Ohhhh . . . if I could document every trial and tribulation (and accomplishment and endless joy) with being a new mother. The learning curve is STEEP, folks. Breastfeeding was one of the biggest hills to climb, and on that hill was my friend/foe: fenugreek. I’ll explain . . .
Almost eight months after I had my daughter, my period arrived. I was still nursing heavily and this came out of nowhere for me. Yes, I know it’s possible and not unheard of, especially once the baby begins to eat solids. The baby begins to gain calories from solid foods, breastmilk supply can take a dip, and therefore menstruation may resume.
I need to rewind a little, here, and fill in some of the missing, yet relevant, facts. I had an abundance of milk once my supply came in. I can remember one night, roughly 10 weeks into new motherhood, doing a pumping session simply to relieve some of the discomfort and fullness. My daughter had nursed just a couple of hours prior but I was having some serious leakage and discomfort. I pumped for about 10 minutes and produced almost 10 oz of milk. Yes, you read that right: 10 OUNCES.
Rewinding even further to several weeks prior, I met with my lactation consultant because my daughter was having some issues with nursing. All signs pointed to a forceful let-down. At that point, it was too early and too risky to try to address the issue with block feeding. She explained that as my daughter’s reflexes matured, she may be able to tolerate the let-down better and we didn’t want to risk cutting back my supply so early on. (You can read about forceful let-down and block feeding here.) She advised me to pump just a little off before nursing so that the ejection wouldn’t be so strong and my girl would be able to tolerate it comfortably. Well, what happens in doing that? Your body will get the signal that the baby is consuming the milk and then make even more. It can become a vicious cycle if not done minimally.
Fast forward back to the morning following my 10 oz pump. I contacted my lactation consultant who advised I move forward with block feeding since my supply was well-established. I proceeded with that advice immediately, and within 4 or 5 days I could see a marked improvement in my daughter’s behavior with handling the milk flow. The huge piece of advice I failed to obtain from my lactation consultant was how long to continue with block feeding. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to ask. I’m sure I was just consumed with trying to address the immediate issue. I continued to block feed for approximately a week until I was convinced that my daughter was handling everything much better. There’s that learning curve again, creeping up on me.
As it turns out, I believe I block fed for a few days too many. Within a couple of weeks, my daughter was beginning to get angry at the breast and starting to refuse it. I noticed it was taking me longer to have a let-down and the added stress of such only made it worse. All this new mom wanted to do was take care of her baby and make sure she was having all her needs met. At the time, it felt like a big fail for me. (There’s another vicious cycle.) By this point, she was 3 1/2 months old. Her suck and swallow reflex were noticeably more mature within that short span of a couple of weeks. In hindsight, I feel like if I would have avoided the block feeding and stuck it out a few more weeks, she would have been able to handle the flow better. Oh hindsight . . . why can’t you ever be foresight when I need you to be?
I spent an agonizing month or so trying to do what I could to gently get her back to the breast, and then get her to stay on long enough for a let down. I reached out to my lactation consultant for advice, but I felt she didn’t know how to advise me. She told me to stick it out or go ahead and pump. Frustrated, I reached out to a second consultant who, frankly, wasn’t any more helpful. She came out and told me my suspicions were right. She advised that I take an herbal supplement she was selling, but didn’t have any available and wouldn’t for a few weeks. (Because that’s helpful . . .?!) She also advised that I pump frequently in between nursing to boost my supply.
Let me tell you what I find so frustrating about this advice: My daughter was already peeved that my breasts weren’t shooting out like fire hydrants, and now you want me to deflate them even more in between nursing sessions by pumping? I get that long-term it will increase supply, but what am I supposed to do in the interim? I had no desire, at this point, to transition my daughter from the breast to the bottle full time (more about that another time).
Keep in mind, my daughter was still basically a newborn.
Finally, I took the plunge and started to take fenugreek. I had avoided it earlier, because I had heard so much about how it can potentially cause tummy troubles for the infant. At this point, I felt like I would be able to tell if she was having a reaction to the fenugreek, so I went for it. And yes, it definitely increased my supply pretty quickly. My daughter was successfully back on the breast full time within a few days of starting the tincture and I could see a marked increase in my supply. I stopped the fenugreek after 10 days or so.
What I didn’t know at the time was that fenugreek may also invite your menstrual cycle back, and the following month I had a very light cycle. My daughter was roughly five months by this point. Since everything was going well, I stopped the fenugreek and the next month I did not have a cycle. Since my July cycle was so light, I didn’t make the connection to fenugreek.
About a month after my daughter started solids, I noticed another dip in my supply and I panicked. I should also note that my cycle did not return that month, even with the dip in breastmilk supply. I ran out and bought some more fenugreek and faithfully took it until it was gone. Sure enough, about a month later (almost eight months postpartum), my menstrual cycle came back swinging. Punching. Kicking. SWINGING. And it continued to stick around. With each cycle, I noticed less and less milk production.
You may wonder how I noticed this since I was primarily nursing. For several months I had been pumping in the evening so that my husband could give her one bottle per day. When I was not having a cycle, my supply was pretty consistent once we got past the block feeding dilemma. When my period returned, I noticed that the closer I was to my cycle, and also while on my cycle, my supply was taking a big hit (for me, a big hit meant from 1-2 ounces less production per day, on average). About a week after my cycle finished, it would boost back up, but never back to where it was prior to my cycle. This continued with each and every cycle, taking a bit of a hit each and every time.
I’m not suggesting that fenugreek diminished my supply, because it definitely resulted in a modest increase in supply. What decreased my supply over the long-term was the return of my cycle. But I am pretty convinced that fenugreek is what brought my cycle back. Why? Because going back to when I initially took it (for a shorter period of time), I had a light cycle. Once I stopped taking it, my cycle went away for a couple of months. When I started to take it again (and for a longer period of time), my cycle came back.
Some people have offered that because my daughter was getting more calories from solids (and likely taking less breastmilk), my cycle returned as a result. Fair enough. Fenugreek doesn’t necessarily have the same reaction for everyone. Still, I am pretty convinced, knowing my body as I do, that the fenugreek is what caused the return for me. The return, itself, was not a big deal. I think where I misstepped in connecting the dots was fenugreek→menstrual cycle→lowered breastmilk production. For me.
Regardless of how my cycle came back, it resulted in lower breastmilk production for me. I may have avoided the fenugreek and tried an alternative supplement or stuck with good old fashioned oatmeal for the boost. Now I know.
Ugh, there’s that word again.