Life After Loss: Managing Milk Production After Loss

managing milk

Our bodies treat the birth of our silent children the same as it would a living child. Second trimester miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death brings with it an added trigger of milk production. Typically, 2-7 days after birth, milk production starts and it can not only be a big trigger, but physically painful as well. There are ways to ease the engorgement and transition to drying your milk, or other options that may be a help to your grief.

The Why’s & Hows:

Hormones after a full-term pregnancy are the same after late miscarriage and stillbirth and with that comes the body’s natural hormones and preparations for a newborn. It’s an especially delicate time for those who have just experienced loss as both the trauma, the hormones and the new changes are being thrown at you all at once.

Tips for Comfort:

If you will not be expressing or pumping your milk, it should take about 1-2 weeks to dry up. Initial engorgement may be quite painful but there are some ways you can ease the transition:

  • Ibuprofen can be taken for the pain (please check with your doctor or pharmacist if you are on other medications)
  • Wear a bra that fits — not too tight because that can cause blockage
  • Refrigerated cabbage leaves placed on your breast helps ease the pain
  • Avoid heat as it can stimulate milk letdown and increase milk production
  • Sage tea has  been thought to help inhibit milk production

What To Watch For:

  • Avoid dehydration and make sure you are getting enough water. Limiting your fluids will not help dry out your milk
  • Watch for red, hard and painful areas of your breast, it could indicate a clogged duct.
  • If you develop a fever and painful breasts, see your health care provider.

Other Options:

There are some people who want to find meaning in their loss and may find comfort in being able to donate their breast milk to a baby in need. If you choose to do this, it’s a wonderful gift, but be sure to realize that you do not need to make sense of your loss in this way. It’s a personal choice and decision that some may feel helps them cope and manage their grief.

For information on how and where to donate breast milk, visit Human Milk Banking Association of North America

Photo credit: adapted from Suraya_M | Flickr


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  1. This happened to me and it was very distressing. My consultant had given me a pill to stop lactation so I had hoped to avoid it. I didn’t get a full supply of milk, just some leaking, but it was unbearably emotionally painful. I felt like it was just one more way my body had let me down.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this. I lost Corbin a year ago next month and I still leak milk. It breaks my heart. While Corbin was in the hospital, he was not able to nurse so I pumped every three hours for three months. After he passed away, I didn’t want to throw it all away so I donated it all to a milk bank.
    I wanted to share that if you are considering donating your milk, there are requirements. The milk bank I donated to did not want my milk that I had pumped while on birth control. I had switched to a low hormone pill just so I could donate, but I did not check with the milk bank first, which I recommend you do first.
    Here is a link to donor requirements

    1. Thanks for writing about this and mentioning donor milk. There’s actually a beautiful new movie called Donor Milk: The Documentary that was produced by a father whose wife started donating milk after losing a baby late in pregnancy. Here’s more about the film and the filmmaker’s story about how donating milk can help some families with the healing process after a loss.

  3. i lost my first pregnancy (twins) at 17 wks and since I’d never breastfed, I didn’t qualify to donate to the local banks that I looked into. be sure to look into all the regulations. 🙂

  4. I lost my first baby 5days after birth. I was pumping for him and it took 3weeks to stop the milk. I found a hand pump to help the engorgement and sine he was a preemie I donated it to a milk bank for research.

  5. Hi,
    I lost my daughter Daisy Grace in January 2012, premature at only 24 weeks. When my milk came in itnwasnphysically painful but worse was that it was such an emotional reminder of the failure of my body to support my baby to full term. I searched a lot online and found some things- all of which I tried at the same time so dint know which it might have actually been that worked! Sage tea, benadryl, ice packs, cold cabbage leaves – apparently thereisnsome kind of enzyme reaction when you break the veins with a rolling pin. I didn’t have a rolling pin but just used a bottle of water to roll back and forth over the leaves a few times. I was also recommended to take ibuprofen. I out the cabbage leaves in a snug sports bra (not too tight though) and then wore an athletic tank top and folded the bottom up over my breasts which made like a pocket for ice packs to sit in. I was so upset when it started, & then weirdly when it finally stopped I was upset at that too. Grief is really unpredictable.

    1. Yes, I too had a hard time with the milk, I thought they could give me a pill to stop it but they said they didn’t do that anymore, I was like well fine if you don’t want to do that for a mom who just doesn’t want to breastfeed, but I didn’t know why they wouldn’t give it to me, and like you said Katy, it crushed me as much when it stopped, I think because then I felt like there was no physical proof I had given birth it is unpredictable and SOOOO hard


  6. I lost my full term baby Brynn and new that I had to donate my milk as I had with my oversupply with my daughter. I used a wonderful website called Milk Share to find a donor mom. I have used the site twice and found beautiful and wonderful mothers and babies to donate to.

