Eating a well-balanced diet containing various healthy foods is essential for optimal health across life phases. However, this importance amplifies multi-fold during the breastfeeding period. A breastfeeding mother’s diet nourishes her and her baby through breast milk. Research shows that though the breast milk composition is under the body’s strict regulation, the maternal nutritional status could affect it (1).
Therefore, it is good to stay informed about foods and beverages you should limit or avoid when breastfeeding. It ensures nothing harmful passes to your baby via breast milk. This post shares the foods you should limit or avoid when breastfeeding with tips to effectively remove these from the maternal diet.
Foods To Avoid Or Limit When Breastfeeding
Experts recommend avoiding alcohol during breastfeeding as it hampers the let-down reflex and milk production by altering milk-producing hormones (2). Also, it can disrupt the baby’s sleep, make them irritable, and cause long-term issues, such as impaired cognitive development (3). However, these concerns arise when a mother consumes a large quantity of alcohol frequently.
Experts recommend nursing mothers consume alcohol in moderation, i.e., no more than one standard drink a day (3). Consuming alcohol in moderation may not affect the infant, especially if a mother waits for at least two hours after a drink to breastfeed the baby.
Waiting for two hours after alcohol intake is crucial as 30 to 60 minutes after a drink, the alcohol level in the milk is at its peak, and it lingers in the milk for up to two to three hours. Although experts recommend one standard drink, you may wonder about its volume.
How much is one standard drink?
The measure for one standard drink varies from one country to another. For instance, in the US, one standard drink (or one alcoholic drink equivalent) is:
- 12oz. of regular beer
- 5oz. of wine
- 1.5oz. of distilled spirits
Try to keep the intake occasional and within the limit. A breastfeeding mother consuming large quantities of alcohol could expose her baby to long-term health issues, such as delayed motor development (4). Consuming alcohol without food increases alcohol’s effect on milk-producing hormones. Therefore, ensure you always consume alcohol with a food item.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant commonly found in tea, coffee, and chocolate. Sports drinks, soft drinks, flavored water, energy drinks, and certain medications are some other products that may also contain caffeine. A nursing mother who eats or drinks a food/product containing caffeine can immediately pass this stimulant to her baby via breast milk (5).
Consumption of high amounts of caffeine can keep a baby awake and make them restless. However, a moderate intake is unlikely to cause any adverse effects in a healthy, full-term infant (6). Experts recommend nursing mothers consume no more than two to three cups of coffee (200 to 300mg of caffeine) per day (7). However, this recommendation may vary in some countries.
For instance, the NHS recommends nursing mothers limit their caffeine intake to less than 200mg per day (8). So consult your healthcare provider to decide a safe intake quantity for you.
3. High-mercury fish
Infants require several nutrients, such as lean protein and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), for proper brain growth and development. Fish is a nutrient-rich food that can offer high-quality lean proteins and essential omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). However, several fishes, such as bigeye tuna, swordfish, and mackerel, have high levels of mercury (9).
When a mother consumes high-mercury fishes repeatedly, it harms her and her breastfeeding baby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mercury can affect an infant’s brain and nervous system development (10). Impaired nervous system development could lead to other issues, such as impaired motor skills and delay in speech development (11).
Therefore, experts advise lactating women to consume low-mercury fishes, such as canned tuna (skipjack), salmon, and sardine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises lactating mothers to eat eight to 12ounces (two to three servings) of low-mercury seafood per week (9).
4. Highly processed food
Eating a well-balanced diet containing various fresh, healthy foods is vital. However, several moms choose processed foods as they are conveniently available and are ready to eat. Highly processed foods, such as fries and donuts, are generally high in sodium, trans fats, sugar, and total calories.
Consuming highly processed foods exposes an individual to health risks such as obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular issues (12). Besides, it could alter breast milk’s quality, potentially affecting a breastfeeding infant’s health.
A recent study from the Keck School of Medicine of USC showed that fructose sugar found in processed foods could pass to babies via breast milk (13). Exposing a baby to excess sugar during infancy and early childhood may alter a baby’s food choices, exposing them to long-term health risks (14).
