13 Jun Busting Nutrition for Breastfeeding Myths
[no pun intended]
How does diet actually affect breast milk?
Nutrition can be confusing. Breastfeeding can be confusing. So mix the two together? You may have a whole lot of questions.
It’s NOT just you who has questions. From a scientific perspective, we’re still lacking research about all of the ways that mom’s diet affects breast milk.
With that said, there are some facts we DO know about nutrition for breastfeeding. As a dietitian who is also a lactation counselor, I’m super passionate about helping moms see which strategies are worth focusing on when it comes to nutrition – and which are worth ignoring!
The myths we’ll bust below are some of the most common questions and misconceptions families have when it comes to nutrition and breastfeeding.
Myth 1: Eating more calories helps increase milk supply.
Reality:Being adequately nourished and hydrated is absolutely critical for breastfeeding. It’s estimated that making milk requires about 500 extra calories per day, so you may find yourself super hungry!
Moms who are clinically malnourished (in other words, severely lacking calories, protein, or vitamins/minerals) may struggle to make milk (1).
But here’s what’s key: more ≠ better. Once you’re eating enough to meet your body’s needs, increased food does not yield increased milk.
Bottom Line: Eat to your hunger. Keep taking your prenatal vitamin and any other supplements you may need (like iron if you have a deficiency, or B12/omega-3’s if you’re vegetarian or vegan). Extra calories or nutrients won’t help with milk supply.
Myth 2: Drinking extra water helps increase milk supply.
Reality: Same deal as with food – getting enough water is incredibly important and your fluid needs definitely increase when you’re making milk! But beyond meeting your needs, extra fluids don’t make extra milk (2).
Bottom line: Drink to your thirst – not because it will help you make more milk, but because your body needs to be hydrated for a zillion different other functions (digestion, transporting nutrients, waste elimination, and just about any chemical reaction that occurs). Moms who are breastfeeding may find their fluid needs increase 1/2 – 1 liter per day.
Myth 3: Eating more fat helps you make fattier breast milk.
Reality:Mom’s diet does not affect fat quantity in the infant’s milk. Regardless of what mom eats, the fat content in breastmilk is out of her control. Mom’s genes, number of babies she’s had, baby’s age, and feeding frequency all play a role in breast milk’s fat content.
You may have seen Facebook posts in which someone posts pictures of her super fatty milk saying it was due to a change in her diet – but we don’t know this mama’s genetic makeup or breastfeeding situation. Trust that whatever amount of fat your baby is getting in your milk is enough. Breast milk is cool like that.
Fun fact! Mom’s diet actually does affect fat quality. Research has shown that when mom eats more omega-3 fatty acids (the anti-inflammatory kind in fatty fish, egg yolks, walnuts, flax, and chia seeds), she’ll have more omega-3 fatty acids in her milk (4). This can help babies’ brain develop.
Bottom Line: Focus on fat quality rather than fat quantity if you’re looking to make effective changes. And whether breastfeeding or not, all of us benefit from eating foods full of omega-3’s.
Myth 4: Certain foods – “galactogogues” – increase milk supply.
Reality: If only this were true! No research has proven that specific foods help with milk supply.
Anecdotally, some moms and lactation consultants report that ingredients like oats, brewer’s yeast, and flax help with supply. These are all foods that are safe and nutritious. Flax and oats have awesome nutritional benefits for postpartum folks like fiber, iron, and omega-3s. . Lactation cookies can serve as a tasty and convenient nursing snack.
However, if you count on special foods to fix your milk supply, you’re probably missing the underlying issue and losing critical time as you delay getting the help you need.
Bottom Line: Do not rely on foods to help your milk supply – instead, seek hands-on help. But if you want to ALSO make some delicious oat bars or cookies, yes, yes, do it!
Myth 5: If your baby is gassy or fussy, eliminating dairy from your diet typically helps.
Reality: A certain amount of gassiness and fussiness is normal for babies, and it’s unusual that a food sensitivity is the problem. For example, gassiness might be caused by a latch issue or forceful letdown that causes the baby to gulp in a bit of extra air.
These symptoms suggest there may actually be a food sensitivity (5) :
- Inconsolable crying for long periods of time (colic)
- Skin issues: hives, eczema, sore bottom, dry skin
- Wheezing, asthma, congestion or cold-like symptoms; red, itchy eyes; ear infections
- Intestinal upsets, vomiting, constipation and/or diarrhea
- Stools containing blood or mucus
Dairy is typically the culprit in a food sensitivity, but the cause could also be soy, wheat, corn, eggs, or peanuts. Babies who struggle with dairy are also likely to have issues with soy.
