You may have heard about establishing supply when breastfeeding. What does this mean, and when is milk supply established? Here’s what to look for.
What is supply regulation?
To understand supply regulation, it’s helpful to know how milk production works. At a high level, there are three different stages of milk production:
- During the late stages of pregnancy and in the first few days after your baby is born, your breasts produce colostrum. The hormone progesterone, which is present in high amounts throughout pregnancy, keeps the milk volume produced low.
- After your baby is born and the placenta is delivered, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop dramatically. This hormone withdrawal, along with high levels of prolactin present after birth, causes initial milk production to kick into high gear. This happens 1-3 days after birth when your milk comes in.
- Later, the milk production process switches to being driven by breastfeeding supply and demand. This means that the demand – the milk that is removed from your breasts (by either a baby or a breast pump) – controls the supply, or how much milk your body produces.
Supply regulation refers to when the hormonal effects on supply that drive the first two stages of milk production peter out, and your milk supply is based entirely on demand, versus hormones. This is also referred to as “established lactation” or an “established milk supply.”
What changes when your supply regulates?
When your supply regulates, you may notice the following:
- Your breasts don’t feel as full and are softer
- You leak and randomly letdown less often
- You experience engorgement less frequently
- Your overall milk supply decreases
The reason that your milk supply might decrease when your supply is established is that your body will match your supply to what you’ve been removing from your breasts. Before my supply regulated, I skipped pumping sessions more often than I should have, and then when the hormone boost when away, I lost a lot of supply.
The supply decrease can be a relief if you have extreme oversupply at the beginning, but it’s something to watch out for if you’re more like me.
So when is milk supply established?
In the vast majority of cases, this happens sometime in the first 12 weeks, usually between 6-12 weeks postpartum.
This doesn’t mean it happens exactly at 12 weeks; there is nothing magical that happens to your breasts at midnight on your baby’s 12 week birthday. It can happen at two weeks postpartum, or it can happen later than 12 weeks. However, for most women, it has happened by the 12 week mark.
Another thing to note – supply regulation can happen suddenly, where you wake up one morning and notice your supply has decreased and you aren’t leaking anymore. Or it can happen gradually, over a few weeks, so that you don’t even really notice or know when it happens.
(I had it happen both ways – with the baby I exclusively pumped for, my supply regulated overnight and the difference was obvious. For the two babies I nursed, I’m not as sure when my supply regulated.)
What should you do to be prepared for your supply to regulate?
The key thing that you should do to be ready for supply regulation is to stick to your pumping schedule. You need to ensure that the demands you’re making via your breast pump (or baby, if you nurse) match the supply that you want to have.
Also, make sure that your pumping schedule has enough sessions and pumping time. If you’re exclusively pumping and your baby is less than six weeks old, you should be pumping at least seven times per day, and your total pumping time in a day should be at least 120 minutes.
(Note: if your baby is 6-12 weeks old, I think six sessions per day is fine; your total pumping time should still be two hours per day, which means slightly longer pumping sessions.)
What should you do if your supply regulates and you lose supply?
Try not to freak out, especially if you had oversupply before and were using the extra milk to stock your freezer. If you’re concerned, though, it’s a good idea to get on top of it.
Here’s what you can do:
- If you weren’t already on a pumping schedule, make sure you get on one that meets the above guidelines for number/length of sessions – and stick to it consistently
- Oatmeal and power pumping are easy options for increasing milk supply where there is little or no cost or risk, so that’s what I’d start with
- Supplements can also help increase milk supply if necessary
When my milk supply regulated, I went from pumping 35 oz per day to 24 oz per day overnight. I used fenugreek and was able to get it back up within several weeks, along with being much more consistent with my pumping schedule.References
- Bonyata, Kelly, IBCLC. “My breasts feel empty! Has my milk supply decreased?” https://kellymom.com/ages/older-infant/breast-fullness/
- Bonyata, Kelly, IBCLC. “How does milk production work?” https://kellymom.com/bf/got-milk/basics/milkproduction/