Working with families in the postpartum period, I get many questions about how a mother’s diet can affect breastfeeding. Some of the most common questions I get are: What should I eat and what should I avoid? I often witness a wave of relief rush over mothers when I respond with, there are no rules!
Many moms are told that eating certain foods like chocolate, cabbage, spicy meals, and citrus fruits, for example, will result in a fussier baby. The cases where a mother’s diet causes negative outcomes in her baby, are not very common. That said, it doesn’t make sense to create a set of rules for all breastfeeding mothers to abide by. Many cultures have traditional ways of supporting new mothers in the postpartum period and food often plays a big part of that care. Having lived in South East Asia, I can say I have worked with families from a wide variety of backgrounds and have come to appreciate the different traditions that exist to nourish new moms as they nourish their infants. It is fine if a mother chooses to honour recommendations passed down within her culture, as long as she is comfortable and doesn’t feel restricted. But for those who are happy to hear it- eat what you want from a variety of foods!
I am also frequently asked: What foods should I eat to increase my milk production and quality? The recommendation I give my breastfeeding patients is the same I give all my patients. Do your best to eat a rainbow of colours from fruits and vegetables each day, include protein in your snacks and meals and limit refined sugar intake. If you are getting a variety of foods, then there is usually no question that you’ll be meeting your needs and will make nutrient rich breast milk. While breastfeeding, your appetite is likely to go up as your caloric needs increase (by about 500 kcal a day which is more than you needed in your third trimester!) but understand that significantly increasing your caloric or fluid intake will not influence your milk volume unless you were malnourished to begin with.
While your body takes from you what it needs to make quality breast milk, there are some nutrients to consider that are affected by a mother’s diet and nutritional status.
1. B Vitamins: B Vitamins are water-soluble and can potentially be deficient in breast milk if a mother’s diet is low in them. For those who are not continuing to take a prenatal vitamin, B vitamins can be obtained through from leafy greens, legumes, oats, walnuts and eggs to name a few.
2. Vitamin D: The level of Vitamin D in breast milk is also influenced by the mother and her levels. Many factors affect Vitamin D levels including where one lives, time spent outdoors in the sun, and skin pigmentation. Given this, many pediatric societies recommend supplementation to breastfeeding infants to make sure they are getting adequate amounts. High doses of vitamin D to the mother have also been shown to increase the levels in her breast milk.
3. Fats: The type of fat in breast milk, not the amount of fat, is influenced by the food a mother is eating. When one consumes more saturated and trans fats from the diet, the breast milk will reflect this. However when one consumes unsaturated fats, which should make up the majority of fats we consume, those will be the dominant fat in the breast milk.
A follow-up question I often hear is, What foods can I eat to boost my milk supply? Well, this is an area of growing interest. While there are a lack of scientific studies, the use of herbs and foods to increase milk supply have been used since ancient times and certainly cultures all over the world have made contributions to this body of knowledge. Common cooking herbs that are believed to help in milk production include anise, blackseed, caraway, coriander, dill, fennel, and fenugreek. Papaya, ginger, garlic, oatmeal, and soups made with mullungay leaves are other commonly relied on galactogogues but there are many others!
More often, its the factors other than nutrition, such as stress levels, that can have a greater effect on the milk supply. I always emphasize eating foods that make you feel relaxed and nourished as the best place to start.
Of course if you have any concerns about your diet and if it is causing issues for your little one, reach out for support from your local lactation consultant!
Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice 3rd Edition
Increasing Your Milk Supply With Galactogogues By Lisa Marasco, MA, IBCLC, RLC
Journal of Human Lactation, November 2008 vol. 24 no. 4 455-456
Does My Breastfed Baby Need Extra Vitamin D? By Anne Merewood, PhD, MPH, IBCLC
Journal of Human Lactation, February 2013 vol. 29 no. 1100-101