It's a common myth that breastfeeding mothers need to maintain the ‘perfect’ diet in order to make quality breastmilk.
According to Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) “even mothers in a poor nutritional state are able to produce breast milk of adequate quality.”
This article explores the ways in which a breastfeeding mother’s diet affects (or doesn’t affect) her breastmilk.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the links between diet and breastfeeding:
#1: Your Supply Is Largely Unaffected
For the most part, what, or how much, a breastfeeding mother eats or drinks doesn’t affect her supply.
The main determinant of your supply is how often and well your breasts are drained. The more often your breasts are well drained, the more breastmilk they make. Even mothers in third world countries — where food is scarce — can continue breastfeeding for years.
Anecdotally, some mothers notice a change in supply if they eat very large concentrated amounts of certain foods, e.g. peppermint, sage, oregano, mint on the lowering side, and fennel, dill, cumin, ginger, barley, oats, and chickpeas on the increasing side. There has been no research assessing the true effect of these foods however.
There is also no evidence that a mother drinking extra fluids increases her breastmilk supply. It is generally advised to drink fluids according to your thirst.
#2: You Need More Calories
Making breastmilk uses extra calories. So, when breastfeeding, you will most likely feel hungrier than if you weren’t breastfeeding.
If eat according to your hunger, you will most likely get the extra calories you need.
#3: The Overall Composition Of Your Breastmilk Is Unaffected
The overall fat, lactose and protein content of your breastmilk is not affected by your diet.
Since the energy content of breastmilk is determined by the concentrations of these macronutrients, the energy content of your breastmilk is unaffected by your diet.
#4: Eating More Fish Is Good For Your Baby’s Brain
The overall amount of fat that you eat does not affect the overall amount of fat in your breastmilk. However, the types of fats you eat have some effect on the types of fats in your breastmilk. So if you’d like more long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (e.g. omega 3 fatty acids) in your breastmilk, eat more. These types of fatty acids are important for brain and eye development.
#5: Minerals In Your Breastmilk Are Largely Unrelated To Your Diet
Minerals are largely unrelated to a breastfeeding mother’s diet. Your diet can affect the concentration of iodine in your breastmilk however. For this reason, the Australia’s NHMRC recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women take an iodine supplement.
#6: Vitamin B12 Or D Supplementation May Be Needed
A mother’s diet can affect the concentration of vitamins in her breastmilk. However, the average Australian diet typically supplies you with adequate amounts of most vitamins.
The two vitamins that may require supplementation include:
- Vitamin B12
Vegan (and some vegetarian) mothers may be deficient in vitamin B12. This would make their breastmilk deficient in vitamin B12 too.
Speak with your obstetrician or GP if you think you may need vitamin B12 supplementation.
- Vitamin D
Regular sunlight exposure helps reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency. The safe exposure time for children is unknown however.
Breastfed babies particularly at risk of vitamin D deficiency are those:
- Who are dark-skinned
- Whose mother is vitamin D deficient
- Who receive too little sunlight (e.g. by living at higher latitudes)
Speak with your obstetrician or paediatrician if you think vitamin D supplementation may be needed.
#7: A Small Percentage Of Babies React To Foods In YourDiet
In general there are no foods breastfeeding mothers need to avoid all together.
However, a small percentage of breastfed babies show signs of a food sensitivity by reacting to something in their mother’s diet through her breastmilk.
In most cases though, a baby with food sensitivity usually does not show any significant signs of it while being exclusively breastfed, but rather begins to show more significant signs once she starts to eat the offending food(s).
If your baby has a medically diagnosed food sensitivity (particularly if severe), by avoiding the causal food(s) in your diet, you can continue breastfeeding your baby.
If you are concerned your baby has a food sensitivity, seek advice from a dietitian who has an interest in breastfeeding and food allergies, or a paediatric allergist immunologist.
For more information about food sensitivities see visit the Allergy and Immunology section of Melbourne's Royal Children’s Hospital website, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy website or the Royal Prince Alfred Allergy Centre, website.
#8: Your Diet Influences What Bacteria Is In Your Gut
More research is being done about the importance of the types of bacteria in our gut and our overall health.
A baby gets more than just nutrients from breastmilk. They also get prebiotics and probiotics, and a host of other important immune protective factors.
If you have more beneficial bacteria in your gut, this could mean you pass on more beneficial bacteria (probiotics) to your baby through your breastmilk.
For example, it has been found that breastmilk from obese mothers tended to contain a different and less diverse bacterial community compared with milk from normal-weight mothers.
#9: Don’t Compare Different Apple Varieties With Oranges
Breastmilk changes from day 1 to day 7 to day 30 and so on. It even changes from the start to the end of the feed. The breastmilk made by a mother who has a premature versus a term baby is different too.
In other words, your breastmilk changes to meet the changing needs of your baby.
Depending on whether the mother has a girl or boy baby may also alter the composition of her breastmilk!
Although different mothers’ breastmilk differs somewhat depending on her individual baby’s needs, breastmilk is still vastly different to formula.
So, while the breastmilk of a mother who eats a wide variety of nutrient dense whole foods for every meal everyday may be different to the breastmilk of a mother who eats fast food for every meal every day, if the alternative choice to either mother’s diet is formula, I know what I would want my baby drinking.
#10: Your Breastmilk Is Important For Your Baby
The average Australian diet provides most mothers with ample nutrients necessary for her breastmilk to supply her baby with all he needs, and more! You don’t need the ‘perfect’ diet to make quality breastmilk. But eating well will make you feel much better, and that’s important!