When a woman is pregnant, she will read articles and get advice from friends and family on what not to do or eat while pregnant. This is because when she is pregnant, there are certain substances that can pass through the placental barrier and the filters in the umbilical cord to infect or harm the baby in ways they would not affect or harm the mother. As a result of hearing that a woman shouldn’t drink alcohol, shouldn’t smoke, shouldn’t eat raw cheeses or drink raw milk during pregnancy, new moms often assume these are things that she should also avoid while breastfeeding.
In reality, there are very few things a woman needs to avoid doing or eating while breastfeeding and the list is quite small in comparison.
What Not To Do
First and foremost, a woman shouldn’t give up breastfeeding! Breastfeeding has numerous benefits for mother and baby including:
- Delaying or preventing allergies in infants and young children
- Aiding in proper jaw, teeth and facial development in babies
- Increased immunity in infants
- Lower’s a child’s risk of obesity
- Lowers the risk for many forms of infant illness
- Lowers the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
- Provides protection for the mother against breast, cervical and ovarian cancer
- Lowers a mother’s risk of osteoporosis
- Aids a mother in returning to her pre-pregnancy weight
Unless you or your child suffers from a medical condition which prohibits you from breastfeeding, you should try to breastfeed for at least the first six months to give your baby the best start possible.
Formula is simply not comparable enough with the perfect human food – breastmilk. If you are having difficulty breastfeeding or having pain associated with breastfeeding, the best thing you can do for your little one is not to be dissuaded by well-meaning friends and family, but to contact a professional breastfeeding counselor, lactation consultant or doula. Additionally, many doctors will recommend the cessation of breastfeeding if a mother is sick or a baby is sick with diarrhea or vomiting. Breastfeeding your baby while you are ill can actually protect the baby from infection and most sick babies can keep breastmilk down when they cannot ingest anything else.
Are There Foods I Should Avoid While Breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding parents will also hear that there are a host of foods and beverages that shouldn’t be consumed while breastfeeding such as caffeine, gas producing foods like broccoli, peanuts (in case of allergy) or spicy food. More recent research tells us this is simply not true.
Roughly 1% of what you consume, be it caffeine or medication, actually makes it into your breastmilk supply. Unless your baby has severe allergy symptoms that can be pinpointed, it is best to eat a wide variety of foods as introduction to a variety of flavors and foods can actually reduce the incidence of your baby developing allergies later and being resistant to trying very flavorful foods like garlic or fish. Despite what you will hear, you do not have to avoid caffeine, although it is important to limit it to the 500 mg a day that is considered a safe amount. Otherwise, your child may be overly fussy and have difficulty sleeping.
In the case of smoking, there is evidence that breastfeeding can reduce the affects of cigarette smoke inhalation on infant lungs. Of course, it would be better if a mother did not smoke while pregnant or breastfeeding, but if a mother is finding it difficult to quit, this alone should not dissuade her from breastfeeding.
Medications and Birth Control While Breastfeeding
While it is true that many doctors will suggest you not breastfeed when prescribing a whole host of common medications, there is little evidence that the small doses of medication a baby receives from breastmilk consumption affects or harms them in any way. The truth of the matter is that most OBGYN’s, pediatricians and family doctors are not up to date on the recommendations for every medication they routinely prescribe. The Toxicology Data Network has a database called LactMed where you can enter any medication to see if it has any affects associated with breastfeeding and if its use is contraindicated for breastfeeding mothers.
Most lactation consultants, OBGYN’s and other birth professionals caution against using hormonal birth control while breastfeeding. This is because hormones in birth control, the main culprit being estrogen, can affect the taste of breast milk and pass to the baby during feeding, and have been shown to contribute to low milk supply. Natural methods of birth control or progestin only forms are encouraged if birth control is needed by a nursing mother. Forms of birth control containing estrogen should only be used after a baby is routinely eating solid foods and is six months old or older.
Diet, Exercise And Herbs
Most mothers are eager to go back to their pre-pregnancy body as soon as possible after the birth of their child, but there are some important guidelines to consider. First, don’t rush into anything! Babies and mothers need about 8 weeks to recover from the birth, establish a breastfeeding routine and build a stable milk supply. Women who are breastfeeding need a minimum of 1,500 calories a day and most need about 1,800 calories a day to produce an adequate milk supply, so don’t restrict your calories more than this or try to limit the amount of time your baby breastfeeds.
Avoid fad diets and weight loss medications. Anything that causes you to lose more than 1.5 lbs per week can affect the nutrition of your baby, reduce your milk supply or cause your baby to lose weight. Clean eating by consuming calories that come mostly from whole grains, fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins and not from processed foods, sugars or fats can help you feel full and maintain a healthy diet that is nutritionally adequate and should not affect your breastfeeding relationship.
In the past, mothers were cautioned against heavy exercise because it was thought that the lactic acids produced changed the taste of the mother’s milk and babies were refusing to feed and thus would lose weight and the milk supply would diminish. However, this has shown to be untrue. Most babies will still accept the breastfeed post workout. The only cautions here for moms are to stay hydrated (as your hydration level does affect your milk supply), wear a supportive athletic bra to accommodate heavier and larger nursing breasts, and if you find you are having an increase in plugged ducts or mastitis, treat immediately and cut back on the intensity of your workouts, but you should not have to stop working out altogether.
Herbs are a point of controversy in the breastfeeding community. There are many herbs that are safe for both mother and baby during pregnancy and breastfeeding but there are some herbs that are contraindicated for having a healthy milk supply while breastfeeding, while others may actually be harmful for both mother and baby. Adverse herbal reactions are often paired with consumption of these herbs in large amounts, but it can be difficult to know how much is too much. Herbs often associated with abating milk supply are oregano, parsley, sage, spearmint, peppermint, thyme, lemon balm, sorrel, chickweed, and black walnut. Herbs that have been shown to possibly be harmful to mother and baby are: basil, chasteberry, ginseng, aloe vera, angelica root, rhubarb, star anise, wormwood, cohosh, buckthorn, yerba mate, Indian snake root, comfrey and cascara sagrada.
In the end, you can see that, despite popular breastfeeding culture, there isn’t really a long list of don’ts and shouldn’ts for the breastfeeding woman. The best things for you are to relax, enjoy your baby, eat well, drink lots of water and exercise moderately. Welcome to your new life as a parent!
Rachel Reeves is a mother of two, a doula, childbirth educator, a breastfeeding counselor and an M.S.W. She has lived in Palestine, Honduras, and most recently Seoul, South Korea. She currently resides in Michigan in the U.S.A and enjoys supporting women, teaching classes and writing about anything birth, baby or parenting related.