If there’s one subject rich in folklore, it’s foods to avoid when breastfeeding!
If your baby is unsettled, colicky, hard to get to sleep, wakes up a lot, cries inconsolably, or is simply hard to live with, you may hear that it could be ‘from something you ate’.
The list of suggested offending foods is surprisingly long – enough so you may worry over every mouthful you eat!
The good news is that the vast majority of breastfeeding women find they can enjoy their usual diet without having problems with their babies.
However, persisting folklore on this topic indicates that there is at least a germ of truth to the idea that something a mother eats or drinks can cause trouble for her breastfed baby.
Folklore list of foods to avoid when breastfeeding:
- Brussels sprouts
- Beans of any kind
- Herbs and spices
- Chocolate / cocoa
- Citrus fruit
- Stone fruit
- Dried fruit
- Fizzy drinks
So it is likely that some breastfed babies have had unhappy periods after their mothers have eaten some of these foods (above) – or other foods that are not on the list. A problem food can be unique to just that baby.
Over the years, mothers’ stories have certainly confirmed to me that many of the items on the folklore list cause their share of trouble for someone!
How soon after I eat something can my baby react to it?
When this happens, the timing of your baby’s unhappiness is commonly quite some hours later.
If there is uproar by late afternoon, your breakfast may be the cause.
If you are walking the floor with your baby at 3am, the previous night’s meal may be to blame. However, women have reported obvious problems in their babies even within 4 hours of having a suspect food.
The timing of the trouble and the intensity of the baby’s symptoms depend on
- how sensitive the baby is to that food
- how much the mother had
- what else she had it with
For example, if it was part of a large meal containing plenty of fat (like a roast meal) her digestion is slowed and the baby may not have an obvious problem until say, 8-12 hours later.
Are we imagining there are foods to avoid when breastfeeding?
Some people feel that there is an overemphasis on avoiding particular foods for the sake of a breastfed baby – a bit like a fashion fad.
However, from my perspective of almost four decades in the breastfeeding field, I must regretfully say I am not alone in observing that these issues seem increasingly more common than they were in past generations. And mothers of affected babies are able to prove the problems are real through food exclusions:
Proving a particular food causes unwanted symptoms in a breastfed baby:
- Exclusion from mother’s diet results in loss of baby’s symptoms
- Inclusion in mother’s diet results in return of baby’s symptoms
The impact of either exclusion or inclusion of the suspect food gives reproducible results. That’s the scientific method!
What not to eat when breastfeeding
If your baby has trouble after you have a particular food or drink, it is most likely to be something that:
- you ‘binged’ on in pregnancy
- you dislike or don’t tolerate well yourself
- you are ‘addicted’ to and have a lot of
- is processed food
- is unusual in your diet
- is not part of your ancestral maternal diet
For example, if you increased your dairy intake when pregnant, if you feel congested after having cow milk, if you get hiccups after you have garlic, if you can’t imagine life without large amounts of daily fruit juice, if you like to have lots of packaged meal bases, if you’ve taken to eating quinoa every morning or you love coconut in any form (and you are not Polynesian!) – your baby may not be as happy as you would prefer her to be.
If your baby is frequently hard to live with and you feel it may relate to your diet – but can’t easily identify the causes – it can help to keep a food diary linked to the timing of difficult episodes and baby’s bowel motions (along with a description of them).
In a busy home with a baby, it can be hard to remember what happened an hour ago, let alone what you ate and drank last night!
What does the research say?
Two aspects are particularly highlighted in breastfeeding research:
- cow milk protein in mothers’ diets
- infant antibiotic exposure, whether given directly to the baby or indirectly from her mother through breast milk
Decades of research have identified cow milk products as the most common cause of infant colicky symptoms, via the mother’s diet or otherwise from infant formula.
If so, it is the protein – not the lactose – in cow milk products that causes the problems.
Surprisingly enough, popular folklore has not identified these foods as such, although my experience matches the research findings.
Antibiotics and breastfeeding
Gut symptoms and unhappy babies are also linked to antibiotics.
Along with increasing rates of Caesarean births, far more babies are now exposed to antibiotics as newborns.
The result is abnormal changes to the microbial ‘family’ in a baby’s gut. It leads to lower immune resilience, gut disruption and higher risks of allergy in these children.
Parents become aware that these babies can fart excessively, have frequent runny bowel motions and are obviously distressed.
Fortunately, probiotics suitable for babies are available and generous daily doses of these usually improve the situation quickly. The researchers’ advice is to continue giving a daily maintenance dose for at least a year.
What to eat when breastfeeding
Generally, most mothers are able to enjoy whatever they want to eat while breastfeeding. There are always some exceptions, however.
The best way to avoid problems is to
- have lots of variety in your diet
- avoid having excesses of anything
- minimise your intake of processed food and drink
‘Real food’ includes meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and fruit, along with some grains such as wheat. It contains minimal or no processed sugar or additives.
The side effects of a varied diet of ‘real food’ are great health and energy levels!
You are what you eat. Enjoy!