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Question: Does my diet really affect
the quality or quantity of my breast milk? When I am stressed, I tend
not to eat and I wonder if my son is getting enough. I also feel like I
don’t eat a balanced enough diet and I am wondering whether he is getting
the nutrition he needs. Should I supplement him, and with what?
Answer: Let’s start here: Your breast milk will always be the best food
for your baby. Throughout human history, mothers have nourished their
infants while eating vastly restricted diets and those infants have thrived.
If a woman is sufficiently nourished to carry a pregnancy to term, her diet
ought to be adequate to provide nutrition for that infant (or it’s a very
foolish evolutionary bet). Babies are built not only to survive on their
mother’s breast milk, but to thrive.
So, will you make enough breast milk? Yes, as long as your baby will drink
milk at the breast, your body will make it, even if you’re consuming a
restricted diet with too few calories. The important factor is to give your
baby access to the breast as often as he needs it, which can be tricky when
you are feeling stressed or busy. Being aware of your stress levels is the
key to be able to compensate for them.
Macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fats) are affected very little by
the mother’s intake. Your breast milk will contain enough calories and the
right proportion of fats, protein, and carbohydrate to grow your baby to
just the size he is supposed to be.
The type of fats in your breast milk are affected by the types of fats you
eat, but regardless of how much fat you eat, the amount of fat in your milk
stays the same. Your baby will get the calories he needs in the form that
his body can most easily turn them into growth. If your diet is heavy in
highly-processed fats, the greater consideration than the type of fat in
your breast milk is whether those highly- processed foods are allowing your
body to be as effective as it can be.
Some micro-nutrients are affected by maternal deficiency, but generally
speaking, breast milk levels stay within healthy ranges except in cases of
Iron, calcium, zinc, copper, folic acid: Deficiency in mothers does not
affect levels in breast milk. For iron, in particular, it’s worth pointing
out that deficiency during pregnancy can lower stores in the baby, as can
prematurity and early cord clamping – your breast milk will be unaffected,
but your baby may need extra iron earlier. Talk to your health care provider
Vitamins A, C and E: Breast milk levels are affected somewhat by maternal
intake, but severe deficiency would be signaled first by illness in mothers.
Excess intake of water soluble vitamins will not raise levels beyond a
certain point, but over-supplementation of fat- soluble vitamins can be
toxic to both of you.
Vitamin B1, B2, B6, B12: B vitamin levels are related to your intake, but
like other vitamins, severe deficiency is very rare. B12 is a special case
for mothers following a vegan diet or who have chronically low levels due to
other conditions. Severe deficiency can cause acute symptoms in infants and
should be addressed in pregnancy in order to allow levels to rise. See your
health care provider and ask for levels to be tested while you are pregnant.
Vitamin D: This is probably the trickiest one for mothers, regardless of
diet, because vitamin D is not meant to be absorbed primarily through diet.
We are learning more about the connection between non-acute vitamin D
deficiency and health problems, while at the same time, the amount and
quality of sunlight that most families receive is declining. Here are two
Supplement the baby: Supplement with single-drop supplements. (Some sources
recommend 400IU daily; your health care provider may suggest a 1000IU or
more.) Place a drop directly on your finger or nipple and let the baby lick
it. Avoid supplements that contain unnecessary colors, flavors, and other
additives – babies often object strongly to them (smart kids!) and even 5ml
can be a struggle to get into a baby.
Supplement the mom: Assuming that your
vitamin D levels in pregnancy are adequate, current research suggests that
supplementing yourself with about 6000IU daily will raise vitamin D levels
in breast milk to adequate levels. If this is the approach you prefer, have
a blood test done to ensure that your own levels are adequate.
Does this all mean that diet doesn’t matter? If you are
choosing between breast milk and any other alternative, even breast milk is
the better choice regardless of your diet. There’s no alternative that would
If your diet is unhealthy, the risk to your baby is not
primarily the quality of your breast milk, but that his mom is not feeling
at her best to enjoy and care for him. The baby of a mom who is feeling
unwell needs her breast milk even more to make up for other things she may
not be able to do for him.
An unhealthy diet often means an unhealthy gut, which is
irritated and lacking in the healthy bacteria it needs to function
optimally. The health of your gut is tied very closely to the health of your
baby’s gut, which has lifelong implications. The better the health of your
gut is, the more effectively you are digesting all the food you take in and
the fewer irritating proteins you pass through your bloodstream to your
breast milk. Your baby benefits from the greater availability of nutrients,
less irritation in his gut, and a variety of components that support the
normal development of his digestive system.
Research into how the health of the gut affects the immune
system, as well as the functioning of the brain, is exploding and providing
fascinating insights to how what we eat provides so much more than simple
fuel. The baby whose gut is kept healthy today will go on to keep her own
baby’s gut healthy in the next generation (and that baby is more likely to
have a vibrant grandma to play with too!).
We pass on more than nutrition and a healthy gut through
breastfeeding. What you eat as a breastfeeding mother is communicated
through the changing taste of your breast milk each and every day – this is
how babies learn what foods we eat in our family. Very often parents will
share with me that their diet has improved because of their baby. They are
committed to a healthy diet for their children; their family table is
healthier too. It’s one of the little understood benefits of breastfeeding:
When you begin by choosing the best food for your baby, you tend to
I urge you to give yourself the same consideration that
you’ve given to your baby and focus on feeding yourself too. Everyone will
be the better for it.
Michelle Branco is an International Board Certified
Lactation Consultant in private practice, a La Leche League Leader, and
mother to Isabelle and Thomas, both breastfed. She provides evidence-based
breastfeeding care to mothers at Latch Lactation through phone, email, and
in-person consultations (
). Email your questions for future columns to
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