Breastmilk basics: does diet really matter?

October 30, 2018
Certain foods, diets, medications, and more can influence breastmilk production, and every lactating mother should know what foods and drinks to avoid while breastfeeding.

Diets and eating trends have taken the world by storm for decades, and it's no wonder. The quest for excellent health and trim waistlines is a worthy cause for carefully watching what you eat, especially for many postpartum mothers. As many breastfeeding mothers know, however, not every diet or food trend is healthy enough, or even considered safe when their baby's health is on the line. It doesn't matter how many postpartum pounds a mother desires to shed, each planned diet change must be looked at through the lens of health and safety for both mom and child, under the watchful care of their doctors.

One such eating trend scrupulously reviewed by mothers and doctors both is more buzzword than diet: clean eating. Generally considered a diet of foods that are minimally-processed whole foods which contain very few chemicals and treatments (think: no pesticides, no growth hormones, etc.), this way of eating looks like more fruits, vegetables, organic meats, and whole grains, and less chips, snack meats, and candy. Can this switch in food intake hurt breastmilk, or breastmilk production, however?

Clean eating and baby

To truly understand whether a diet change can affect your breastmilk, and therefore your baby, you'll need a basic understanding of how breastmilk is created. It's a simple process: the hormone prolactin gradually increases during pregnancy, stimulated by the growth of the placenta. Prolactin increases dramatically post-birth, which causes a part of the breast (called the alveoli) to absorb proteins, sugars, and fat from the blood supply and use it to create milk. This process requires quite a bit of energy, so a healthy mother generally needs to consume 1,500 – 1,800 calories per day in order to maintain her milk production. This is an average of 300-500 additional calories more than a non-lactating, healthy adult woman would generally consume to maintain her pre-pregnancy weight.

The main thing to note here is that breastmilk is created from blood, not the contents of the stomach. This means that the many folk tales restricting what a mother can eat due to her baby's reactions can be, for the most part, disregarded. It is important to note that the proteins that make it into the milk can sometimes affect the baby's digestive system, causing upsets such as reflux, gas, and colic. Dairy proteins specifically can occasionally upset the stomach. This reaction is uncommon, however, if you believe your child struggles with a dairy intolerance, contact your pediatrician as soon as possible.

Clean eating and mother

Since the body draws nutrients from the bloodstream to create milk, the contents of the stomach have little sway on the basic nutrients found in breastmilk. Some key vitamins have been found lacking in the breastmilk if the mother doesn't consume them regularly in their diet, however; namely, B vitamins, thiamin, and folate, among others. For the most part, the mother's body produces exactly what the baby needs, when the baby needs it.

That's not to say that the mother won't pay the price for a poor diet, however. While the baby may be receiving all the nutrients he or she needs, the mother's body still needs to thrive, especially under the new demands of motherhood. Sleep deprivation, elevated stress levels, lactation, and all the emotional and hormonal rollercoasters a mother encounters—especially if breastfeeding or regular pumping is involved—will take a toll on the human body, so refueling with the proper nutrients is vital for the mother during this time.

Additionally, if the mother's body isn't properly fueled, she may not be able to make enough milk. A fed baby is a healthy baby, but it is no secret that the breast is best. For this reason, clean eating is actually very beneficial to the mother, so long as her diet is balanced. The more healthy proteins and fats, the better; and the less stressed the mother is, the better she will be able to breastfeed. Focus on eating lean meats, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, drinking plenty of water, and getting as much rest as possible.

Some foods and herbs are said to increase breastmilk supply, including oats, garlic, and dark leafy green vegetables.

Eating certain foods can also negatively impact breastmilk supply—definitely something a lactating mother should be aware of. Generally speaking, lactating mothers should avoid:

  • Alcohol
  • Large quantities of garlic, sage, and dill or other herbs as seasoning or in tea. Herbs are not regulated by the FDA, so there is no guarantee of purity or strength, although not enough research has been done to establish for sure what may be safe and what is not. Don't worry: you can still consume them, just take care in how much you eat in a short period of time. Check with your doctor about your herb consumption.
  • Medications, such as antihistamines, diuretics, birth control pills, and certain weight loss pills.

In addition, nicotine and caffeine end up in breast milk and can affect the baby, so quit smoking (or don’t start), and limit caffeine intake to less than 16 to 24 ounces of caffeinated drinks per day.

Remember, every mother and every baby is different. If you aren't sure if your baby is eating enough, or if you notice your baby is extra fussy after eating or drinking something specific, consult with your doctor or connect with one of our providers here.

Learn more about Swedish pediatrics and sign up for one of our childbirth and new parent classes. For quick pregnancy and parenting answers, ongoing education, a handy symptom checker, breastfeeding support videos and more, download the Circle by Swedish app.

Subscribe to the Swedish blog and get our best health articles delivered straight to your inbox.

Recommended for you:

Breast pumping tips for traveling moms »
Having problems with breastfeeding? Here are some ways to make it better »
During pregnancy, get by with a little help from your friends »

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.