When You Can’t Breastfeed: How to Dry Up Your Breastmilk Supply

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 5 minutes

What should I know about drying up my breastmilk supply?

  • Understand what breast changes to expect in the days and weeks after delivery
  • Strategies on how to dry up your milk supply
  • Learn how to help minimize discomfort as your milk supply reduces
  • Tips to help prevent and manage clogged ducts and mastitis

Our bodies naturally start producing milk once our baby is born, whether we intend to breastfeed or not.1 In fact, colostrum – the first milk your body produces – begins to develop during pregnancy.2

While many women take joy in breastfeeding, some women simply are not able to breastfeed while others may choose not to.

Breast changes after delivery

Once your baby is delivered, changes in hormones cause the body to produce milk.1 This usually results in engorgement from tissue swelling, increased blood flow, and the breasts filling with milk.3,4 At this time your breasts may feel firm, warm, heavy, and generally uncomfortable.

You may become engorged anywhere between 2 and 5 days after birth and the more intense symptoms may last anywhere between 2 and 3 days, longer if not breastfeeding.2

Read more: How Can I Ditch the Mommy Guilt?

Possible reasons a mom may need to dry up her milk supply

There are many reasons why someone would want or need to not breastfeed, or quickly dry up their milk supply. These may include infant loss, stillbirth, adoption, inability to provide breastmilk due to medications or other physiological issues; or simply choosing not to breastfeed for personal reasons.5

Breastmilk donation

Many moms find that donating the breast milk they have and/or will be pumping can help after the loss of a child. Visit http://www.hmbana.org for more information. Milk banks typically waive minimum donation requirements for bereaved mothers.

Learn about: Could this be Postpartum Depression?

How to dry up your breastmilk supply

Milk production is based on demand; emptying the breast triggers your body to produce more milk.6  

Engorgement actually plays a role in helping your breastmilk supply decrease. The body senses that the breasts are full and sends signals to stop making milk.7

Try not to express or pump too much milk so that the body knows it needs to reduce supply. Don’t empty the breast. The less you empty your breast, the quicker your body will realize it doesn’t need to produce milk.8

For some women, the process of drying up their milk supply takes only a week or two, while for others the body may continue to produce milk (in lower and lower amounts) for up to 40 days.17

Learn about: How to Hand Express

Tips to help reduce discomfort while your milk supply dries up

Pump or hand express only ½ to 1 oz at a time

Express or pump just enough to relieve discomfort. Pumping too much may encourage your body to make more milk instead of drying it up.

Use a cold compress

Using a cold pack, cool compress, or gel pack for 15 to 20 minutes each hour may help to alleviate some pain and swelling.9,10

Ask about an anti-inflammatory

Speak with your healthcare provider about taking an anti-inflammatory, which may also help reduce pain and swelling.11

Cabbage Leaves

While there is limited research on the use of cabbage leaves, some breastfeeding advocates and moms support the use of green cabbage leaves to soothe engorged breasts.12

Wash the leaves first, place in the refrigerator to chill, then place them between the breast and bra until wilted. If you find this helpful, apply new leaves as often as needed for comfort.

Wear a supportive bra

Find a bra that is comfortable, supportive, but not too tight. Many professionals are now recommending that ‘binding’ the breasts be avoided. While this is a traditional method of stopping lactation, some studies have found that breast binding may cause more pain, leaking, and an increased risk for mastitis.7,13,14

What to do if you have a let-down

The let-down reflex is a normal biological response of the body when it senses baby may be hungry.15 Some women feel a tingling sensation within the breast while others only notice their breasts beginning to leak. It may happen randomly or when you hear a baby crying.16

If you experience a let-down while holding a crying baby, you may decide to give your baby to someone else for a short duration to help reduce discomfort. 

Some women feel the let-down sensation weeks after their milk has dried up. This is a normal response; know that it will pass eventually.

If you have questions about the process of drying up your milk supply, our team of registered dietitians and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 8 pm (EST) and Saturday – Sunday 8 am – 4 pm (EST) can help. Chat now!

Medications and Herbal supplements to help dry up your breast milk supply

There are some medications that may reduce breastmilk supply but are not explicitly used for suppressing lactation. Speak with your doctor about these possibilities.5

Some moms report that herbs such as sage, peppermint, jasmine, and parsley may help to reduce milk production; however, studies are inconclusive. 3,18 Always speak with your doctor before taking any supplements or medications.

Potential complications of drying up your milk supply: Clogged ducts and Mastitis

Occasionally engorgement may lead to a clogged duct or mastitis.3,7

Dealing with clogged ducts

A clogged duct (also called a plugged or blocked duct) is when milk flow becomes obstructed, usually from milk staying in one spot for too long (milk stasis).19  You may notice a hard lump or small area of engorgement in one breast. That area may feel tender, hot, and may look red.

Symptoms of Clogged ducts

  • A lump or wedge-shaped area of engorgement
  • Pain, heat, or redness in that one area19,20

Correction:

  • Gentle massage to the affected area
  • Heat: hot shower, warm moist compress, or warm water bottle
  • Drink adequate fluids (at least eight {8 oz} cups of fluid per day)
  • A clogged milk duct can lead to mastitis if not properly treated. If you are unable to unclog the duct, it may be necessary to express a bit of milk while gently massaging that area to help move the milk through the duct.19, 20

Prevention of clogged ducts

  • Wear a supportive, well-fitted bra, that is too tight or binding, and try to avoid those with underwire.21 The underwire may put too much pressure on one area, potentially creating a clogged duct.
  • Sleep on your back to avoid prolonged pressure on the breast in one area. Likewise, avoid wearing a heavy purse or diaper bag strap directly over the breast, or wearing an infant front carrier for too long.20
  • If you are too engorged, hand express or pump about ½ oz to help prevent milk stasis.

Read more: Avoiding and Managing Blocked Ducts

Dealing with mastitis

Mastitis is when bacteria cause an infection in breastmilk when the breast is not drained appropriately.22 This typically feels very much like the flu with aches, chills, and a fever; as well as burning, redness, or pain in the entire breast.22,23

If you feel any of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately as medication may be necessary.

Symptoms of mastitis

  • Flu-like symptoms: body aches, fever, chills
  • Tenderness and additional swelling or engorgement of the breast
  • Discharge from the nipple19,22

Correction:

  • Speak to your doctor about the need for medication (although not always necessary)
  • Ask your doctor if pain medication is recommended
  • Warm, moist compress
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Rest23

Prevention of mastitis:

  • Practice careful hygiene: Wash hands thoroughly, particularly prior to handling the breast and nipple. Clean the nipple well. Wear clean bras.
  • Avoid pressure on the breast such as from tight bras or underwire
  • Hand express a small amount if you are experiencing a lot of engorgement
  • Sleep on your back to prevent too much pressure on the breast

Read more: Causes and Symptoms of Mastitis

Let’s Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Mon-Fri 8am-8pm (EST), and Sat-Sun 8am-4pm (EST). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

Read more about the experts that help write our content!

For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

How Much Formula does my Baby Need?

Everything You Need to Know About Preparing and Storing Infant Formula

How Can I Practice Better Self Care as a Parent?