There are many reasons why women need to suppress their lactation (stop their milk supply). It can be because:
- you have decided to wean quickly for personal reasons
- you thought you had finished breastfeeding, but woke a few days later with very full breasts
- your baby died during pregnancy or at term
- your breastfed baby has died.
This article (and the attached PDF) explain how your body makes milk and some of the physical changes that may occur. It gives you some practical ways of coping, as you suppress your milk supply and come to terms with why you need to do this. We hope that it will answer some of your questions along the way.
If your breasts are firmly supported and you don't express milk more than needed for comfort, your milk supply will gradually decrease.
- Wear a firm bra both day and night to support your breasts and keep you comfortable.
Use breast pads to soak up any leaking milk. Change them as they become wet.
Relieve pain and swelling by putting cold/gel packs in your bra, or use cold compresses after a shower or bath.
Cold cabbage leaves worn inside the bra can also be soothing. Wash and dry the leaves before use and cut out any large, bumpy veins. Keep them in the fridge as they need to be cold. Change the leaves every 2 hours or when they become limp. Continue using the leaves until the breasts stop feeling overfull.
Handle your breasts very gently as they can bruise easily.
Whenever your breasts feel too full, express a little milk. Express only enough to make you comfortable.
Mild painkiller medications may help relieve pain. Your doctor will be able to advise you about this.
Drink when you are thirsty. Cutting down fluids will not help reduce your milk supply.
For the first few days you may be uncomfortable lying in bed because your breasts are so full. Try lying on your back or on one side with an extra pillow supporting your breasts. If you like to lie on your front, place a pillow under your hips and stomach to ease the pressure on your breasts. Place a soft towel or cloth nappy across your breasts to soak up any leaking milk.
There are some prescribed drugs that have been used to suppress lactation. Talk over the pros and cons of using lactation suppression drugs with your doctor before making a decision about whether they are necessary in your case.
Most mothers will be able to suppress their lactation by limiting the volume of milk removed, wearing a firm bra, using cold packs or cabbage leaves and medication for pain and inflammation if required.
Things to watch for
Engorgement (painful, overfull breasts)
If your breasts become engorged and the ideas given above do not ease your discomfort, it may help to express all the milk in the breasts, just once, with an electric breast pump. This can relieve the pressure and from then on, you may be able to prevent it building up to that point again.
Wear a firm bra and express only for comfort.
Blocked ducts and mastitis
When breasts are left very full, there is a risk that one or more of the ducts that carry milk to the nipple will become blocked. A lump forms and the breast begins to feel sore. Sometimes there is a red patch on the skin or the breast may feel hot. If the blockage remains, milk can be forced out of the duct and into the breast tissue, which becomes inflamed. You may get the shivers and aches and feel like you are getting the ‘flu’. This is called mastitis and can come on very quickly. See your doctor if you get the flu-like symptoms or if you cannot clear a blockage within 12 hours. If this happens, you will need to express more milk than usual to clear the blockage. If mastitis is not treated, a breast abscess may develop. Fortunately, these are now quite rare.
To treat blocked ducts and mastitis:
- Apply warmth to the affected area for just a few minutes. Then express your milk.
Express every few hours to keep the breast as empty as possible. When the mastitis has passed, you can go back to reducing your milk supply.
While expressing, massage gently. Work along the duct line to the lump and stroke towards the nipple.
Gently support the breast with one hand as you massage. This will help reduce the pain from the breast dragging down under its own weight. Use oil to lubricate your fingers.
If you can hand express, a good place is under the shower or in a deep warm bath with your breast supported by the water.
Between expressing sessions, use well-wrapped cold packs (a face washer cooled in the freezer, a frozen nappy wet with water or a first-aid cold pack) to reduce swelling and relieve pain. Cold cabbage leaves can also help in this situation.
Consult your doctor straight away if you have a fever, feel unwell, or if you cannot clear a blocked duct within 12 hours.
An anti-inflammatory painkiller may also help.
How long before the milk goes away?
This depends on a few things. These include:
How old your baby was and how much milk you were making, or your stage of pregnancy if you had not yet given birth.
How much milk is taken from the breast through expressing, let-downs and leaking.
How much your nipples are touched, such as in lovemaking.
Some mothers find it takes weeks for their milk to go away completely. Others will be over the worst of it in a few days. You may notice milk stains on your bra or that you leak during or after a shower. You may even feel the let-down months or even years after losing your baby. Every mother will have a slightly different experience.
When a baby dies
The death of a baby is a devastating and life-changing experience no matter how it happens. If it is sudden, there is no time to prepare yourself for the worst and you may well be in shock. You are even more vulnerable if you lost your baby in an accident or medical emergency where you were also involved.
As well as feeling a range of emotions as you grieve for your precious little one, your body will also be going through physical changes. Until now, your body has been preparing to breastfeed your baby. This article is a summary of how to stop your body from making milk. You can download a more detailed version of this article at the beginning of this page.
Other things to consider
A frozen memento?
Many parents like to keep mementos of their baby. You might like to freeze a small container of your breastmilk to remind you of the special bond you had with your little one. As no one will be using it, you can keep it as long as you like - only you need know it is there. You can discard it when you are ready.
Can my milk be used to help another baby?
Some mothers wonder if the breastmilk they express can be used to help another baby. There are only a few human milk banks in Australia. If you would like to know more about this, ask your doctor or the hospital staff if there is one in your state which might accept your milk. Milk donors need to be screened by having blood tests before they can donate their milk.
One step at a time
It can take a long time to recover from the death of a baby. There will be times when you feel you have made some headway, only to fall back into the deep sadness of it all. You may find it hard to get to sleep or you may wake often. This is quite normal.
This is the time to be kind to yourself. Talking with others who have also had a baby die may give you support and some comfort. Details of support groups are listed below.
Breastfeeding: lactation suppression booklet
Breastfeeding: Lactation Suppression explains how your body makes milk and some of the physical changes that may occur
You can download our full article about lactation suppression at the end of this page.
There are also a number of organisations that may be of some help to you at this difficult time. These vary from state to state. Look in your local telephone book or on the Internet for the following:
SANDS (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Support) (phone 1300 072 637)
SIDS and Kids (phone 1300 308 307)
Angel Babies Foundation (phone 1300 283 238)
Cradle Inc (NT)
These organisations may have comprehensive libraries with a wide variety of useful books and other literature for further reading.
© Australian Breastfeeding Association December 2015