Some women’s breasts can’t make enough milk, and the effects can be devastating

Many new mothers worry about their milk supply. For some, support from a breastfeeding counsellor or lactation consultant helps.


  • Renee Kam

    PhD candidate and research officer, La Trobe University

  • Lisa Amir

    Professor in Breastfeeding Research, La Trobe University

Others cannot make enough milk no matter how hard they try. These are women whose breasts are not physically capable of producing enough milk.

Our recently published research gives us clues about breast features that might make it difficult for some women to produce enough milk. Another of our studies shows the devastating consequences for women who dream of breastfeeding but find they cannot.

Some breasts just don’t develop

Unlike other organs, breasts are not fully developed at birth. There are key developmental stages as an embryo, then again during puberty and pregnancy.

At birth, the breast consists of a simple network of ducts. Usually during puberty, the glandular (milk-making) tissue part of the breast begins to develop and the ductal network expands. Then typically, further growth of the ductal network and glandular tissue during pregnancy prepares the breast for lactation.

But our online survey of women who report low milk supply gives us clues to anomalies in how some women’s breasts develop.

We’re not talking about women with small breasts, but women whose glandular tissue (shown in this diagram as “lobules”) is underdeveloped and have a condition called breast hypoplasia.

We don’t know how common this is. But it has been linked with lower rates of exclusive breastfeeding.

We also don’t know what causes it, with much of the research conducted in animals and not humans.

However, certain health conditions have been associated with it, including polycystic ovary syndrome and other endocrine (hormonal) conditions. A high body-mass index around the time of puberty may be another indicator.

Could I have breast hypoplasia?

Our survey and other research give clues about who may have breast hypoplasia.

But it’s important to note these characteristics are indicators and do not mean women exhibiting them will definitely be unable to exclusively breastfeed.

Indicators include:

  • a wider than usual gap between the breasts

  • tubular-shaped (rather than round) breasts

  • asymmetric breasts (where the breasts are different sizes or shapes)

  • lack of breast growth in pregnancy

  • a delay in or absence of breast fullness in the days after giving birth

In our survey, 72% of women with low milk supply had breasts that did not change appearance during pregnancy, and about 70% reported at least one irregular-shaped breast.

The effects

Mothers with low milk supply – whether or not they have breast hyoplasia or some other condition that limits their ability to produce enough milk – report a range of emotions.

Research, including our own, shows this ranges from frustration, confusion and surprise to intense or profound feelings of failure, guilt, grief and despair.

Some mothers describe “breastfeeding grief” – a prolonged sense of loss or failure, due to being unable to connect with and nourish their baby through breastfeeding in the way they had hoped.

These feelings of failure, guilt, grief and despair can trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression for some women.

One woman told us:

[I became] so angry and upset with my body for not being able to produce enough milk.

Many women’s emotions intensified when they discovered that despite all their hard work, they were still unable to breastfeed their babies as planned. A few women described reaching their “breaking point”, and their experience felt “like death”, “the worst day of [my] life” or “hell”.

One participant told us:

I finally learned that ‘all women make enough milk’ was a lie. No amount of education or determination would make my breasts work. I felt deceived and let down by all my medical providers. How dare they have no answers for me when I desperately just wanted to feed my child naturally.

Others told us how they learned to accept their situation. Some women said they were relieved their infant was “finally satisfied” when they began supplementing with formula. One resolved to:

prioritise time with [my] baby over pumping for such little amounts.

Where to go for help

If you are struggling with low milk supply, it can help to see a lactation consultant for support and to determine the possible cause.

This will involve helping you try different strategies, such as optimising positioning and attachment during breastfeeding, or breastfeeding/expressing more frequently. You may need to consider taking a medication, such as domperidone, to see if your supply increases.

If these strategies do not help, there may be an underlying reason why you can’t make enough milk, such as insufficient glandular tissue (a confirmed inability to make a full supply due to breast hypoplasia).

Even if you have breast hypoplasia, you can still breastfeed by giving your baby extra milk (donor milk or formula) via a bottle or using a supplementer (which involves delivering milk at the breast via a tube linked to a bottle).

More resources

The following websites offer further information and support:

Shannon Bennetts, a research fellow at La Trobe University, contributed to this article.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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