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My Thyroid Sabotaged My Milk Supply

Spectra breast pump with Medela bottles on decorative charger

Helena’s Thanksgiving Dinner

I’m a Certified Lactation Counselor, and no matter how much I wanted to and how much I tried, I couldn’t exclusively breastfeed my three kids. I’m sure reading this has you thinking I’m a failure as a CLC. Believe me, I certainly felt like a failure as a mother with my inability to provide enough breast milk for my children.

I exclusively breastfed for the first two months, and then both of my first two kids’ weights began to plateau. After thinking everything was going beautifully, I found myself desperately trying to figure out what was wrong and supplementing with formula. We blamed everything from latch to tongue ties to the phase of the moon. By the third baby, I was determined to find a way to get it right, which led me to become a CLC. Once again, around 8 weeks of age, Helena began to show the same problems as her brothers. With my first two children, I had theories about what was causing my low supply, but I never truly knew why it was happening.

The reality is that many mothers struggle with being able to feed their babies only breastmilk. There are so many things that can cause a low milk supply, and most of the time it’s not just one thing causing the issue. In the weeks immediately after birth, prolactin levels are at their highest. Prolactin is the hormone that tells the body to make milk. If there are any problems with the latch, other hormones, or not removing milk frequently enough, the prolactin levels will drop and cause a reduced milk supply. Around the age of 2-3 months is when low supply becomes most apparent. Significant issues with latch are usually found in the first couple of weeks, but low milk supply can still be prevented as long as a mother is working with a knowledgeable lactation professional.

That said, I knew Helena’s latch was great and something else was at play. I had had issues getting enough “letdowns” (where the breast ejects the milk due to the brain releasing oxytocin) with my second baby, and I could feel this becoming an issue again. As to why I wasn’t sure. I knew that without enough letdowns and oxytocin, my prolactin levels would also drop because it meant less milk was being removed. The more milk removal, the more milk the body should make. This was out of my scope of practice, so I called my favorite IBCLC, Cleo with Natural Beginnings, here in Dallas. She had already visited Helena at 4 days old to confirm we were off to a great start. This time we discussed the fact that I was hyperthyroid because I had my thyroid removed in 2014 due to cancer. She mentioned that in her many years of being an IBCLC, most of her clients with thyroid issues had had some sort of lactation problem. She also said that anyone with highly suppressed thyroid hormones (very low TSH) could have trouble having letdowns. Something about the thyroid hormones prevents the brain from releasing oxytocin, the only thing that makes the body eject the milk.

Bingo. I knew that thyroid issues had impacts on supply and always suspected my lack of thyroid was part of the problem, but I never knew it directly affected oxytocin release. Unfortunately, there is not much research on the relationship between thyroid and oxytocin release. Still, the use of oxytocin nasal spray to help get more letdowns in women with low TSH is well-known and recommended by many lactation professionals. I actually had a prescription for oxytocin nasal spray from my OB with Mitchell (on Cleo’s recommendation) to help when he started on his nursing strike. But because I had gone so long without getting a good letdown, I couldn’t pump or feed a decent amount of milk (read: 3-4 ounces total in a day with 5-7 pumping sessions!). At this point, I wasn’t able to build my supply, even after trying all the ways that are proven to help. Mitchell’s refusal to nurse just sealed the nail in that coffin, and at 4 months I stopped pumping and nursing him.

I was prepared for the worst this time and already had an over-the-counter oxytocin nasal spray on hand. To be clear, nobody should use this without first conferring with a medical professional or IBCLC. Now that Helena is 5 months old, she is still nursing (yay!), but I am also bottle feeding and pumping every chance I get. It’s exhausting! Despite all this, I still can’t produce enough. She often has anywhere from 2-8oz formula daily, depending on how hungry she is or if I was able to pump enough the day prior.

The oxytocin problem isn’t the only thing causing my low supply for Helena and I have so much more to say on this topic, but I realized I was beginning to write an epic novel. I’ll write more blog posts about milk supply, so look out for them. In the meantime, let me know if you also suffer from thyroid problems and suspect it affects supply! I always like hearing from other people in the same boat. And please know that if you have a history of thyroid issues and struggle with low supply, that does not mean you are doomed. Please reach out to a lactation professional, as there are many things you can do to help.

 

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