  7. I’d like to share my story about donating my son, Jonah’s, breast milk after he passed away. Donating breast milk is a wonderful way to help sick babies and it greatly helped me heal from my grief. Thank you for taking the time to read our story.

    Jonah’s Milk
    by Heidi L. Solomon
    September 3, 2012

    After a long battle with infertility, my husband, Deva, and I were thrilled to be expecting our first child. We spent our days dreaming about our son to be and happily anticipating his arrival in late August. I planned to nurse him and greatly looked forward to breastfeeding.

    What was a perfect pregnancy ended abruptly at 25 weeks when I went into sudden preterm labor. Our baby boy, Jonah Henry, was born weighing 2 pounds, 1 ounce, a good size for 25 weeks. He was immediately whisked away to the NICU. I felt so helpless – unable to hold or even touch him at first. Upon his birth, the nurse and lactation consultant got me started with pumping. They said the best thing I could do for Jonah was to pump breast milk for him, which would be given to him on his second or third day of life. So I began pumping and I felt so good doing something that could actually help him.

    Sadly, Jonah passed away in our arms after only two days of life. We were completely devastated. Within the hour of his passing, I was discharged from the hospital…heading home with empty arms. Because my milk had already come in and I was pumping every couple of hours in the hospital, I needed to quickly come up with a plan for what to do with Jonah’s milk. Should I stop cold turkey? Should I gradually cut back? What would I do with the milk? It was for Jonah but now our baby was gone. Emotionally and physically drained, I called a friend who is a lactation consultant hoping she would have the answers. Not only did she give me a plan to cut back pumping and gradually stop, she also told me I could continue pumping and donate my milk, if that was something I wanted to do.

    I continued pumping during the next day and did some soul searching about my options. At that point my milk had really come in and I was getting about ten ounces a day. I was so sad that I could not help Jonah by giving him my breast milk, but I realized that I could help other babies. I learned that when you have a preterm baby, your body creates special nutrients for whatever gestational age the baby is born. So my breast milk was specially formulated for a 25 week baby and those nutrients could actually save a preemie’s life. Plus, breast milk helps protect preemies from life-threatening diseases and infections and allows them to spend fewer days in the hospital. It gave me such comfort to know that other preemies could benefit from Jonah’s milk.

    With the decision to donate, pumping breast milk for sick babies became my focus for the weeks and months following Jonah’s death. Every four hours I watched the white milk fill the little bottles and got such joy thinking about how Jonah’s milk could save another baby’s life. I have now pumped for over 3 months, which yielded well over 1300 ounces of liquid gold. On July 23rd I shipped two giant coolers filled with Jonah’s milk (36 pounds!!) to the Mother’s Milk Bank of Ohio in Columbus. Jonah’s milk will be going to the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital and other area hospitals to benefit preemie babies in their NICUs. In addition to donating breast milk to the Milk Bank, I have also been able to donate to three close friends’ babies and actually got to feed Jonah’s milk to each of them. Feeding Jonah’s milk to babies Callie, Payton, and Noah was incredibly bittersweet – my heart ached for the chance to feed that milk to Jonah, but in the reality of his loss, I was overjoyed to feed his milk to the babies of three friends I love so much.

    I continue to grieve the loss of my pregnancy, the loss of my baby boy, and the loss of my chance to nurse him. But I celebrate giving birth to Jonah. I celebrate his life. And I celebrate the chance to give Jonah’s milk to babies in need. Sometimes beautiful things come out of the saddest of tragedies.

  8. When we lost Landon the freezer was already stuffed full of breastmilk. I looked into all the different options. My husband and I decided to not donate the milk to one of the larger national banks due to the cost it would be on the parents receiving the donations. There is no way that we would have been able to afford the cost, which can be as high as $3-$5 AN OUNCE!!! What we did can be seen as a little more risky to the recipients, but not if you are careful with your screening.

    There are online forums that are dedicated to finding mothers wanting to donate milk to babies in their area. It is true that the milk is not screened and processed, as it is with the national banks, but it is a fully donated and a free sharing site. No money changes hands. If you like, a suggestion would be to ask if the mother is willing to get a blood test, ask about their medications, their home-life, do a fast pasteurization at home, ect.

    We decided to give any preemie or currently sick baby precedence over others, since Landon had also been a preemie. All of our saved milk went to a local preemie that was having issues growing on formula. She did wonderfully with the milk donated by our family and others.

    If you are interested in looking into these more local free milk shares, I suggest visiting

  9. I want to clarify something said about milk banks charging the recipients. This charge is no different than similar charges for banked blood. It covers the costs of shipping the milk to and from the bank and the donor moms who give and the babies who receive. If the babies are hospitalized, the hospital bears the cost but us not reimbursed by insurance. The milk is tested at the bank and blended to make sure baby receiving is getting the right calories It is a wonderful gift and there is currently a shortage as well as increased demand as we find out more and more benefits of human milk. Informal milk sharing is great but sick babies who don’t get milk because the banks are empty would not be a good thing!