Herbs and Breastfeeding

By Susan Perri, Clinical Herbalist

Breastfeeding is the best option for feeding your newborn, if circumstances allow, for many reasons. Nursing your baby is a natural and normal conclusion to the experience of pregnancy and birth. In fact, it serves as a powerful link from the period of gestation to parenting. It is the new umbilicus, a living link between mother and child, still providing nourishment on a level that exceeds the physical.

Breastfeeding encourages the postpartum rebalancing of hormones. It also is responsible for the production and circulation of prolactin, the “mothering” hormone. Breastfeeding fosters the bonding of mother and infant, and is a profoundly intimate human experience. It is the ultimate fulfilled expression of one’s womanhood to satisfy her new babe’s hunger with this perfect first food from her own body.

Breastmilk is natural immunity. Mom’s white blood cells are passed on to baby through her milk. Colostrum, or the richer “pre-milk” is loaded with antibodies from the mother to help protect the baby from illness. Breastmilk is also naturally abundant in essential fatty acids, or EFAs. These substances are responsible for a variety of important physiological functions in the body, most notably brain cell health and development. EFAs support the rapid cognitive development in growing infants. In fact, European infant formulas must be made with an EFA supplement in order to be approved for sale and consumer use. The U.S. unfortunately has not adopted this policy. Breastmilk is wise; it changes to meet the unique needs of your baby as your baby changes and grows. Formula will never do that.


Galactagogues are those herbs that establish and promote the flow of mother’s milk. They often have high calcium contents and vary in taste. The recommended use of the following herbs is in tea form, as the added liquid intake will also help to increase milk. It’s important for nursing moms to pay attention to liquid intake and stay well hydrated.

Blessed thistle root (Cnicus benedictus): bitter tasting, this one is best used in combination with others.

Hops flowers (Humulus lupus): also somewhat bitter, hops is an effective galactagogue with the added benefits of sedative, relaxant qualities. The addition of hops to a galactagogue brew will help both mother and baby to settle down at the day’s close.

Fennel seed (Foeniculum vulgare): sweet fennel seeds add flavor and palatability to a galactagogue tea blend. They also have value in treating digestive upsets, making them ideal if baby has bouts with gas bubbles in her sensitive tummy.

Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum): another sweet seed, fenugreek is mild tasting and reminiscent of maple syrup. These seeds are wo

nderful for increasing and enriching a scanty milk supply, and like fennel they are also useful for colicky complaints.

Borage leaf (Borago officinalis): high in calcium, borage leaves are mild tasting and make a strong addition to any galactagogue brew.

Engorgement and Mastitis

Nursing frequently and on demand will help to quickly establish a healthy and comfortable milk supply, and avoid blockages in the ducts. It is just in those first few days following your milk’s arrival that can be so uncomfortable, with seemingly enough milk for three babies and plenty of swollen discomfort. This will change as your body normalizes and adapts to baby’s specific needs. But while you are waiting for this marvelous equilibrium, here are some suggestions…

-wear loose, comfortable clothing; nothing restrictive

-avoid underwire bras

-poultice the breasts with cabbage leaves to reduce heat and swelling; this can be done by placing a large leaf in each cup of your nursing bra, and changing frequently.

-massage out any lumps or blockages in the ducts, moving from the armpits downward and inward, and expressing excess milk by hand or pump.

Attend to engorgement promptly, as it can lead to the more uncomfortable breast infection mastitis. Mastitis is a blockage in the milk ducts of the breast, usually visible beneath the skin’s surface as a red, swollen lump, and is tender to the touch. Mastitis is often accompanied by a fever and achey, flu-like symptoms. Continue to nurse your baby, or express excess milk to keep the ducts clear. The infection will not harm the baby, and in fact continuing to nurse is the best thing to do as it will steady the milk supply and relieve engorgement. Continuing to poultice with cabbage leaves will offer relief from pain and alleviate swelling. Vitamin C can be taken to aid natural immune function, 500 mg every 3 hours. The use of lymphatic herbs will assist drainage and boost the immune system’s response to the infection. These are all safe for use by a nursing woman, and fine to pass along to baby.

Cleavers (Galium aparine): useful for swelling, which blocks proper and necessary drainage, and boosts blood-cleansing capacities in the body. Use fresh flowering tincture of cleavers, 30-40 drops in warm water every 3 hours.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis): excellent for promoting the flow and drainage of lymphatic fluids, calendula is especially beneficial in dissolving blockages. Because it is difficult to find in tincture form, drink one cup of the infusion every 4 hours, or three times a day.

Prickly ash (Xanthoxylum americanum): stimulates lymphatic flow, increases immunity, and dissolves deposits and blockages. Take 20-30 drops of the tincture in warm water every 3 hours.

Echinacea root (Echinacea augustifolia, purpurea): use this antibiotic alternative in conjunction with your chosen lymphatic(s) for its innate infection fighting capabilities. Divide the body weight in half to determine the amount of tincture drops to take, and repeat this dose every 3 hours.

Garden sage or parsley eaten or brewed for tea will act as the opposite of a galactagogue, drying up excess milk to reduce blockages in the milk ducts and improve swelling, helping the infection to heal. Use small quantities over a short period of time, so as not to threaten the establishment of an adequate milk supply. These are wonderful to remember for use when it’s time to wean…

Nipple Conditioning

The best prevention for sore nipples is protection. Newborn babies have a tendency to camp at the breast, and this frequent use can cause some wear and tear. Conditioning of the nipples can begin during pregnancy, with simple and natural emollients. Almond oil is a good option, or lanolin. Lanolin, unlike the almond oil, can be used after baby arrives and is established in nursing. Lanolin will not interfere with baby’s ability to latch on to the nipple correctly, nor will it harm baby to suck on nipples wearing lanolin. It need not be removed to nurse, and can be applied prior to feedings to protect and nourish the nipples. Regular use of lanolin will help to prevent tears on the nipples, which aside from being painful provide an opening for bacteria and increase the likelihood of developing mastitis. Lanolin can be found in the baby supplies section of your drugstore; a popular brand is “Lansinoh”. Allow fresh air to visit the breasts. Go braless for periods of time, or leave the nursing flaps of your bra open for a “breather”.

Seek help from a lactation specialist or breastfeeding advocate if nursing continues to be an uncomfortable experience. It could be that the baby is not attaching to the breast properly, and these people are trained to provide guidance and support. Please refer to the Appendix for resources on breastfeeding support. LaLeche League is an international organization for breastfeeding advocacy, and has trained support people who will come to your home, free of charge, if need be.

This text intends to provide information on the traditional uses of native plants, not to prescribe. If your child is not well, please seek the assistance of a competent health care provider.

Susan Perri is a Clinical Herbalist, author, and mother in upstate New York. The article is excerpted from her book The Complete Herbal for Pregnancy and Childbirth. For more on books, herbal medicine instruction, and high quality herbal formulas, visit www.bcbotanica.com .