Herbal Teas for Lactation and Nursing

tea for stimulating breastmilkHow Lactation Occurs

Breast milk production normally begins as a hormonally driven process about halfway through pregnancy. The breasts produce colostrum but high levels of progesterone keep the volume of milk to a minimum and prevent its secretion. The volume of milk produced then increases about 40 hours after giving birth following a sudden drop of progesterone.

Provided there is a high level of the hormone prolactin, the breasts then produce copious amounts of milk. This is felt as the “milk coming in” 2 – 3 days after giving birth.

What’s important to note here is that these early stages of lactation are driven entirely by hormones.

They occur whether or not a mother is breastfeeding her baby.

Soon after milk has come in, the system switches to “local control” – this is a maintenance stage where the amount of milk produced depends on how much milk is regularly removed.

Hormonal problems can still interfere with milk production at this stage, but generally the system is controlled locally at the breast.

The process sounds simple (sort of), but problems with breastfeeding are common and complex. Lactation doesn’t come easily to all mothers.

There are plenty of natural interventions to try if you are experiencing low supply:

NOTE: Sometimes a low supply is caused by an underlying health condition – always seek medical advice, especially if your infant is not growing.


5 Powerful Herbs for Lactation

Herbs seem like an obvious solution to an age-old problem – they have been used for hundreds of years to help mothers produce milk and support breast health throughout nursing. While high quality clinical trials are few and far between, their long historical usage suggests their use is helpful in many cases.

NOTE: We recommend brewing these herbs into teas and drinking up to 2 cups per day – generally speaking, this is safe for most people. Seek personalized advice from a qualified herbalist or naturopath before taking higher doses or if you are concerned about potential side effects.

Here are five of the most powerful herbs that are traditionally used to promote healthy lactation, actual teas are listed below this list:


Fenugreek – the most popular herb for lactation

Fenugreek is one of the world’s most popular galactagogues (substances that increase breastmilk supply).

While other galactagogues work on the endocrine system, fenugreek is believed to increase milk production locally by stimulating the glands of the breast, the same way it stimulates sweat glands throughout the body.

Despite its widespread use, clinical studies supporting its use are few and far between, and results vary wildly.

In one study, mothers who drank fenugreek tea 3 times a day produced significantly more milk than mothers in a placebo group [1]. Meanwhile, another study found that mothers who took 600mg of fenugreek 3 times a day in capsules for one month showed no significant advantage over placebo [2].

Although there is insufficient data to draw any decent conclusion about fenugreek and milk production, mothers are still using it extensively – one survey found that over half of the women surveyed in Australia used it to increase milk supply, and 98.2% of those who used it reported that it worked for them [3].

Fenugreek Side Effects

Fenugreek can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased glucose levels – caution in diabetes!
  • Diarrhoea in the child

Fenugreek can also inhibit the absorption of iron. Separate dosage by 2 hours.


Milk Thistle – multi-purpose herb

Silybum marianum or milk thistle is a purple-flowering plant from the Mediterranean region with a long history of use as a galactagogue. Also known as “St Mary’s Thistle”, legend has it that the breastmilk of Mary the Virgin Mother splashed onto a bunch of silybum and created the signature milky veins that run through the plant’s leaves.

This herb has been used for thousands of years to improve breast milk supply but recent experimental studies are lacking.

Animal studies suggest that silymarin may increase circulating levels of prolactin, but not enough to make any changes to other hormones or mammary gland development.

A small study found that mothers who took 420mg of milk thistle per day produced over 100mL more breast milk each day after 2 months than mothers who took a placebo [3]. This study had some design issues, but a randomized, double-blind controlled study also found that milk thistle boosted milk production by over 100mL per day and improved the chances of breastfeeding 50% or more 6 months postpartum [4].

Milk Thistle Side Effects

Milk thistle can cause:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Eczema
  • Bloating, gas
  • Dizziness
  • Hypoglycaemia
  • Decreased blood clotting

Anise

Anise is a rich spice from India and has been used in the Ayurvedic tradition for hundreds of years as a galactagogue.

Anise contains a compound called anethole that acts as a phytoestrogen – its effects in the body are similar to estrogen – and may help to boost prolactin levels.

Note that a small amount of anethole is excreted through breastmilk, and can give the milk a distinct smell – the anethole is then passed onto the infant. This is generally considered safe in low to moderate doses, like those found in tea, but it’s important to note that there have been cases of toxicity in two breastfed babies caused by anethole.

A very small study investigated the effects of drinking 4 cups of anise tea per day, versus a placebo. Mothers who drank the anise tea had a small but significant increase in breast milk supply over the 10 days of the study [5].

A smaller trial involving mothers of preterm infants found that the group who regularly drank tea containing anise produced a greater volume of extracted milk over 7 days [6].

