Folk remedies that purport to ease discomfort from breastfeeding or boost milk production are numerous — from the use of cabbage leaves to tea bags, oatmeal and even beer. But women’s health experts say more research needs to be done to determine the benefits and possible risks of such techniques, many of which are unproven.
The recommendations come from a new survey of lactation specialists by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center designed to see how often they pass along folk remedies to breastfeeding mothers, despite a lack of research-based evidence to support these suggestions.
The results, published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, showed 65 percent of the 124 lactation specialists surveyed in 29 states have recommended at least one folk remedy. Advice included recommendations to promote lactation, initiate breastfeeding, treat pain, assist with weaning, and about substances to avoid for the baby's sake.
The survey found that certain folk remedies — particularly herbal remedies to increase milk production and cabbage leaves to ease pain from breastfeeding — are among the most common, even though there is little scientific evidence to support the practices.
"Despite the frequency with which such advice is given, there is little empirical evidence to support the use of most of the remedies listed," said Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an OSU obstetrician. "But I'm all for anything that helps and is safe for the baby."
Among the most common folklore remedies is the use of beer to promote milk production — an approach that drew wide media attention when celebrity singer Mariah Carey was accused of endangering her twins for following it. This folk tradition dates back to the late 1800s, but no studies have demonstrated a positive impact in milk production and maternal alcohol consumption is known to decrease milk production, and may have an adverse effect on the baby, Dr. Schaffir said.
Eating oatmeal has also been said to increase milk production, but no studies have shown it is effective. Folk traditions that aid with breast pain or engorgement include using cabbage leaves and tea bags, even though studies have questioned their effectiveness.
A review of studies that examine treatment for soreness concluded that there was no significant benefit to the use of tea bags, lanolin, or expressed milk.
"With the attention given to these remedies, this survey may spur future research to objectively measure whether such recommendations are actually safe and effective, rather than relying solely on anecdotal evidence," Dr. Schaffir said.