When I had my first baby, I didn’t know any other mums who were breastfeeding. It was the seventies, when formula feeding seemed to be ‘the norm’, and there wasn’t a lot of readily available information about breastfeeding. I had a cheering squad of one: the lovely woman at my local fruit shop. Every time I went to buy our fruit, Mrs Goldberg would stop and chat to my baby and tell me how beautiful he was. She would rave about his lovely clear skin or how bright his eyes were – always something specific that made me feel like I was doing a wonderful job. And every time, she would tell me my baby was so healthy because he was breastfed. As he grew, she would peel and slice a piece of fruit and give it to him. My baby loved her.
Mrs Goldberg was a grandmother but she shared the story of her breastfed baby as though it was just yesterday: “I breastfed her for two years, all the time I was in a concentration camp. I was so very sick and she was too because I had nothing to eat except sometimes a piece of bread. I don’t know how I had milk for her. It was a miracle from God!”
Many health professionals will assert that a mother’s diet doesn’t make a difference to her breast milk composition or quantity, saying, ‘Even starving women in third world countries produce nutritious breast milk’. So why can mothers like my lovely Mrs Goldberg, or the starving mums in developing countries, manage to breastfeed? Apart from an absolutely desperate maternal instinct to protect their babies, severe undernourishment pushes the body into survival mode, when prolactin is naturally higher.
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But using extreme examples of malnutrition isn’t justification for a poor diet, or for withholding information that supports mothers’ health. Many professionals worry that mothers will give up breastfeeding if they think they have to restrict their diets for any reason. They think a mother’s confidence in her ability to breastfeed will be undermined if she starts to worry that her diet isn’t good enough.
But I would argue that gaining knowledge that enhances any skill is empowering. When mothers understand the impact of their own diets on their breastfeeding experience, more women will be able to breastfeed with greater confidence.
For decades we’ve known that the foods we eat pass into mothers’ milk, and we have research to show that various elements impact on our babies’ health and development. In 1991, a number of US bodies published a report on nutrition during lactation. It stated that there was a link between a mother’s diet and composition of mother’s milk, saying that the proportion of different fatty acids in human milk vary according to maternal dietary intake; that maternal intakes of selenium and iodine are positively related to their concentration in human milk; and that 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 with a baby’s tendency to develop certain allergies. Other studies report that levels of omega-3 fatty acids in mothers’ diets are not only linked with healthy neural development and sleep patterns, but have also been shown to reduce depression and ‘foggy mindedness’ in mothers – and boost the immunity-strengthening properties of breast milk, too.
Although there are studies that show that certain foods and chemical substances – including nicotine, some antihistamines, estrogen, vitamin B6, garlic, beer, and several herbs – can enhance or hamper milk production, there’s still a widely held assumption that diet makes no difference to a woman’s milk production capacity. 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’s important to have a health professional check out other factors that may impact your milk supply, there’s a good case that certain 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 Jacobsen, author of Motherfood, long before cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated and their milk used as food – when 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. While this ‘ancient knowledge’ is often dismissed as folk lore or myth, we now know that a sugar in barley, called beta-glucan, increases levels of prolactin, the hormone that regulates milk production.
The first rule of a diet that supports breastfeeding is to eat meals and snacks at regular intervals through the day. When we skip meals, our bodies produce stress hormones which can inhibit the milk ejection reflex, and 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 mums breastfeed by signalling to the brain that it’s safe to produce milk – that Mum 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 who spend hours calming unsettled babies (for various reasons), yet who aren’t eating regularly. Late in the afternoon when blood sugar and serotonin levels are low, many of these women reach for ‘hits’ of chocolate, caffeine or sugar-laden treats to boost their flagging energy levels . This, in turn, contributes to mood swings as blood sugar levels fluctuate, and can possibly result in an even more cranky, restless baby as 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 watch how your individual baby seems to respond to your diet, making changes if you need to. Of course, if you’re having difficulties with breastfeeding, consult a lactation consultant or breastfeeding counsellor to help you sort out an appropriate plan of action.
An international Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling baby care author, Pinky McKay is the creator of Boobie Bikkies, nutritious cookies made from all natural and organic ingredients to help boost your energy and support a healthy milk supply. Grab your free Boobie Bikkies sample and download Pinky’s free ebook ‘Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally’ at www.boobiebikkies.com.au.