When you’re done and fully ready to exit the motherhood phase of breastfeeding, one of your main questions is probably how long it takes breast milk to dry up. There are so many surprises and adjustments that you’ve already experienced with bringing this new life into the world and stopping the production of milk is another thing that your body will have to adjust to.
Your list of follow-up questions is likely growing, too. Will my breasts get engorged? What about leaking? How long will I have to wait before my breasts feel normal again? Understanding how long it takes breast milk to dry up and the different methods that will help can be crucial and comforting during your transition.
Below, experts offer insight into how long it actually takes breast milk to dry up, and what this can look like for you.
How long does it take for breast milk to dry up?
“Every case could have a different approach,” says Linda Merli, RN, nurse and certified lactation consultant. Much like how pregnancy and birth are unique to every mother, how fast or slow your breast milk will dry up can differ.
There are certain factors, however, that can affect that process. “In some cases, when a mother decides she does not want to breastfeed in the early weeks, the process will take less time and effort,” Merli says.
Even if breastfeeding has been your baby's main food source for some time, once you start your journey to no longer producing milk, your body will adjust. “Breast milk generally stops being produced 3 to10 days after cessation of breastfeeding,” says Dr. Jordan Rush, a Georgia-based OB-GYN. However, “some women will have continued scant leakage for weeks to months.”
What happens when my breast milk is drying up?
Here’s a little info on the anatomy of what is actually happening with your breasts:
Alveoli are the milk-making cells in the breast, and lactocytes line them. These lactocytes secrete milk through your nipples during breastfeeding. When your milk dries up, it means the alveoli are shrinking, which can cause your breasts to feel empty and look flat. But gradually, that feeling can change when these cells are later replaced by fat cells, possibly restoring a fuller look to your breasts.
Since your breast milk supply responds to how much your baby is eating, when you decrease the amount of time you’re breastfeeding or pumping, it naturally begins to diminish. It signals to your body that the baby doesn’t need it as much anymore.
“When the baby is being weaned, you don’t want to do it abruptly so you can avoid engorgement. But as your baby is feeding less and less, your body slowly starts to make less and less milk,” Brittany Fadiora, certified doula and lactation consultant, tells Romper.
This anatomical response happens over time. And as the breast milk is drying there are changes your body naturally undergoes.
When your breast milk dries up, it’s basically “the regression of mammary tissue to a non-secreting state,” Merli tells Romper.
What can I do to help my milk dry up?
“The least invasive way is to stimulate your nipples less and less over the course of two weeks,” Merli says. She explains that the goal is to mimic what your baby would be doing if you pumped and allows your body to adjust to the decrease in its need to produce milk.
There are multiple ways to help speed up the milk-drying process. Here are a few recommendations from Rush and Merli:
- Cold cabbage leaves on the breast. After peeling and washing the leaves from a head of cabbage, put them in the freezer. Once they’re cold, choose a leaf and crush the vein (located in the center). This releases its anti-inflammatory properties that help dry up your milk supply. Place the leaf in your bra for two hours and repeat this three times a day.
- Benadryl. Take 25mg of Benedryl every night for 10 days. Benedryl dries up secretions, including milk supply. “If 25mg makes you too sleepy, then take 12.5mg,” advises Merli.
- Estrogen-based birth control. This type of birth control will dry up your milk when used for a month.
- Ice packs. Not only are ice packs (including gel packs or frozen veggie packs) great to use to relieve pain and reduce inflammation, but they also help decrease milk production. Wrap them in a thin towel or cloth and place them on your breasts for five to 15 minutes at a time.
- Nipple stimulation and Ace bandaging. For the first three days, pump for 15 minutes as often as your baby would have breastfed. And every 3 days, reduce the pumping time by 5 minutes. If it is clear your milk supply is diminishing, you can move on to the next step. “Bind your breasts with two ace bandages around your chest wall,” says Merli. If you get uncomfortable from your breasts filling with milk, she says to pump until you’re back at a comfortable level and replace the bandage.
Complications when breast milk is drying up
Unfortunately, yes, complications can come with attempting to go from having a full milk supply down to breasts that no longer produce milk. They include:
- Blocked ducts. This condition happens when milk flow is obstructed from going to a portion of the breast.
- Mastitis. It’s an Inflammation of breast tissue that can result in an infection. “It usually requires an antibiotic to clear it up completely. If mastitis is untreated, it can turn into an abscess and require an incision and drainage,” Merli tells Romper.
Symptoms of these complications (other than pain) are redness, swelling, and fever. And while both can happen at any time during breastfeeding, they can often occur when breast milk is drying up, especially if you stop abruptly. So while you may be ready to get this phase over with and totally reclaim your body, it’s important to take it with ease. Drying up will come with time.
Every change has its own set of challenges and of course, when it comes to how long the process of drying up breast milk will take, everyone is different. It depends on if you're going from nursing around the clock to a couple of times a day. Be patient with your changing body and take it one day at a time.
Dr. Jordan Rush, OB-GYN at Northside Women’s Specialist
Linda Merli, RN, IBCLC, nurse and lactation consultant