumping but can pump this much every hour in only 10 minutes time. So over the course of the day they can collect 30oz and feed the baby exclusively at breast.”Danielle Downs Spradlin, BCLC, CLC, NOMAS, BRMT, Oasis Lactation Services
This was part of my issue. I had CRAZY storage capacity. I could pump 4 times a day and yield about 60 ounces.
I know, go ahead and hate me, but I promise it wasn’t fun.
But all bodies are different, as Spradlin points out. I want to let her words here sink in for a minutes:
“Bodies have a huge range of how they can perform basic functions like walking, talking, lactating, sleeping, or eating.”
Let me repeat part of that for you.
All bodies have a huge range.
You may be able to run a marathon. I can barely jog, but I could’ve fed both your kid and mine.
No matter what is happening with your breast milk supply, please remember that bodies work differently, and your body is not broken.
The Downside to Oversupply
Oversupply is no bed of roses.
Would I personally prefer it to undersupply? Yes.
But that’s also because I developed some sort of weird bodily trust mechanism based on my oversupply, so even when I finally regulated to produce normal amounts of breastmilk, it upset me emotionally.
I was also struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety, so please don’t take my emotional examples as the norm.
But if you or someone you know is dealing with breast milk oversupply, then know they’re also likely dealing with a host of other issues, potentially including:
- Regular breast pain or engorgement
- Excess blocked ducts or mastitis
- Time spent away from their baby connected to a pump (thus stimulating milk supply and, potentially, contributing to the problem.)
Just one day of Jack not letting me put him down to pump proved to be excruciating. Husband came home from work to find me sweaty, having hot flashes, and feeling close to passing out because I so badly needed to pump.
Note: If this is you, please, consider letting your baby cry for a minute while you hand express a little milk to give yourself some relief. I did not think so rationally. At least maybe I can help you a little by making the suggestion.
Then, talk to your lactation consultant about your oversupply, and create a plan to correct it.
My plan to reduce oversupply included:
- Pumping less frequently but until I had fully drained my breast (which sometimes took as long as half an hour)
- Taking sunflower lecithin tablets
Always create a plan to decrease oversupply with the help of a qualified lactation consultant.
What Should I Do with My Excess Milk?
This, friends, was the part of oversupply that I freaking loved!
Did you know that there are moms out there who, for a host of reasons, are absolutely desperate for breast milk?
Some babies need breast milk for medical reasons.
Some children even need breast milk through feeding tubes at much older ages.
The antibodies your breast milk contains can be lifesaving for some of these children.
Other moms struggle to produce but have little ones with allergies that prevent them from taking formula.
Many NICU moms underproduce breastmilk, but need it for their babies. Most NICUs feed babies donated breastmilk.
And you know what? Some moms just want to give their baby breast milk and cannot produce enough.
I don’t really care if you have a sad story or not–if you want to feed your baby formula, feed them formula. But if you want to give them breast milk, it’s so great to have that option.
And this is where oversupply moms like me can make a huge difference. You can DONATE your breastmilk!
Be a modern-day wet nurse. It’s awesome.
Many hospitals with NICUs have donation programs setup that will allow you to donate your excess breast milk to babies in the NICU.
This generally requires a screening process, which can feel extremely laborious when you have a newborn, but it comes with major benefit to premature and sick infants.
This was my original preference, but it didn’t work out for a number of reasons, mostly because I was taking an antidepressant to treat postpartum anxiety.
And while the medicine I was taking was safe for breastfeeding, it’s essential to be extra careful with NICU babies, so I never donated milk to a child with a health issue without their mom first running it by the child’s pediatrician.
This was my go-to method of milk donation. As weird as it sounds to some people, I absolutely loved it.
There are really great local Facebook groups for this. The one I grew to love and trust is called Human Milk 4 Human Babies.
It’s essential that you find the group local to your area. Otherwise, you’ll read a lot of sad stories that you just can’t help with.
Also, while some moms post when they have milk available, I’ll warn you that they tend to get inundated with people who want it.
I never posted about available milk, but instead watched for requests that spoke to me and that were in areas that worked for me.
Using this method, I donated thousands of ounces of milk to moms I still keep up with today. It was a special bond, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity.
Milk Bank Donation
Milk banks are growing in popularity, and they’re also a great option for donating your oversupply of breast milk.
A quick Google search of milk banks in your area will tell you if, and what, is available.
A few quick things to look for with milk banks:
- How do they test their milk? Make sure you’re donating to a bank that is adhering to good safety standards. The health of babies matters most here.
- Where do they distribute their milk? Lots of milk banks donate to NICUs, others to moms in need. Some sell their milk, which I’m skeptical of. I don’t mind if they sell for a small profit (they have to stay in business, and they’re doing a cool thing, so I get that). But if they’re making major bucks, they aren’t in this for the reason I want them to be. Ultimately, that’s your call.
Tell us about your experience with breast milk oversupply.
Oversupply can be bad and can cause challenges for breastfeeding. The baby may want to spend time sucking without a flow of milk (which is normal and helps build oral muscles and regulate hormones that impact sleep and digestion) and there is so much milk in the breast, that type of sucking cannot be achieved.
What is considered an oversupply of breast milk?
Releasing more than 3-4 ounces of milk per breast per feeding can constitute oversupply. There are variables, so always have breast milk oversupply diagnosed by a qualified lactation consultant.
What causes an oversupply of breast milk?
Science hasn’t looked at this because it’s not seen as a problem or a widespread health issue. Inflammation, histamine, or atypical immune activity may play a role.
How do you know if you have an oversupply?
While symptoms of oversupply include baby coughing or choking while nursing, or excess milk production on the pump, only a qualified lactation consultant should diagnose breast milk oversupply.
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Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.