Some moms start with eliminating just dairy, while others eliminate a few foods at once and then gradually add them back in; the approach you take may depend on how severe your baby’s symptoms are. Start by eliminating the food(s) for 2-3 weeks, meanwhile watching for symptom improvements.
Bottom line: Usually mom’s diet is not the issue. If your baby does fit the signs of a food protein allergy or sensitivity, try an elimination diet, ideally with the support of a healthcare provider (dietitian, doctor, IBCLC, etc.).
Myth 6: If you’re eliminating dairy you need to avoid foods like milk and cream, but can still eat lower-lactose options like yogurt or hard cheeses.
Reality: If your pediatrician diagnoses a cow’s milk protein allergy or recommends a dairy-free diet, you’ll need to avoid dairy in any form.
As adults, we tend to think all dairy issues are related to lactose (a carbohydrate, not a protein) because lactose is what typically bothers our adult bodies. However, babies are rarely lactose intolerant.
The proteins in cow’s milk (or other foods) are the element that passes through mom’s milk and can cause issues. Avoiding cow’s milk protein means that any dairy product is off limits – even lactose-free or lactose-reduced ones. This is a great list of exactly what to avoid and where dairy may be “hiding” where you don’t realize it. Fortunately, we live in an age of amazing non-dairy substitutes that make being dairy-free easier than ever. If this is an area about which you have questions – I’ve got more advice for you, girlfriend!
Bottom Line: A dairy-free elimination diet during breastfeeding means truly free of dairy in all forms.
Myth 7: Spicy foods and “gassy” foods (cabbage, cauliflower, beans) irritate the baby.
Reality: Breastfeeding moms do not need to restrict these foods. Research has shown that really strong flavors (like garlic) can pass through breastmilk, but this is unlikely to bother the baby. In fact, if you eat flavorful foods regularly, your baby is probably used to these tastes!
High-fiber foods can definitely cause gas in moms, but this only happens within mom’s GI tract. Fiber and gas do not transfer from mom into her breast milk (6).
Bottom Line: If your baby seems consistently bothered when you eat a particular food, you could try eating that less. But from a scientific standpoint, there’s no clear reason why that would happen.
Myth 8: Taking a probiotic while breastfeeding will increase the “good” bacteria in your breastmilk.
Reality: This one is tricky – simply because there’s still a lot we still don’t know about probiotics.
We know that breastmilk is an awesome source of this good bacteria that helps “colonize” a baby’s GI tract to lay the foundation for lifelong health. However, when moms take probiotic supplements, it doesn’t seem to transfer into breastmilk in any significant amount (7).
In most cases, it’s still unclear if probiotic supplements even help adults‘ overall gut health (though certain strains of probiotics have been shown to work for specific conditions, like irritable bowel disease and infectious diarrheal disease). To optimize your own gut health, your best bet is eating a lovely variety of fiber plus probiotic-containing foods, like yogurt, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
Bottom Line: Breastmilk is already rich in probiotics so you don’t have to worry about adding even more.
So what is important when it comes to nutrition?
*As mentioned earlier, eating ENOUGH is key for breastfeeding. That looks slightly different for everyone, but for BF moms is typically eating at least ever 3-4 hours.
*Aim for a wide variety of foods with some of each of these categories daily:
- Lots of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains (rice, oats, wheat, quinoa, popcorn)
- Protein (meat, poultry, seafood, beans, lentils, soy, dairy, nuts, seeds, quinoa)
- Fats (olive oil and other plant oils, avocado, coconut, nuts, seeds, chocolate)
How do you ACTUALLY make more milk?
The short and sweet answer: the more milk you remove (or at least try to remove), the more your body gets the signal to make more milk.
Here are a few of my favorite resources for maximizing milk production if you feel like you’re stuck:
- Maximizing Milk Production by Dr. Jane Morton
- Increasing Low Milk Supply by Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC
- 8 Tips and Power Pumping by Lasinoh
Vegan or vegetarian?
If you still have questions – let me know!
Unless otherwise noted, most of the research in this blog post comes from Dr. Marsha Walker’s Breastfeeding Management for the Clinician – if you’re a provider who works with breastfeeding families, her book is packed with good stuff.