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Breastfeeding Help: Do Folk Remedies Help Breastfeeding Women At All?

01/07/2013 05:31 EST | Updated 01/08/2013 07:30 EST
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Breastfeeding might seem like the most natural thing in the world for a mother, but for many, it can be one of the great frustrations of new parenthood — and answers as to why that might be the case are surprisingly hard to come by.

Though most new mothers can breastfeed, a percentage — anywhere from two to 15 per cent — may experience what's known as "lactation failure," according to Babble.com, when there is just not enough milk for the baby.

But both doctors and lactation consultants are often at a loss as to why this might be the case. As an article in Time noted, the topic is only given half a day in medical school, and anatomical reasons for why a woman might not be able to breastfeed are virtually non-existent.

That doesn't, however, mean there isn't plenty of advice to be found elsewhere. As a recent survey published in Breastfeeding Medicine noted, more than half of all lactation consultants have given "folklore" advice as to what women can do, concerning anything from easing breastfeeding pain to substances to avoid for the baby's sake. Though there is little empirical evidence to back up any of these remedies, many women are willing to try anything to adhere to the "breast is best" policy advocated by hospitals.

So what exactly are these remedies — and how well do they work? We took a look at the most common ones, and broke it down with as much expertise as possible:

Breastfeeding Help From "Folklore"

Cabbage Leaves

What they're meant to remedy: Breast engorgement

How they've been studied: By small randomized control and quasi-control groups

Do they work?: According to the people behind "Beginnings: A Practical Guide Through Your Pregnancy," they do help the tenderness many mothers feel when breastfeeding, especially when applied in a poultice. Most importantly, they can't do any harm.

Beer

What it's meant to remedy: A lack of milk

How it's been studied: For the nutritional value of the hops and barley contained within

Does it work?: Well, Mariah Carey thought so — but various professionals are divided, including those who warn that alcohol can be transferred through the milk to the baby. A good option? Non-alcoholic beer, which still contains the hops that is supposedly helping the milk flow, without any of the booze that can be bad for baby.

Tea Bags

What they're meant to remedy: Sore nipples

How they've been studied: By the Riordan Clinic (a health facility in Kansas), as well as many mothers who have tried it

Do they work?: Again, this one's up in the air. While some (like the Riordan Clinic) say it reduces pain, others note the tannic acid in the tea can cause further cracking of the nipples.

Fenugreek Seeds

What they're meant to remedy: Not enough milk

How they've been studied: In clinical studies — as well as literature since ancient times

Do they work?: Many reports, including one from the International Breastfeeding Centre, support the use, but fenugreek has also been associated with increased blood pressure, so check with your doctor before using.

Blessed Thistle

What it's meant to remedy: A lack of milk supply

How it's been studied: Through word of mouth

Does it work?: Much like fenugreek, blessed thistle (or holy thistle, as it's otherwise known) has been shown to help milk supply, but without any scientific backing.

Sage

What it's meant to remedy: Too much milk

How it's been studied: Folk reputation

Does it work?: According to La Leche League, it can work when taken internally (i.e. as an oil). However, other experts recommend only going this route when you are weaning your baby off breast milk.

Echinacea

What it's meant to remedy: Mastitis (breast tissue infection)

How it's been studied: Natural remedy publications

Does it work?: In "Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Years" by herbalist Susan Weed, an echinacea root tincture is recommended for mastitis. However, as pregnant women with colds are well aware, remedies with echinacea (like Cold FX) are not recommended due to a lack of medical studies, so be wary.

Grated Raw Potatoes (Or Slices)

What it's meant to remedy: Mastitis or breast tenderness

How it's been studied: Natural health professionals, adopted by expert Dr. Jack Newman

Does it work?: Many women online advocate for this soothing remedy, though no medical studies have shown a result. Apparently, the coolness of the potato has draw out the heat of the infection and unclog blocked ducts.

St. John's Wort

What it's meant to remedy: Postpartum depression

How it's been studied: By Toronto's Motherrisk in a small study

Does it work?: While St. John's Wort has been shown to help with depression, the lack of information on the herb means it's not recommended for breastfeeding women. In light of recent studies showing no increased risk of SIDS for pregnant women taking SSRIs, it's possible conventional medication is the best option.

Oatmeal

What it's meant to remedy: A lack of milk

How it's been studied: By word of mouth

Does it work?: According to online breastfeeding expert KellyMom, it can, either thanks to an increase in iron or the 'comfort food' factor (relaxation can help to produce more milk). Oatmeal's other benefits (like fibre and antioxidants) mean it's not a bad idea to eat either way!