On Your Health

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Should You Avoid Certain Foods While Breastfeeding?

28 August 2020

The time you spend breastfeeding your baby is innately special. Breastfeeding allows you to form a closer bond with your child by providing them with warmth, comfort and security. It also provides countless benefits for your baby’s health and their ability to grow and develop. In fact, your breast milk is perfectly suited to provide your new baby with all of the nutrients, cells, hormones and disease-fighting antibodies he or she needs.  

Despite the countless benefits associated with breastfeeding, many new or soon-to-be moms are worried about how their diet may affect their breast milk and their baby. While it’s true that certain substances you eat, drink or ingest can be passed through your breast milk, this doesn’t mean you have to completely change your diet or give up your favorite foods after giving birth.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women generally do not need to avoid specific foods while breastfeeding. Above all else, it’s important that new moms eat a healthy and diverse diet that’s rich in nutrients. New moms are also encouraged to eat an additional 330 to 400 calories per day to supplement the energy and nutrition needed to properly produce breast milk.  

However, there are certain foods and drinks you should consume with caution as too much can cause problems or have a negative effect on your baby. In the end, it’s all about moderation. For some substances, such as tobacco and marijuana, avoidance is crucial while breastfeeding as they can be detrimental for your baby’s health and development.  

We’ll dive into certain foods and drinks that should be limited (or consumed with caution) while breastfeeding, as well as debunk a few myths that exist regarding things to avoid while breastfeeding. 

Consume with caution: alcohol

No amount of alcohol is safe for your baby to consume. Because alcohol passes through your breast milk to your baby, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) generally recommends mothers avoid drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.

If you do choose to drink, the AAP considers it safe to consume one alcoholic drink per day (equal to a 4-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer or 1 ounce of hard liquor). It’s best to consume alcohol after you finish breastfeeding or pumping, rather than before. The AAP also recommends that you wait at least two hours after consuming alcohol before your next nursing or pumping session to allow your body time to metabolize as much alcohol as possible.

“Pumping and dumping” (expressing or pumping breast milk after drinking alcohol, and then discarding it), will not reduce the amount of alcohol present in your breast milk. It will also not help you metabolize alcohol more quickly. This method removes the milk from your breasts, but your alcohol levels can still be high in your blood, meaning it can still be passed into newly produced breast milk.

Limit: caffeine

Less than 1% of the caffeine you consume is passed through your breast milk to your baby. This small quantity does not typically harm your baby if you limit your caffeine intake to just a couple of cups per day. The AAP recommends that you limit yourself to two to three cups of coffee, soda, energy drinks or tea per day (no more than 16 to 24 ounces total). 

Consuming large amounts of caffeinated beverages (more than five cups per day) can disrupt your baby’s sleep patterns or cause your baby to become irritable, fussy or jittery. If you notice any of these reactions from your baby after consuming caffeine, consider decreasing your intake or eliminating it from your diet temporarily. 

Limit: chocolate

Chocolate can have the same effects as caffeine when consumed in large quantities. Chocolate contains caffeine as well as a stimulant called theobromine, a substance found in the cocoa plant. This stimulant is more present in dark chocolate than milk chocolate and is absent from white chocolate. 

Again, it’s about moderation. Eating a few pieces of chocolate candy or indulging in a slice of chocolate cake is perfectly fine. Just limit your chocolate intake and don’t overdo it. 

Consume with caution: fish

Fish and other forms of seafood are a great source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B12, iron, and minerals such as selenium, zinc and iodine. However, most varieties of fish also contain mercury, which can cause damage to your baby’s nervous system in large quantities. 

When consumed in moderation, the mercury found in fish is only passed through breast milk in small amounts. To help limit the amount of mercury you consume and pass to your baby, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends limiting your weekly fish intake and avoiding fish that are known to be high in mercury. 

In general, the FDA recommends eating only two to three servings of low-mercury fish per week (one serving is equal to 4 ounces of raw fish) or eating one serving per week of fish with elevated levels of mercury, such as white/albacore tuna or mahi-mahi (dolphinfish). High-mercury fish that should be completely avoided while breastfeeding include king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish and bigeye tuna. View the FDA’s fish consumption guidelines for breastfeeding mothers here

If you’re eating fish caught by a friend or family member, check the fish advisories provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for known mercury levels in the area. Limit yourself to one serving of these fish per week while breastfeeding. 

