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The Truth About Avoiding Foods while Breastfeeding

Editor’s note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

As if breastfeeding wasn’t hard enough at times, the Internet is literally teeming with long lists of things breastfeeding moms should avoid at all costs. (Seriously, a quick Google search on the topic could leave you feeling like you literally can’t eat or drink anything without it posing some potential risk.) In 10 years of breastfeeding my own kids, and in my 7 years of working with breastfeeding moms as a lactation consultant, I’ve pretty much heard it all in terms of rumors and myths about what a mom can and cannot consume while breastfeeding.

But I’m here to tell you that almost all of what you’ve heard isn’t true, and that breastfeeding moms don’t need to drastically change their diet or avoid certain foods … at least most of the time.

The general rule about nutrition for breastfeeding moms is this: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Basically, breastfeeding moms should drink and eat whatever they want, in the amount that satisfies their thirst and hunger, and not take any measures to alter their diet unless an issue arises.

Now, it’s absolutely true that breastfeeding moms will be more hungry and thirsty while they nurse, but the amount they eat or drink doesn’t actually determine how much milk they make or even its quality. Evolution is pretty hearty in this regard; our bodies want us to produce high-quality milk for our babies despite any adversity we might encounter, so that means you can eat pretty awfully and still make pretty awesome milk. (See this classic study about mothers in Brazil who were still able to produce high quality despite being malnourished).

I know what you’re thinking, though: There still must be certain foods you need to avoid, right? And what about fussy babies, or babies that genuinely react to foods that moms eat?

First, it’s important to understand how breast milk is made. As the evidence-based breastfeeding site Kellymom.com explains, not everything you consume passes into your breast milk. “Breast milk is made from what passes into mom’s blood,” explains Kellymom, “Not what is in her stomach or digestive tract.”

So, as Kellymom describes, many of the things that are purported to make babies fussy — like broccoli, garlic, beans, and other gassy or spicy foods — just don’t make it into a mother’s milk. Same goes for acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits — despite what you may have heard, they’re not an issue for breastfeeding babies.

Of course, there are some things that do pass into your milk and affect your baby in some instances. These include foods that a baby can have an allergic reaction or sensitivity to, or substances that affect babies negatively if consumed in large quantities.

It’s important to keep in mind that babies are just fussy sometimes, and although we’d like to blame this or that for their fussiness, it’s usually normal and will pass in time. Fussiness caused by an allergic reaction to something a mom ate would also go beyond normal symptoms, and may include inconsolable crying, wheezing, cold-like symptoms, rashes, constipation, diarrhea, or blood in their poop.

Here’s my short list of top foods that might cause symptoms in your baby, or are general concerns for breastfeeding moms sometimes — and what you need to know about consuming them.

1. Cow’s milk

When a baby is exhibiting signs of allergy of sensitivity, cow’s milk is usually the most common culprit. It’s not the lactose in the milk, but the dairy protein that is known to pass into breast milk and cause issues for certain babies. If you suspect your baby is reacting to dairy, you need to eliminate it for at least a week or two to see results (and read labels: dairy is in everything!). Some moms need to eliminate it completely, but others do fine just cutting back on it. The good news is, most babies outgrow this sensitivity in a few months, unless they have a true allergy.

2. Soy, wheat, corn, eggs, or peanuts

These common allergens are also known to pass into breast milk and potentially cause issues for babies. After cow’s milk, soy is the next most likely culprit. But other babies react to wheat, corn, egg, and peanuts. Trying an allergy elimination diet is helpful to figure out what is causing your baby’s issue.

3. Coffee

Yes, breastfeeding moms can drink coffee. I repeat: breastfeeding mom can drink coffee! And goodness knows they need it. Caffeine does pass into breast milk, but in smaller amounts than you receive when you drink it. The general rule is that a normal sized cup or two of coffee per day is perfectly fine. If your baby seems particularly wired and sleepless, you might need to cut back.

4. Alcohol

Like caffeine, less alcohol passes into breast milk than passes into a mother’s bloodstream (in fact, just 2% of the alcohol you consume passes into your milk, according to Kellymom.) The general rule is that 1-2 alcoholic drinks do not pose a problem for a breastfed baby. So there’s no need to pump and dump or avoid nursing your baby except in cases of excessive drinking or binge drinking. Think of it this way: If you are sober enough to drive, you are fine to breastfeed!

5. Peppermint and sage

Eating large amounts of peppermint or sage can sometimes cause a mother’s milk supply to drop (there are a couple other foods and herbs that might do this: see this guide). Please note that you would have to eat a rather substantial amount of these for anything to happen. Still, it’s something to keep in mind if you are popping Altoids all day and notice your milk supply drop.

These are the few foods and drinks I’ve ever actually seen pose an issue for mothers — so you can take those long lists of “dos” and “don’ts” you’ve read with a grain of salt. Of course, you might tell me that your baby’s fussing got dramatically better the day you stopped eating brussels sprouts for dinner every night. Although there’s no scientific evidence for something like this, I always say that “moms know best.” So if you are certain your baby is reacting to something you ate, listen to your body and go with your instincts. Try eliminating it to see if it makes a difference, and then go from there.

But in general? Relax — don’t worry about your diet, enjoy the heck out of your cuddly baby, and feel free to drink coffee every morning, and pair your ice cream with a nice glass of wine every evening. You deserve it, mama!

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