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Can Herbs Help Induce Lactation?

Timothy Gorski, M.D., FACOG

Question

I was recently advised to combine a number of herbs together in tea form to help stimulate lactation. The herbs are, in equal parts: Fennell, Fenugreek, Borage,Blessed thistle, Red raspberry. Is this safe? Any side effects? Any other suggestions? I am attempting to induce lactation for an adoptive infant due in August.

Answer

There is no evidence that any of these substances can induce lactation. They are *probably* safe - for you - but if you managed to produce milk (and it would be unlikely to be a result of these herbs in any case) it is a good bet that their constituents could be detected in breast milk. The safety of that is unknown, though fennel would probably be OK. We've used weak fennel tea for colic for own kids when they were infants.

There is evidence that hormonal treatment using steroid and sex hormones can be effective in inducing lactation in adoptive mothers. A big part of this includes physical stimulation of the breasts, both before and with suckling of the baby. There are also devices designed to provide formula during suckling which have been useful. I think these would be your best bet if you are highly motivated and want to pursue this. As you may or may not know, there are unresolved issues with respect to risk of breast cancer that have to do with age of first pregnancy and its attendant hormonal changes. Attempting to mimic these changes artificially (which any herbs would also have to do if they "worked") could involve similar risks, especially if you've never had children and are now over the age of 35 or so.

Since this is not something that comes up infrequently, you are unlikely to find that physicians will have much knowledge or interest in it. Your best bet would be to start making some telephone calls and find an Ob/Gyn and/or an endocrinologist who would be willing to work with you. If there is a medical school or medical training program in your area, I would recommend starting there.

I have had one other person in the past who wanted to induce lactation in advance of adopting a newborn but she ultimately decided not to pursue it. And that, unfortunately, is the real problem: that there are too few instances in which people wish to do this, and so reliable information about methods and their effectiveness are scant. Had I had a chance to try this with a patient of mine, I would certainly make an effort to get the results published as a case history.

Before you go the herbal route, ask whoever is making these recommendations to you to provide published evidence substantiating their claims. I doubt they'll be able to do so. But if they come up with anything, I would be interested in hearing about it.

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Dr. Gorski practices obstetrics and gynecology in Arlington, Texas, and is president of the Greater Dallas-Fort Worth Council Against Health Fraud.

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