Does what you eat affect breastmilk?

Breastmilk is full of essential nutrients and is all a baby needs for the first six months of it’s life. Good breast milk production relies on a healthy balanced diet along with ample rest. In fact, a breastfeeding mother would need to consume more food and fluid than when she was pregnant, for healthy milk production. This is not as easy as it sounds. New mothers and mothers with young children are often sleep deprived, lack energy, and for some, are learning for the first time. For all these reasons, a mother can consequently make poor food choices.

A healthy balanced diet

A healthy balanced diet for a breastfeeding mother should include:

  • At least 2 litres of water a day to help with breast milk production, along with hydration and energy levels. Breast milk is made up of approximately 70% water.
  • 5-6 snack size meals. Regular eating promotes good breast milk production, as well as helps to balance blood sugar levels, maintain energy and keep the immune system strong, which is vital during this period.
  • Protein and carbohydrate foods at every meal to help satisfy a ravenous appetite, which is very common when breastfeeding. Protein foods include fish, meats, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. Carbohydrate foods include grains, cereals, breads and pasta.
  • Calcium rich foods, as breastmilk is made up of approximately 40% calcium. A diet rich in calcium may also help prevent osteoporosis later in life. The dietary recommended intake (RDI) for breastfeeding women is 1300mg/day. Foods include dairy, fish with bones (salmon and sardines), legumes and dark leafy greens.
  • Iron rich foods to help with tiredness, low immunity and possible anaemia. Foods include red meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts, fortified breads and cereals. Vitamin C rich foods eaten together with iron rich foods increase iron absorption. Excess tea, coffee, fibre and calcium (more than the RDI), can interfere with iron absorption.
  • Gradual weight loss, as rapid weight loss can decrease breast milk production.
  • A prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement to ensure your vitamin and mineral intake is adequate.


Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, cola soft drinks, energy drinks and chocolate. Studies show that excess caffeine can lead to:

  • Dehydration in breastfeeding mothers due to its diuretic action.
  • Decreased absorption of iron in mothers and babies, which could lead to iron deficiency anaemia.
  • Reduced milk supply and be implicated in recurrent mastitis.
  • Make a baby jittery, colicky, constipated and generally unsettled.

Breastfeeding mothers should restrict caffeine consumption to less than 300mg/day (that’s approximately two-three cups of espresso coffee or very strong tea). Instead, drink decaffeinated drinks, herbal teas or water - Tip.



The amount of alcohol in a breastfeeding mothers’ blood, is the amount of alcohol in her milk. Only time will reduce the amount of alcohol in her breastmilk, which will be there for 30-60 minutes after drinking starts. Studies show that excess alcohol can:

  • Affect your ability to take care of your baby properly.
  • Decrease the flow of milk and thus reduce supply.
  • Slow down a baby’s ability to reach developmental milestones.
  • Have a drowsy effect on the baby, which is implicated in SIDS and can also lead to lower milk supply, as the baby is unable to suck properly.
  • Alter the smell of milk, therefore may account for unsettled behaviour.

Breastfeeding mothers who choose to drink, should:

  • Breastfeed first before having a drink, then you know you are unlikely to feed again within the next two hours.
  • Choose low alcohol drinks.
  • Eat before and whilst drinking.
  • Avoid alcohol in the first month of breastfeeding until breastfeeding is going well and there is a feeding pattern established.

 Food and a baby’s behaviour

There are many causes why a baby might be unsettled and identifying the cause can be tricky. Food is rarely the problem but for some it can be a contributing factor, as foods that a baby is allergic or intolerant to can pass through the mother’s breastmilk. Food allergy is a reaction to proteins in foods most commonly cows’ milk products, wheat, eggs, nuts and soy. A food sensitivity is an intolerance to food chemicals i.e. salicylates and additives. Other foods that new mothers are commonly advised to avoid are:

  • Gas-producing vegetables i.e. cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli, radishes, kale, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, legumes and beans
  • Acidic fruits i.e. oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, strawberries, pineapples and kiwifruit.
  • Spices including chilli, garlic and cinnamon.

Although laboratory tests can confirm allergy, there are no scientifically proven tests for food intolerance. In some cases though, elimination of these foods from the mother’s diet can help a baby’s unsettled behaviour improve. An elimination diet works by eliminating certain foods from the diet for a few days to see if the baby’s symptoms improve. Then the foods are reintroduced one by one allowing a few days between reintroductions making it easier to identify which food is the culprit. Then the culprit is temporarily removed from your diet. As these foods may be a problem for some, research suggests that for most babies, these foods are not a problem. If you have a suspicion that your baby has a food allergy or intolerance, see an allergy/food intolerance specialist to confirm this, as well as a nutritionist or dietician to make sure your diet is nutritionally adequate for both you and your baby.

By Cherie Lyden
Mother and Nutritionist