Is it an old wives' tale—or does science show that cabbage leaves really stop lactation? We asked an ob-gyn.

By Claire Gillespie
November 21, 2019

When you have a baby, you need a bunch of essentials on hand to keep trauma (and tears) to a minimum. Diapers, bibs, onesies, blankets and muslin squares are among the items that should be in high supply. If you’re bottle-feeding, you’ll need bottles and teats, and if you’re breastfeeding, nursing bras and breast pads are a must.

What doesn’t typically crop up on the essentials list is a stack of cabbage leaves. But these are what influencer Carly Waddell appears to be relying on to reduce her milk supply now that she’s stopped breastfeeding her one-week-old son, Charlie.

Yesterday, she shared a picture of herself in her underwear, a cabbage leaf over each boob, and revealed that she decided to switch to bottle-feeding when she realized Charlie was following in the (tiny) footsteps of his big sister, Bella.

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“Bella was such a colicky newborn,” wrote Waddell. “She cried and cried for months. Threw up. Had gas pains. I breastfed for months because that’s what I was told was ‘best’. When I changed Bella to formula, she was a new, happy little baby. This time, I had hopes that Charlie would be different. But it just isn’t the case. I decided to stop breastfeeding and try him on the same formula Bella was on, and within a bottle or two he was so happy. He stopped crying. He could relax. He could sleep. He smiled.”

Waddell finished her caption with the hashtag #cabbageleavesforthewin.

But is there any truth to the theory that cabbage leaves help stop milk production? Or is it just another old wives’ tale?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends weaning over several weeks or more to make the process easier, both for you and your baby. The idea is that if you stop breastfeeding slowly, your body will start producing less milk, until it no longer makes any at all. However, if you stop suddenly, your breasts may become engorged, which can cause discomfort and/or pain.

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“When you stop breastfeeding, the breasts can become engorged because the milk that doesn’t drain can clog the ducts, which can cause pain,” Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at Orlando Health in Florida, tells Health. “It’s important to be aware that this can progress to a condition called mastitis, which typically causes a fever, feeling ill and redness on the breast area.”

The CDC doesn’t mention cabbage leaves to help suppress lactation, but the practice does have science on its side. More studies are needed, but a study published in the JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports in 2012 found that cabbage leaf treatment used on women with breast engorgement was effective in reducing pain and the hardness of engorged breasts.

However, the moms who took part in this study continued to breastfeed, and they found that using cabbage leaves helped them breastfeed for longer, which appears to refute the suggestion that cabbage leaves suppress lactation.

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A 2016 systematic review, published in the Cochrane Library, concluded that there is no good evidence that topical cabbage leaves were better than no treatment for engorged breasts during lactation, because engorgement tends to improve over time regardless of treatment. On the plus side, the authors agreed that the treatment was cheap, unlikely to cause harm, and might be soothing for the mother. Again, there were no findings that the topical application of cabbage leaves helps to decrease milk supply.

“There’s no evidence that placing cabbage leaves over the breasts stops milk production,” says Dr. Greves. Instead, she recommends occasionally using a breast pump to relieve fullness, without completely emptying the breasts. “Warm compresses can help with discomfort, and a cold pack may reduce swelling—and therefore the pain,” she adds. If that doesn’t work—and with your doc’s blessing—try over-the-counter pain meds.

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