Herbs are aromatic plants that add flavor and aroma to a food. Besides, several of them are known to increase breast milk supply and treat certain breastfeeding problems, such as cracked nipples. Consuming herbs, especially as herbal supplements and teas, while breastfeeding requires caution due to the following reasons (15) (16).
- Herbs contain compounds that may have drug-like effects, passing into breast milk and affecting the baby.
- Clinical evidence corroborating several herbs’ safe and effective use in nursing mothers and infants is scarce.
- Herbal products may contain heavy metals and pesticides due to contamination.
Some herbs, such as arnica, seaweed, and St. John’s Wart, may adversely affect infants, and mothers should avoid them. A few other herbs that a mother should avoid due to their anti-lactogenic effects are peppermint, parsley, sage, jasmine, and chaste berry (17). If you wish to consume herbs during lactation, consult a lactation consultant or doctor first.
Below are some more foods that a nursing mother should avoid or limit.
6. Strongly flavored foods
Garlic and spices, such as chili, are strongly flavored foods that can enter breast milk and may alter its taste (18). Babies sensitive to these changes may display irritability, fussiness, and reluctance to breastfeed.
A mother whose breastfeeding baby finds intensely flavored food in her diet irritating should consult a pediatrician or lactation consultant and discuss eliminating the food from the diet. The same applies to gassy foods, such as cabbage, beans, and broccoli, which may cause gastrointestinal discomfort in sensitive infants (19).
7. Allergenic foods
Cow milk, fish, peanuts, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, and soy are common allergenic foods. If your infant is allergic to any of these foods, you should avoid them (and their products) from your nursing diet.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), two to three out of hundred exclusively breastfed infants show an allergic reaction to these foods, mostly cow’s milk, in the mother’s diet (19). In such instances, experts recommend eliminating milk and dairy products from the mother’s diet during the lactation phase.
How To Know If Your Diet Is Affecting Your Baby?
Avoiding alcohol, high-mercury fishes, and highly processed food, and limiting caffeine is the best choice for every breastfeeding mom. However, avoiding flavored, gassy, or allergenic foods depends on whether these foods are affecting your baby or not.
If a baby is sensitive to flavored or gassy foods, they are likely to exhibit the following signs and symptoms (20).
- Abdominal discomfort
- Gassiness, bloating, or colicky behavior
- Extreme fussiness and irritability
- Persistent crying
- Refusing to breastfeed
A baby with food sensitivity or food allergy is likely to show the following signs.
- Abdominal discomfort
- Excessive gas
- Fussiness and irritability
- Nausea or vomiting
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Red itchy spots on the skin (hives) or eczema
- Wheezing and coughing
- Nasal congestion
- Bloody stools
- Difficulty breathing
- Anaphylaxis – a rare and severe allergic reaction warranting immediate medical intervention
If you suspect that particular food in your diet is causing discomfort to your baby, consult your pediatrician or lactation consultant and eliminate that food from your diet for the time being.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet during breastfeeding is vital for the health of the mother and baby. It is best to avoid foods, such as alcohol, widely known to cause undesired effects on the mother and baby’s body. Certain foods, such as gassy foods, could also be a source of vital nutrients. Discuss with your doctor about their elimination, and do so if they seem to affect the baby adversely.
2. Alcohol; CDC
3. Drinking Alcohol and Breastfeeding; La Leche League International
4. Alcohol and breastfeeding; La Leche League GB
5. Caffeine; NCBI
6. Caffeine; La Leche League International
7. Maternal Diet; CDC
8. Breastfeeding and diet; NHS
9. Advice about Eating Fish; USFDA
10. Mercury; CDC
11. Mercury And The Developing Brain; Pew Trusts
12. The Many Health Risks of Processed Foods; Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America
13. From mother to baby: ‘Secondhand sugars’ can pass through breast milk; USC
14. Influence of Human Milk on Flavor and Food Preferences; FAO
15. Infant Nutrition and Feeding; USDA
16. Is it safe for breastfeeding women to take herbal medicines?; NHS
17. Anne Eglash;Treatment of Maternal Hypergalactia; NCBI
18. Breastfeeding and a Mother’s Diet: Myths and Facts; La Leche League GB
19. Infant Allergies and Food Sensitivities; AAP
20. Breastfeeding FAQs: Your Eating and Drinking Habits; Kids Health From Nemours
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