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.
Addressing supply issues
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 address other factors that may impact milk supply, such as a weak/dysfunctional suck – a baby who sucks well will stimulate stronger prolactin surges (the milk production hormone) than a baby with a weak suck; or a poor latch which can create ongoing influence on oral and facial development if this isn’t corrected.
Maternal health issues that may also affect milk supply include low iron or thyroid levels, PCOS , Diabetes or Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT), so it’s important that underlying reasons for low milk supply are assessed by a health professional such as an IBCLC Lactation Consultant.
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Maternal intake and effects on breastmilk
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. This simply isn’t true! Although scientific evidence of traditional knowledge has lagged, there is increasing evidence that lactogenic foods do help with milk supply, both through improving the development of mammary tissue and also elevating the production of prolactin (the milk making hormone).
How foods can support and enhance milk production.
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 Jacobson, author of ‘Mother Food’ and ‘A Mother’s Garden of Galactogogues’, “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.”
Hilary Jacobson explains, “a lactogenic diet includes lots of foods and herbs that are known specifically to soothe, soften and moisten the tissues of the body such as beta-glucan from oats, hyaluronic acid and gelatin from animal cartilage, seaweed extracts and almond oil. She says, these hydrating foods actually improve the function of the body at a cellular level. They regulate cortisol and insulin and help with blood sugar regulation, which is very important for lactation. They are the mainstay of lactogenic diets from around the world.”
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 and there is increasing evidence supporting these claims.
We now know that Beta-glucan, a sugar present in barley and oats, 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;Dopamine definition, 2004).
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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 a desperate maternal instinct to protect their babies and putting their babies to the breast more often, is that severe undernourishment pushes the body into survival mode, when prolactin is naturally higher. According to research, cited in Making More Milk by IBCLC Lactation Consultants Lisa Marasco and Diana West, not all of these babies are growing to their potential and there is a cost to the mother if she isn’t eating enough nutrients to sustain her own physical needs as well as supporting her milk supply because her baby’s survival is Nature’s priority unless her own survival is threatened
What is a lactogenic Diet?
Hilary Jacobsen explains that a lactogenic diet means using fresh foods and ingredients that are known to improve a mother's ability to produce milk, while avoiding herbs supplements and medications that may suppress milk supply. It's also including ingredients like certain kinds of fats and vitamins that babies need for their best development. For instance, antioxidants that we get from whole foods, fruits and vegetables go into our milk and have a protective effect on the baby.
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 (under four weeks) to metabolise and several cups will have an accumulative effect, potentially making babies restless, agitated or jittery.
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.
Pinky McKay is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), best selling author and creator of Boobie Foods - all natural and organic foods to nourish you as you breastfeed your baby. For strategies to increase your milk supply, Download Pinky’s free ebook "Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally"