Isn’t it amazing that a baby can survive on purely breast milk for the first six months of life? No water. No food.
Just breast milk.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exclusively breastfeeding your baby not only helps build a robust immune system in the infant but is also one of the best ways to create a lifetime bond with the child.
Whether you are using a breast pump to extract the milk or feeding directly from the nipple, breastfeeding is one of the gifts you can give your little one. But what happens when this fountain of life has to dry up?
How do you go about it?
Related: Don’t have a pump yet? Take a look at our comparison between the Spectra S1 and S2, two of the most popular breast pumps.
Before we look at how to dry up breast milk, let’s first understand how it’s produced.
Breast milk is produced by the body naturally to nourish babies from birth. Production and preparation for breast milk is a gradual process the body begins during pregnancy; it’s a hormonally driven process. When the baby is born, milk production increases gradually. From then on, milk production continues depending on the feeding habits of the baby.
The amount also varies from individual to individual. Lactation duration differs due to so many factors, and most women will, at some point, want to stop producing milk. The reasons could range from preference to medical reasons or even healthy weaning when the baby comes of age.
How Long Does It Take for Breast Milk to Dry Up?
Interestingly, there’s no definite answer to this, and the process may vary from person to person. It may take days to weeks to dry up the breast milk. For a woman who lost a child at birth or for the one who opts not to breastfeed, reversing the process and drying up the milk is more comfortable and takes a shorter time than a woman who has been lactating for some time. It is noted that the more extended the breastfeeding, the more milk is produced.
The process of drying up breast milk can bring discomfort and, in some cases, a lot of pain. This is because milk collects in the ducts, and if it’s not let out, it causes engorgement. Some cases progress to mastitis, which is a health risk to the mother. Therefore, the process of cessation of breastfeeding and the method of choice should be discussed with your doctor or lactation specialist first.
Weaning Your Baby from Breast Milk
As a mother, you may have different reasons for deciding to stop breast feeding. For most, this decision is because your child has reached the age where you personally feel is the right time to make the switch. For others, there may be a medical reason which necessitate the discontinuation. Or perhaps you are returning to work and are not able to pump during the day.
Whatever your reason, do keep in mind that unless your infant has already been receiving formula, this will be a transition for her too. It is extremely important to know that if you are trying to dry up your milk, and if you “give in” and go back to breast feeding, your body will return to production mode and you will have to start over.
As long as you are not taking any medications, and if you are able, you may want to wean your baby from mother’s milk. Alternate nursing your baby with bottle feedings. If your baby has never used a bottle, you may need to use breast milk at first — this way the taste is the same while they get used to drinking from a bottle. You can then switch to formula.
During the first few days, when your baby is bottle feeding you can pump milk into bottles that can be used in case of emergency. Once you have a good supply, stop pumping between nursing sessions. This gradual weaning will help to slow down milk production so that hopefully, when it is time to stop nursing completely, the process is not as difficult.
For babies who are REALLY resistant to switching from breast to bottle, it may be necessary to take steps that encourage your baby to refuse the nipple on their own. This is done by making the nipple “not taste good” but it must be done in a safe way. One method many women turn to is to use an organic weaning balm, like SuckerBuster, which is made from all-natural plant-based ingredients.
Methods for Drying Up Breast Milk
For some women getting your breast milk to dry up may be a walk in the park, but for others it can be difficult, painful, and feel like a nightmare — especially if your situation does not allow you to slowly wean your baby. The process needs a lot of patience.
What follows are some of the most common ways women utilize to suppress and stop the formation of breast milk. For more information, you can also consult your doctor, midwife or lactation specialist for guidance that is specific to your situation.
Cold Turkey Method
Since Mother Nature has given you everything you need to handle the process, the first thing we recommend trying is letting her do her stuff. Your body can slow down the production of milk on its own. If you stop breastfeeding or expressing milk, the supply dwindles due to decreased demand. Eventually, it will dry up on it’s own.
The downside of going cold turkey is that it’s likely to cause breast engorgement, which is going to be uncomfortable and possibly extremely painful, especially if you were not able to taper off slowly. For this reason, even if you are not planning on giving the milk to your baby, it’s best to not stop completely all at once. Instead, pump a few times a day, but not all of the milk – similar to what we discussed in the the process of weaning your baby.
You are also likely to have leakage, especially with things that trigger the let-down response. Make sure you have a good supply of breast pads on hand to get you through it. Cold compresses and anti-inflamatory pain killers can help relieve the pain. We’ll talk more about other ways to ease the discomfort and make the process more bearable later in this article.
The amount of time it takes to achieve full suppression will vary depending on different factors and women are all different. If letting nature take it’s course is going to slow for you, or is too painful, then try one of the other methods.