Anise Side Effects

Anise can cause:

  • Allergic reaction
  • Digestive discomfort
  • Interactions with hormone medications

Do NOT confuse anise for star anise. Star anise should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Fennel Seeds

Fennel seed is another galactagogue from the Mediterranean that has been shown to boost prolactin levels and support milk flow.

In one study, a tea blend that contained fennel was found to increase breastmilk production and improve infant weight [7].

Another showed that taking 3g of powdered fennel each day for two weeks significantly increased prolactin levels in mothers who recently gave birth [8].

There are numerous studies showing that fennel seed tea has no detectable effect on infant digestion, respiratory system, or skin health, and drinking fennel seed tea while breastfeeding is generally considered safe. However, anethole, found in anise, is also found in fennel seeds. This phytoestrogen compound may be responsible for the increased prolactin levels and milk supply, but the same cautions apply here as with anise: anethole was responsible for toxicity in two infants as small amounts can pass through the breastmilk. However, we recommend seeking personal guidance from a qualified herbalist or naturopath.

Fennel Seed Side Effects

Fennel seeds can cause:

  • Increased sensitivity to the sun
  • Interactions with hormone medications
  • Muscle spasms
  • Hallucinations

Caraway Seeds

Caraway seeds are traditionally used to stimulate milk production during pregnancy, but like other herbs, the published evidence is lacking.

One study showed that mothers who drank herbal tea containing caraway seeds experienced an increase in the volume of extracted milk compared to placebo [9]. Despite this increased flow of milk, there was no difference in prolactin levels between the mothers who drank tea and those who took the placebo, suggesting that compounds within the seeds may stimulate the breasts locally rather than on a hormonal level.

Caraway seeds have the added benefit of soothing your digestion – and can even help to relieve discomfort in breastfeeding babies with colic [10].

Caraway Seeds Side Effects

Caraway seeds may cause:

  • Belching
  • Heartburn
  • Low blood sugar
  • Increased absorption of iron

Do NOT use caraway seed oil and drink only a few cups of caraway seed tea per day. The oil has been shown to induce menstruation and may be unsafe in pregnancy.


Best 5 Herbal Teas for Lactation

#5 Yogi Woman’s Nursing Support (16 teabags)

Yogi Nursing TeaYogi teas are notoriously tasty and this blend is packed full of galactagogue herbs like fenugreek, fennel and anise to promote breast milk production and let down.

Lavender and chamomile have been added to promote calm mood and relaxation, helping in the recovery from birth.

While this blend is great in theory, and Yogi teas are delicious, the reviews on this product are so-so – many women report that it helped their milk production, but just as many said it had no effect. It’s worth a shot, and is particularly convenient coming in prepacked teabags.


#4 Mother’s Best Lactation Tea for Breastfeeding (4oz loose leaf)

Gardens by Grace teaGardens by Grace have created a loose leaf tea blend that contains fennel seed, anise, coriander seed, fenugreek, and milk thistle in a base of delicious vanilla rooibos. This is a particularly tasty blend and a great choice if you looking to brew up a teapot to drink throughout the day.


#3 Traditional Medicinals Tea Mother’s Milk (16 tea bags)

Lactation TeaReviews report that this stuff really works, and has helped women resume lactation after cases of mastitis and to keep up supply when breastfeeding multiple children.

Traditional Medicines have combined all the major players – fennel, anise, coriander, fenugreek, and milk thistle – along with a proprietary blend of lemongrass, spearmint, marshmallow and verbena. The taste is sweet and slightly bitter, with flavors of licorice from the fennel and anise.

This blend is made from 100% certified organic ingredients and produced using wind and solar power, helping you to create a better world for your little ones!


#2 Fluiditea Clear & Flow Medicinal Tea (6 teabags)

FluiditeaBased on Traditional Chinese Medicine principles, Fluiditea combines powerful TCM herbs that have been shown to restore milk flow, unclog milk ducts, and relieve breast pain.

The recipe is said to have come from an ancient family medical journal and is powerful stuff – the product comes with only six teabags, designed to be taken over 3 days.

The reviews suggest that this tea really does work – there are reports of reversed mastitis, resolved plugged ducts, healed milk cysts, and almost immediate pain relief. It’s not cheap, but we believe it’s worth the investment if you are having serious issues.


#1 Weleda Nursing Tea (20 tea bags)

Weleda TeaWeleda have created a nursing tea that contains therapeutic herbs that support lactation and soothes digestion in both mother and infant. This tea contains caraway, fenugreek, anise, fennel seeds, and lemon verbena – all organic, with no flavorings, preservatives, or sweeteners added. This tea not only smells great and tastes delicious, but it actually works – and it notoriously works fast to improve breastmilk supply.

Get Weleda Tea on Amazon

Always seek personalized advice from a qualified herbalist or naturopath before taking herbs during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

About James Lyons

James Lyons (BHSc Nutritional Medicine) is a clinical nutritionist, medical writer, and educator. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and is passionate about improving public access to reliable and accurate health information.

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