Many health professionals will assert that a mother’s  diet doesn’t make a difference to her breast milk composition or quantity: they will say,’ even starving women in third world countries produce nutritious breast milk,’ or ‘mothers will give up breastfeeding if they think they have to restrict their diets.’

 I have also been told, ‘mothers ‘ confidence in their ability to breastfeed will be undermined if they start to worry that their diet isn’t good enough.’  I would argue that knowledge which enhances any skill is empowering, not the opposite. When mothers understand the impact of their own diets on their breastfeeding experience, more women who choose to will be able to breastfeed with greater confidence.

For decades we have known that the foods we eat do pass into mothers’ milk and we have research to show that various elements impact babies’ health and development. In 1991, a number of US bodies – (the Institute of Medicine’s Sub Committee on Nutrition during Lactation, the Committee on Nutritional Status during Pregnancy and Lactation, the Food and Nutrition Board, The Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Science) published findings on “Nutrition During Lactation.” The report stated that there was a link between a mother’s diet and composition of mother’s milk.

For instance, the proportion of different fatty acids in human milk vary according to maternal dietary intake; maternal intakes of selenium and iodine are positively related to their concentration in human milk; and the vitamin content of human milk is dependent on the mother’s current vitamin intake . The report stated that chronically low intake of vitamins may result in milk that contains low amounts of essential vitamins (this varies with individual vitamins). Further research has linked ratios of fatty acids in mother’s milk and her baby’s tendency to develop certain allergies.

Other studies report that levels of omega three fatty acids in mothers’ diets are not only linked  with healthy neural development and sleep patterns in babies as well as boosting immunity strengthening properties of breast milk, but they have also been shown to reduce depression and ‘foggy mindedness’ in mothers   . Although there are studies showing that certain foods and chemical substances, including nicotine, some antihistamines, estrogen, vitamin B6, garlic and beer and several herbs can enhance or hamper milk production, there is still a widely held assumption that diet makes no difference to a woman’s milk production capacity.

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While milk production is based on ‘supply and demand’ (the more milk your baby drinks, the more milk your breasts will be signalled to make) and it is important to have other factors that may impact milk supply, such as a poor latch or maternal health issues such as low iron or thyroid levels, PCOS , Diabetes or Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT), checked by a health professional, there is a good case that certain foods can support and enhance milk production.

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Throughout history, in all cultures, new mothers have been fed special foods to help them recover from birth and produce milk.  According to Swiss lactation consultant Hilary Jacobsen, author of ‘Motherfood’ , long before cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated and their milk used as food (so babies’ survival was dependent on their mother’s milk), our  foremothers naturally preferred foods and herbs that supported milk production. Grains such as barley and millet were fermented  into ‘grain drinks’ and taken by mothers to enhance their milk production.”

Although this ‘ancient knowledge’ is often dismissed as folk lore or myths, even today, mothers report that certain foods can have beneficial effects on their breast milk supply. We now know that a sugar present in barley and also in oats  – beta- glucan, increases levels of prolactin, the hormone that regulates milk production. Foods rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, also help to boost prolactin levels: as serotonin levels increase, this can counteract dopamine which has been shown to reduce prolactin levels (Ben-Jonathan & Hnasko, 2001;Jacobson, 2007; Dopamine definition, 2004).  

We also know that mothers who eat well are keeping themselves healthy, which is important to sustain milk production and to manage the intense job of nurturing babies.Using extreme examples of malnutrition isn’t justification for a poor diet or for with-holding information that supports mothers’ health.

Part of the reason starving mothers in Third world countries manage to breastfeed, apart from an absolutely desperate maternal instinct to protect their babies, is that severe undernourishment pushes the body into survival mode, when prolactin is naturally higher.

The first rule of a diet that supports breastfeeding is to eat meals and snacks at regular intervals through the day. The reason for this is that when we skip meals, our bodies produce stress hormones. Stress hormones inhibit the milk ejection reflex and they can also lead to anxiety, exhaustion and irritability. On the other hand, when we eat a good meal, the feeling of satisfaction that we feel afterwards is due to the release of oxytocin.  Some researchers suspect that oxytocin, sent to digest a large meal, may help mothers to breastfeed by signalling to the brain that it is safe to produce milk – that the mother can spare the calories!

As a lactation consultant in private practice, I see so many women who are struggling to maintain their milk supply or spending hours calming unsettled babies (for various reasons) yet are not eating regularly. Often late in the afternoon when blood sugar and seratonin levels are low (low seratonin = lower prolactin levels), many of these women reach for ‘hits’ of chocolate, caffeine or sugar laden treats to boost their flagging energy and low moods. This in turn, will contribute to mood swings as blood sugar levels fluctuate and possibly an even more cranky, restless baby as the stimulants from the mother’s diet pass through her milk – caffeine from a single cup of coffee passing through breast milk can take almost 100 hours for a newborn to metabolise and several cups will have an accumulative effect.

Of course, if you are breastfeeding, you don’t have to be religiously fanatical about your diet as long as you choose to eat  nutritious foods  most of the time.  Nor is there a list of foods that every mother should avoid. A sensible rule of thumb is ‘all things in moderation’ and to eat a variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible. Then, simply watch how YOUR individual baby seems to respond to your diet and make changes accordingly if you need to.  

If you are having difficulties with breastfeeding, consult a lactation consultant or breastfeeding counsellor to help you sort out an appropriate plan of action.

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