There is so much research out there about the benefits of breastfeeding. Not just for the baby, but for the breast/chest feeding parent as well. Strong immune systems, psychological bonding, physiological development. But what about the breast/chest feeding parents who don’t make enough milk? What happens to breastfeeding?
Insufficient Milk Supply
Insufficient milk supply is one of the most common reasons why breast/chest feeding is abandoned before the parent or baby is ready. Although it hasn’t been adequately studied, researchers tell us the number of parents who have legitimate low milk supply is only about 12-15% of the population. If this is correct, why is it that about 50% of breast/chest feeding parents blame insufficient milk supply for their reason to stop breastfeeding? Is it really low milk supply, or small storage capacity?
We don’t talk a lot about the inner workings of breastfeeding, and why a low milk supply may not really be a low milk supply. One of these situations is breast capacity size. When I learned about breast capacity size, a lightbulb went off in my brain. THIS. This is probably why so many parents fear low supply.
Breast capacity is the amount of milk that is stored in the breast between feedings. This varies from parent to parent and sometimes can vary between breasts in the same parent. Don’t confuse breast capacity with breast size, these are very different things.
Basically, if a breast/chest feeding parent has a smaller breast capacity, they will be feeding their baby more frequently to support appetite and growth. Frequent feedings will also help supply to stay higher. This is because someone with a smaller breast capacity will empty milk and refill quickly. If feeds aren’t frequent, supply will overall slow down.
Large Storage Capacity
In contrast, a breast/chest feeding parent with large storage capacity may be able to go longer stretches without this impacting supply or weight gain for the baby. For example, 2 breast/chest feeding parents side by side; one parent is feeding their baby every 2 hours, the other is feeding every 4. Babies are the same age; weight gain is good for both babies. One parent has a smaller breast capacity, the other has a larger breast capacity. If you don’t know about breast capacity, you may perceive the more frequent feeding dyad as not having enough milk. Make sense? You can also look at it as refilling a glass of water. You can drink out of a small cup or a large cup, but the smaller cup will be refilled more often than the larger cup. Here is a great infographic from Nancy Mohrbacher explaining breast capacity.
It is really important to know about breast capacity and how it works. Breast capacity is determined by the number of mammary glands, also called lobules and ducts that are in your breast and looks kind of like this:
Studies show some women have as few as 3 milk lobules/ducts and others as many as 15. As a result, the amount of milk that can fit in a woman’s breasts varies – anywhere from 2oz to 5oz combined is average but some women can store as much as 10 oz in one breast (this is very unusual). Parents shouldn’t be comparing milk supply, because everyone is very different. – Lake Norman Breastfeeding Solutions
What does this mean for breastfeeding? Well, a couple of things.
Baby May Feed More Frequently
Smaller breast storage capacity would mean babies eat more frequently. This is not a problem for anyone except society, which tends to put time and labels on breastfeeding. If your baby is feeding every couple of hours after the first month or so, someone is bound to comment about milk supply. Nothing is wrong with your supply; your breasts just hold less milk per feeding. This is why you may feel like you are constantly feeding your baby. It’s not because of low supply, you’re just dealing with a smaller breast capacity.
Feeding On Demand
Feeding on demand is important for all babies, regardless of breast capacity. However, if you have a smaller breast capacity, feeding on demand will help your baby get what they need easier. When you feed on demand, you are listening to what your baby needs. Babies develop their own intuitions regarding hunger and satiated when they are given the opportunity to direct their feeds. Babies know what they need, and following their cues is the best way to ensure they are getting what they need. This can feel unnatural at first, and you may be tempted to try feeding your baby on a schedule. Scheduled feeds are problematic, not only for your baby’s weight gain but for your milk supply as well.
Have you ever heard another breast/chest feeding parent complain that they never get more than an ounce or so from pumping? When you hear that, your first thought is always low supply. Parents who have smaller breast capacity will pump less milk. We know pumping is not equivalent to how much milk is made, but partner small pump output with a baby who is feeding frequently and you can’t help but wonder about supply. Researchers tell us breast capacity is not a limiting factor to total daily milk production.
Breastfeeding With Small Capacity
Last year I worked with a breastfeeding mother who had a small breast capacity. Her baby would feed every 2 hours, and never really went longer than this for months. Baby gained consistently, and they were dedicated to feeding on demand. Pumping was more difficult, and they had to pump more frequently to have enough milk to send to daycare. Be confident in your ability to feed your baby. Frequent feeding is normal and expected.
If you suspect you may have a smaller breast capacity, you are probably feeding more frequently. This is ok. Breastfeeding is not the same for each dyad, everyone has their own journey. Sometimes we fall into the black hole of comparison, which makes us question our own abilities. The best way to know your baby is getting enough milk is to feed on demand. Let your baby be your guide.