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Help!  My milk goes away in the evening

This is something I hear quite often from clients and via social media - and I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe that milk can just disappear within a matter of hours, but this is just not true.

In lactation, we have a saying – “breasts are factories, not warehouses”. And just like other 24hr factories, I can imagine sometimes production can slow down slightly at night, but it does not stop.

Breasts are factories not warehouses

What is actually happening relates to your hormones, and maybe some misconceptions of our biology.

As the sun starts to set, we start to produce melatonin – this hormone helps make us sleepy and turn our brains off, to go to sleep. Melatonin also helps boost prolactin (the hormone that helps us make milk). But the effects can take some time to start working.

This is why many mothers often say they wake up quite engorged and feel that their baby feeds the best in the early hours of the morning.

But then it appears that their supply drops during the day, until they have ‘nothing’ left by the evening/bedtime, because we are comparing our suppy to that early morning boost.

The baby feeds almost constantly from 4/5/6pm until 9/10/11pm or until the parents give the baby a bottle of milk, which they drink and then fall asleep – ergo, the mother doesn’t have enough milk in the evening and there must be something wrong with her supply.

Or is there?

I love Mother Nature – I think she got things right the majority of the time. Bottles, formula, and breast pumps are all man-made items. These weren’t around hundreds or thousands of years ago. The way our babies feed and how our bodies respond has been present in our biology for millennia...

But something I struggled to understand is why Mother Nature would give us more milk in the morning and less in the evening, when we want our babies to sleep longer...?

Here is my theory - because obviously I can’t ask Mother Nature what her reasoning was and I’m not an anthropologist, but I do have a keen interest in this area, so I’ve thought about this a lot ;) .

Millennia ago, we lived in hunter/gatherer communities. We did not have TV’s, or artificial lights, or the idea that we needed ‘me time’, or even ‘time’ as we know it today.

We would go out and hunt/gather during the day, our babies coming with us, being fed on-demand as they wanted/needed. (Or if we were very new mothers, we would stay behind in the village to rest and recover, while others did the work.) Then as the sun started to set we would return to the village, because being out after dark was dangerous. We would sit around the fire and eat what we had hunted/gathered. Our babies would be with us, still feeding as they wanted/needed. Remember – time wasn’t based on hours and minutes back then; it was based on the sun and moon and other things happening in nature.

Then we would go to sleep, with our baby still being close to us, feeding as they wanted/needed throughout the night. And we would wake up with the rising sun and eat a reasonably sized breakfast ("break – fast") so that we would be able to go out hunting and gathering again.

Melatonin boosts prolactin so it is very common for there to appear to be more milk in the early morning vs later in the afternoon or evening

So it makes sense that breast milk supply follows the same sort of ‘routine’a large amount in the morning to give us a boost of energy so that we can get up and go about our day. Then we would ‘snack’ during the day and into the evening before going to bed. And because babies need to be fed frequently they would continue to feed overnight.

Feeding to sleep and overnight is biologically normal

Plus we lived in close-knit communities – there would others around us to help us with chores, or caring for other children. So we could focus on our new little baby.

But we have swapped things around in our modern-day life – most of us would have a quick breakfast and then go out to work or to do whatever we want during the day, stop to have lunch, and then come home to cook a large meal for dinner. We also now live in separate homes, often keeping very much to ourselves. And we now have the concept of ‘me time’ or needing the evening to be childfree for TV watching or other activities - this is an interesting article on how this happened.

However, our biology thinks we still live 10,000’s years ago. The melatonin boosting prolactin continues. Our biology still thinks that our babies will be with us 24/7 and we do not need to have an even amount of milk throughout the day, because the baby will just feed as much and for as long as they want.

The other issue with our modern-day life is that artificial lights ‘turn off’ our production of melatonin – devices such as TVs, smartphones, tablets, and artificial ceiling lights interrupt the production. Plus, our babies do not make their own melatonin until about 3mths of age, so they rely on getting it through the milk to help them feel sleepy.

And so we end up with a double whammy in the evenings – the perception that babies should go to sleep relatively quickly in the evening and stay asleep, and if they cluster feed they must be hungry. And we have turned off our melatonin production and they don't make their own, which can make them overtired. And overtired babies are often cranky babies who need more attention, who want to suckle more at the breast.

Artificial light from TVs, phones, and lights turns off melatonin production and babies do not make their own melatonin for the first 3 months

And babies love to suck - it is the only skill they have to help them settle. So they look to suck, we interpret that as them being hungry, put them to the breast, they fall asleep or relax because it is comfortable. We think they are done, put them down in their cot (because we have been conditioned to believe that as soon as they have finished feeding they should go in a cot), but then they wake up, wondering why they have been put down or because they were not fully asleep, so we pick them up and feed them again, and so the cycle continues.

Then parents think the baby must be hungry, give then a bottle, which they take, and then mum tries to express and gets a very low volume - adding to the idea that their supply has dropped dramatically.

Having a baby is, in my opinion, a great time to stop and reconnect with ourselves and our families. Where is the harm in sitting with your baby in a darkened room, rocking, and feeding them to sleep?

But I need to cook dinner! I have other children to look after! I want to spend time with my partner! And my baby takes a bottle of XXmls and then sleeps for hours, so they must have been hungry* I hear you say.

This is where only you can decide what to do with this information and how to incorporate it into your family, if at all.

Here are some suggestions to help

  • Could you make food that can be heated up in the evenings?

  • Could you connect with your partner in other ways and at other times besides the evenings?

  • Could your children help with the evening routine (eg bath time, read a story while feeding the baby, etc)?

I’m just letting you know that there is nothing wrong with your body or your baby, it's simply a matter of our biology still thinking we leave in a much simpler time and our modern-day perceptions and technology disrupting it.

Cluster feeding is normal and necessary, especially in the evenings

*This is actually another misconception of our biology and what our babies need and want. I’ve touched on it in this article, but this topic will probably be the subject for the next article 😉 Note that the only sign of true low supply is low weight gain in the baby - if the baby is gaining good amounts of weight and exclusively breastfed (or only getting a small amount of milk externally) then they must be getting enough.

As always, if you need help with breastfeeding I am here to help -

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