Sage Tea/Herbal Method
While there are many benefits to modern medicine, there are also traditional herbal remedies that can be used to dry up breast milk. Sage tea is said to contain a natural form of Oestrogen. This hormone plays a significant role in the reduction of milk supply. It is safe for consumption, and if taken consistently, milk supply reduces and gradually stops.
Making your own homemade sage tea is easy. All you need to do is add either 1 tablespoon of fresh sage leaves or 1 teaspoon of dried sage to a one cup of hot water. Plain sage tea may be a bit to bitter for you, but adding lemon, honey, sugar, or sweeteners will do the trick.
Besides making tea, you can also add sage to your foods. Other popular herbs that help to decrease milk supply, include peppermint, thyme, oregano, jasmine, and parsley.
For a more flavorful, ready made herbal tea to naturally stop milk production, try Pink Stork No Flow Tea with organic hibiscus, mint and sage or Earth Mama Organic No More Milk Tea with anti-galactagogue herbs including hibiscus flower, sage, peppermint and parsley.
NOTE: Avoid these teas if you are still nursing or during pregnancy — they will have the opposite effect!
The cabbage method is a another popular “old school” method for drying breast milk. It’s been practised for a long time by many generations. Cabbage leaf therapy is considered a safe way of drying breast milk and providing comfort. This is because the cold cabbage eases the pain and reduces engorgement by absorbing some of the fluid from the glands. It’s effective for suppressing lactation.
Simply take the leaves of green cabbage and wash them. Place them in a clean container and refrigerate. When thoroughly chilled, take a leaf and place it on your breasts. Let the leaf remain there for about two hours. Change the leaf and repeat this until you suppress milk production. You will enjoy the chill as well as reduce the pain and swelling that may occur when the baby doesn’t nourish.
Don’t want to use real cabbage leaves? TNTN MOM’S makes fabric breast sheet masks with 100,000 PPM cabbage extract which provide the same calming and cooling effect. They also make a soothing Cabbage Breast Cream which can also be used while nursing to relieve pain from engorgement and mastitis.
While we are on the subject of cabbage and breasts… Did you know that eating cabbage regularly can increase the metabolism of estrogen and which may help decrease the chance of developing breast, uterus and ovarian cancer?
Benefits of Cabbage Leaves for Relief of Engorged Breasts And More!
Cabbage has many health benefits you may not know about. | Courtesy of Nature Cures
Birth Control Method
Birth control is a method that has been known to reduce breast milk supply. For lactating mothers, you may have noted that your doctor prescribes progestin-only contraceptives. This is because Oestrogen suppresses milk production.
The use of Oestrogen has been practised for a long time. The amount of time it takes for milk to dry up with Oestrogen could take a day to several weeks. However, due to the side effects of Oestrogen use, it’s not a recommended method. Consult your doctor before you embark on estrogen method to suppress lactation.
Decongestants play a significant role in the control of body fluids. For instance, when you have flu, decongestants help to open up passages and dry up body fluids. The same applies to the use of decongestants to dry up breast milk.
The decongestants open up the ducts and also help to dry breast milk. Eventually, milk production reduces and dries up over time. While taking over-the counter decongestants once in a while is fine, excessive use is not not recommended due to the potential side effects such as fast heartbeats and high blood pressure. It’s advised that you should see the doctor for the best advice.
For those that have not breastfed yet, high doses of vitamin B1, B6 and B12 may suppress milk production fast. However, there’s not much information on the effectiveness of the vitamins on drying up breast milk once nursing has started.
Remember though, there are side effects and dangers to taking more than the daily recommendation of any vitamins. As such, its best to talk to your doctor first before you take heavy doses of any vitamins. The amount of time it takes to suppress breast milk production is not definite and will depend on the individual
Use of Other Drugs
Some drugs, such as Cabergoline, are used to suppress milk supply. However, this drug isn’t FDA-approved. The drug stops the function of the prolactin hormone that is responsible for milk production. It takes a dose or more to dry up the milk production completely.
Other drugs, such as Bromocriptine, have also been used to suppress milk production. The function is similar and suppresses the prolactin hormone giving you dry breasts as a result.
Needless to say, consult your doctor for the best advice on the use of these drugs because they have side effects, and some are no longer recommended.
How to Ease Pain from Breast Engorgement
Whether you are actively trying to dry up your milk, or are feeling engorged while breast feeding, it’s not a comfortable situation. But unlike when you are nursing, when you can release the milk by nursing or pumping, if your goal is to stop the supply, that’s not an option. Some women will only experience mild discomfort, but other may experience extreme pain.
