Think You Have To Have A Restricted Diet While Breastfeeding? Think Again!

Think you have to have a restricted diet while breastfeeding? Think again! Lactation Consultant Anne Smith has some interesting news about nutrition as well as postpartum weight loss for breastfeeding moms.
Anne Smith, IBCLC

Don't be too restrictive
Most mothers are highly motivated to eat a nutritious diet during their pregnancies. Assuming that you ate an adequate diet while you were pregnant, you can produce plenty of milk for your baby by keeping up this motivation and making sure you continue your healthy eating patterns during lactation.

While you should attempt to eat a "good diet" while you are nursing, you need to be aware that your diet doesn't have to be perfect to support lactation. You can still breastfeed even if your diet is less than ideal. You may be surprised to learn that studies have shown that maternal nutrition has only a minor effect on the composition and quantity of breastmilk produced. Usually, unless a mother is severely malnourished, her milk is fine.

Mothers whose diets are poor deplete their own energy levels, and may become anemic, but their bodies will continue to produce the milk their baby needs by pulling from the mother's energy stores at her expense, but not her baby's. Most women in this country don't suffer from a lack of food, but rather from eating too much of the wrong kinds.

No special foods to avoid
There are no special dietary rules to follow during lactation. If your eating habits are fairly healthy, there is no reason to change them while you are nursing. There are no special foods to avoid, or certain foods that you need to eat (like milk) in order to produce a plentiful supply of nutritious breastmilk. With rare exceptions, nursing mothers can eat pretty much anything they want to eat -- including chocolate, broccoli, pizza and diet soda -- in moderation.

Some dieticians and lactation experts feel one advantage to breastfeeding may be that the milk is flavored by the foods the mother eats, so the baby becomes used to a variety of taste sensations, and tends to have fewer feeding problems as he gets older.

One famous study showed when mothers ate lots and lots of garlic, their milk tasted and smelled like garlic. Not only did the babies who drank the milk not have any digestive problems, but they actually preferred the garlicky milk over the unflavored milk. Think about it -- women in South America who eat lots of peppers, or women in India who eat lots of curry don't have babies any more colicky or fussy than babies in the US.

You've probably heard that eating "gassy" foods like cabbage, beans, or broccoli will make your baby gassy. I believe that this is one of many "old wives tales", because gas is produced when bacteria in the intestine interact with the intestinal fiber. Neither gas nor fiber can pass into breastmilk, even when you have gas.

Although it is possible for a baby to be sensitive to a food in his mother's diet, he is much more likely to react to a food given to him directly. I suspect that most mothers who swear that they can't eat pizza, Mexican food, broccoli, cabbage, beans, chocolate, etc. while they are nursing are actually overreacting to their baby's normal behavior on any given day.

There is a natural tendency for every nursing mother to attribute every little thing her baby does to nursing. ALL babies have days when they are gassy, fussy and spit up. Some babies have sensitive digestive systems, and no matter what you feed them, they will experience bouts of intestinal upsets. The one thing you can be sure of is there is nothing you can put into a sensitive infant's stomach that will be easier to digest than breastmilk.

When you are nursing, you start to think "?he's so gassy today ... must be something I ate ...yep, I had pizza for dinner last night?that must be it. I can't eat pizza from now on." When taken to extremes, this sort of thinking can lead to a diet of nothing but boiled chicken and polished rice.

Few cases of food sensitivity
In nearly 25 years of experience in working with nursing mothers I have seen very few cases of food sensitivity. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that it is highly uncommon. It is estimated that only 3 to 7 percent of babies will have any type of food sensitivity or allergy. Signs of food sensitivity can include: inconsolable fussiness, suddenly waking in obvious distress, skin rashes, wheezing and green mucousy stools. A strong family history of allergies (food or other) can also increase the possibility of food sensitivity.

If you think your baby may be having problems with a food you have eaten, remember it takes four to six hours after ingestion for a food to affect your breastmilk. Try eliminating the food you suspect from your diet for a minimum of two to three weeks. It may take a while for your baby to improve. Of course, during that time, he may outgrow his sensitivity anyway as his digestive system matures.

Common offenders
The one food that is the most common offender in causing problems with sensitivity and allergies is cow's milk. That's why it's the first food you should work on reducing or eliminating if you suspect your baby has a food sensitivity. It may take 10 days to two weeks to eliminate cow's milk protein from your diet, so wait at least two weeks before you decide whether cow's milk is the problem.

The problem with cow's milk is the protein, which is difficult for babies to digest, not with the lactose. Human beings are not born lactose intolerant, unless they are born with a rare metabolic disorder. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose (milk sugar) so it can be easily digested. Mammals are born with this enzyme in their intestines. As they grow older and wean, the lactase enzyme decreases. That's why lactose intolerance rarely shows up in humans before age three, since that's the average age of weaning. Lactose intolerance is more common in Asian and African adults.

The proteins in cow's milk are primarily caseins, which are harder to digest than whey proteins, which are more prominent in human milk. The proteins in cow's milk pass into your milk, and can cause digestive problems for your baby. These proteins can even sensitize your baby before birth if you drink lots of milk during your pregnancy. If you decide to reduce or eliminate dairy products, remember that processed milk presents less of a problem than whole milk.

You may be able to continue eating yogurt and cheese while cutting back or eliminating milk. Since milk and milk products are important sources of calcium, be sure to calcium from other sources, such as broccoli, nuts, spinach and canned salmon. Taking a calcium supplement would be a good idea if you are limiting your intake of dairy products. You need about 1,000 mg of calcium each day if you are between 18 and 50 years of age, whether you are lactating or not.

While nursing mothers do lose some bone mass during lactation, by the time your baby has been weaned for a year, this lost bone mass in not only completely restored, but research has shown that women who breastfeed have half the risk of bone fractures as women who never breastfed, and the longer you nurse, the lower the risk. Breastfeeding actually protects you from osteoporosis.

If you are anemic, don't worry that your milk won't have enough iron for your baby. Breastmilk contains less iron than formula, but the iron is used more efficiently, so your baby is less likely to become anemic, even if your iron levels are low. You will need to make iron supplements to make you feel better, but they will not affect the level of iron in your breastmilk.

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