Having “low supply” when breastfeeding is one of the most stressful feelings there is as a new parent. The internet is full of advice: Pump more, pump less, get more sleep, but also be breastfeeding constantly. And, oh, don’t forget to relax. Advice also abounds about the best foods to eat to boost your milk supply and the best supplements to take. Some people swear by taking fenugreek while breastfeeding, while others will tell you to stay away from this supplement. Sorting out fact from fiction can feel like a full time job, at a time when you already have very limited hours between feedings. Breastfeeding is exhausting enough as it is.
Fenugreek is used in everything from spice blends to cosmetics, but it comes up a lot as a potentially helpful supply-booster for breastfeeding parents. Figuring out whether it’s likely to help or not can be tricky. Does it really work? And if it does, what side effects should you be aware of? Two experts on breastfeeding and supplements weigh in.
Is it safe to take fenugreek while breastfeeding?
The short answer is “probably, for most people.” Lactation consultants often refer to a resource called Hales Meds, which categorizes different substances by risk level. “Level 1” substances are considered the safest, and the scale goes up to level 5, which is when a substance is actively contraindicated for breastfeeding people. Fenugreek is a level 3. “This level is considered ‘moderately safe’ meaning either there are limited controlled studies or the controlled studies that do exist show minimal, or non-threatening, adverse effects,” explains Katie Cohen, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and registered nurse.
How quickly does fenugreek work to increase your milk supply?
It’s debatable whether fenugreek reliably works to increase breast milk supply. There just isn’t strong evidence that it does. “A lot of the studies are pretty anecdotal — with randomized, controlled, double-blind trials, the evidence is not so great that it works,” Cohen explains. But, if you’re taking it and you do experience some increase in supply, you should see any effects that you’re likely to see within three or four days of taking the supplement, says Brittany Kelly, an OB-GYN Nurse Practitioner and IBCLC with NYU Langone.
Can fenugreek dry up your milk supply?
Even though you’re taking fenugreek to increase supply, it can sometimes have the opposite effect. Some parents report, anecdotally, that it decreased their supply further. This seems to be particularly true if you have existing issues with your thyroid. “Thyroid issues are so common in the prenatal and postpartum period and this is often when we see those issues arise for the first time. For that reason, I generally recommend staying away from fenugreek to increase milk supply— because I have seen it decrease milk supply in women with thyroid issues,” Cohen tells Romper.
Can fenugreek harm your baby?
The good news is that, while fenugreek may have some negative side effects for both you and your baby, they’re unlikely to be long-lasting or very serious. The FDA also classifies as fenugreek as GRAS, which means “generally recognized as safe”.
In a few situations, however, you definitely want to avoid fenugreek to avoid harm to your own body. “Fenugreek should be avoided by those with peanut and chickpea allergies and those with chronic asthma,” Kelly explains. If you are taking the blood thinner warfarin, you should also avoid fenugreek.
Does fenugreek give babies gas?
For some breastfeeding parents and babies, fenugreek can lead to gastrointestinal upset — for both the baby and the breastfeeding parent. A survey of 188 nursing women from 27 states, 85 (46%) used fenugreek to increase milk supply. 54% thought it increased their milk supply but 45% reported side effects, including gassiness in the infant.
How much fenugreek should I take daily when breastfeeding?
The typical dosage for someone taking fenugreek is between 1-6 grams, with most patients starting on the lower end of that scale. If you’re considering adding fenugreek to your diet, speak to your health care provider before doing so. They should be able to offer guidance about exactly how much you should take.
Does fenugreek cause weight gain?
There are anecdotal reports of some fenugreek users reporting weight gain, though there’s not strong evidence for this possible side effect. “There’s a lot of factors that influence postpartum weight gain, so I’d be hesitant to say it causes weight gain,” Cohen says.
Can fenugreek make you smell?
Fenugreek’s most famous side effect is a surprising one: It makes you smell like maple syrup, specifically your sweat and urine. It can also make your baby smell like maple syrup, and even your breast milk. So that’s a little weird, but not harmful.
What can you do instead of taking fenugreek?
Places that are trying to sell you supplements will tout fenugreek’s benefits — but be aware that the science doesn’t necessarily back them up. Between the lack of strong evidence for its efficacy and a nerve-wracking list of side effects, you might be hesitant about trying this supplement to boost supply. So what can you do to increase your milk supply instead?
Both experts explained that you’re likely to have more success with increasing supply by looking at your breastfeeding schedule than you are from any particular supplement. “The best way to increase milk supply is by supply and demand. You have to get the milk out for the body to make more. Be sure to pump or breastfeed 8-12 times per day and work with a lactation consultant early on in your breastfeeding journey if you are having any difficulties to increase breastfeeding success,” Kelly tells Romper.
“I don’t even get into discussing herbal supplements unless someone has an ideal pumping and nursing schedule, has tried that, and it’s not working,” agrees Cohen. “IBCLCs go by the evidence, and the evidence shows that a lot of these supplements have mild effects. What does increase supply is full milk expression 8-12 times a day.”
What’s the bottom line with fenugreek and breastfeeding?
Like a lot of topics that have to do with pregnancy, breastfeeding, or just women’s health in general, the benefits or drawbacks fenugreek while breastfeeding is one of the many questions that the medical science hasn’t really answered. Instead, we have anecdotes, and studies with small samples from which sweeping conclusions can’t be drawn. If you’re taking fenugreek while breastfeeding and it’s working for you, great — some people swear by it. But if you’re looking for a magic pill to make your breastfeeding experience easy, there probably isn’t any such thing. “If you’re not having good, full milk expression, that supply is going to start drying up, no matter what you eat, or drink, or take,” Cohen explains.
Bazzano AN, Cenac L, Brandt AJ, Barnett J, Thibeau S, Theall KP. Maternal experiences with and sources of information on galactagogues to support lactation: a cross-sectional study. Int J Womens Health. 2017;9:105-113https://doi.org/10.2147/IJWH.S128517
Katie Cohen, RN, IBCLC, The Nest Collaborative
Brittany Kelly, OB-GYN Nurse Practitioner, IBCLC