One option is to take pain relievers such as aceteminophin or ibuprofen as needed, but let’s take a look at some other natural methods before you jump right to taking medications.
If pain becomes extremely unbearable, especially if your breasts are hot to the touch or red and sore, you notice a lump, and/or you have a fever, you should consult a medical professional. These can be signs of clogged milk ducts, mastitis, breast inflammation or an infection.
Use Cold Compresses
We mentioned the relieving effect of cold cabbage leaves, but if you are not using that method, cold compresses can also be used to help relieve the pain and discomfort. Cooling towels, bags of frozen peas or gel packs designed for injuries all work great.
Need to be more discrete or want to be able to move around?
Mom-founded and parent-led company Lansinoh offers a solution. Their 3-in-1 TheraPearl Breast Therapy Pack can be used cold to help relieve the pain from engorgement or hot to relieve clogged milk ducts and mastitis. They can also be used while pumping to increase milk let down. The soft, flexible design conforms to your breast and can be tucked nicely insider your bra.
Drink Plenty of Water
No, cutting your fluid intake will not speed up the process of drying up your milk supply. There are many negative effects of dehydration, and your body is already going through a lot so now is not the time to stop drinking water. There are many ways to stay hydrated besides water, but do avoid coconut water, which enhances milk secretion.
And if you have been avoiding alcohol while nursing, go ahead and have a glass of wine or beer when the baby is down for the night. Not only will it help to relax you, as an added benefit alcohol can block the release of oxytocin. But no, we don’t recommend getting drunk as a method to dry up your milk!
Avoid Foods that Increase Milk Production
If you have been eating foods to increase your lactation, you want to cut back on them while you are trying to dry up your milk. Examples of lactogenic foods include oats, barley, fenugreek, fennel, garlic, papaya, chick peas, sesame and flax seeds, ginger root, and dark leafy vegetables.
You don’t have to cut them out completely, just be aware that if you are having problems with drying your milk, to check your diet.
Try Cabo Crème or Peppermint Oil
Cabo Crème is another brand of cabbage cream, similar to the one from TNTN MOM. Small amounts can be massaged into the breasts while nursing to provide relief from engorgement, or it can be used more frequently to aid in milk suppression.
We also mentioned how drinking peppermint tea or eating peppermint leaves can help dry up milk. In addition, massaging peppermint oil (mixed with an essential oil carrier such as olive, coconut or almond oil) can also help. Just don’t massage to much! By the way, if you get food grade peppermint oil, you can also use it in cooking and teas (not in huge quantities though). It’s also good for headaches when massaged into temples or topically for muscle pain too.
Avoid Long Hot Showers
Unless you are experiencing mastitis or clogged milk ducts, you want to avoid heat and hot showers which increase milk production. For this reason, shorter and cooler showers are recommended. Wash your breasts gently, and be mindful of how much water is beating down on them.
Avoid Breast Massage and Wear Comfortable Clothes
The more your breasts are stimulated, the more likely they are to kick in milk production. Continue to wear your nursing bra to provide support. For some women, even the feeling of loose clothing rubbing across their breasts can cause the let-down response. For others, clothes that are too tight can do the same thing. Choose the type of clothes that are most comfortable for you.
And we are sorry to say, that while you are trying to dry up your milk supply, you significant other needs to stay hands off.
Hand Express, But Don’t Pump or Nurse
At the start it is likely that your breasts will become engorged which can be extremely painful. It is okay to let out just enough milk to relieve some of the pressure. It is best to do this by hand, rather than a pump and never express it all. The goal is to slow down production, and as we have said before, emptying your breasts completely — as good as it will feel — tells your body to make more.
You also don’t want to nurse, because not only does this make it difficult for your baby to transition, but it also causes your body to release more hormones than if you just do it by hand.
Whichever method you decide to go with, remember that if you slip back into breast feeding, it is going to shift your body back into production mode. Once you decide it is time to stop, do your best to stick with it. This is why we recommended earlier to pump a few days supply to have on hand.
You also need keep in mind that this may be an emotional process for you (and your baby). Any nursing mother knows how just the sound of their baby crying can trigger the release of breast milk, which can be difficult while you are trying to dry up your milk supply. And if your baby is struggling with the transition, it can make matters worse. Having someone else around to help out during these times can make things less stressful for you.
Another common experience is the feeling that you are “losing” that special bonding time with your baby. Be aware of this ahead of time, so you can be prepared for the emotions. While some women have no difficulty bottle feeding their babies during this transition, for others it can cause their breasts to painfully swell with milk — with no release in sight. If that’s you, again, lean on others for support and know that this is normal. Find other ways to spend time with your baby while your body is adjusting.
And know that with time it will pass and your baby will always love you!