Avoid: tobacco and marijuana 

Tobacco and marijuana products should be avoided while breastfeeding. The nicotine found in tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, can easily be passed through a mother’s bloodstream and into her breast milk. When ingested, nicotine can impact your baby’s sleep patterns. Nicotine has also been known to decrease milk supply by slowing the production of prolactin, a hormone that’s necessary for the production of breast milk.

Marijuana can also be passed to your baby via your breast milk. While the long-term effects of THC (the chemical found in marijuana) on infant brain development are still being studied, the AAP maintains that no amount of THC is safe for your baby to consume. 

Breastfeeding myths debunked 

There are plenty of myths surrounding foods that you should avoid while breastfeeding due to the supposed effects they can have on your baby. We dove into a few of the most common breastfeeding myths to see if they had any scientific backing. 

Myth: Peppermint, parsley and sage decrease milk production.

It’s a myth that peppermint, parsley and sage decrease breast milk supply when consumed in large quantities (e.g. as herbal supplements). There is no scientific evidence to prove that these three herbs affect milk production; however, it’s always best to consult your doctor before taking herbal supplements or using herbal products, such as herbal teas or essential oils. Herbs are not regulated by the FDA, meaning there is no guarantee of safety. 

In general, using common herbs and spices to flavor foods is perfectly safe for both you and your baby. When consumed in pill or tea form, however, some herbs can be very potent and enter your milk supply, and very little research has been done on how this affects nursing infants. View BabyCenter’s breast milk interactions chart for more information about herbs and breastfeeding. 

Myth: You should avoid spicy foods and garlic. 

It’s a myth that you should avoid strongly flavored foods, such as spicy foods or garlic, while breastfeeding. While it’s true that these flavor profiles can change the taste of your breast milk, many babies are not bothered by it. 

Your child’s tolerance for spicy flavors or garlic will depend on both cultural traditions and personal habits. If you regularly ate spicy foods and lots of garlic while pregnant, your baby will have already been exposed to them in your amniotic fluid (yes, babies do consume some amniotic fluid) and is more likely to be accustomed to those flavors after birth.

It can take anywhere from two to six hours for strong flavors to show up in your breast milk after you eat them. If you do notice that your baby is fussy, gassy or rejects the breast after you eat spicy foods or lots of garlic, consult your pediatrician. They may recommend that you try eliminating these foods from your diet for a few days to see if anything improves. 

Myth: You should avoid “gassy” foods while breastfeeding. 

It’s a myth that foods that can typically make mothers gassy, such as beans, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and onion, will also make your baby gassier after breastfeeding. Gas is a local reaction in your body that occurs in your gastrointestinal tract, so things that make you gassy won’t affect your baby’s digestive system. 

Foods that you consume and pass through your breast milk can only make your baby gassy if they have a specific sensitivity to them. 

Food allergies and sensitivities 

Speaking of food sensitivities, some babies may have an intolerance or allergy to certain foods. Whenever you eat something, molecules from those foods make their way through your breast milk and into your baby’s digestive system. If your baby is allergic or intolerant to what you ate, their digestive may become inflamed or an immune response may be trigged. It’s unlikely for your breast milk to trigger an allergic reaction in your baby, but it is still possible. 

While food allergies and sensitivities will vary from baby to baby, the most common foods that can trigger a negative response are cow’s milk (dairy), soy, gluten, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, shellfish and citrus. 

This doesn’t mean you should avoid these foods while breastfeeding from the start. Exposing your baby to different foods is the best way to learn about any food sensitivities they may have. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms, which may signal a food allergy or intolerance. 

  • Gas
  • Crying and colic
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody or mucousy tools
  • Rash
  • Eczema
  • Excessive sitting up or vomiting
  • Congestion, runny, nose, wheezing or coughing
  • Sleeping problems

If you notice any of these symptoms in your baby after breastfeeding, consult their pediatrician as soon as possible. If they suspect the problems are being caused by a food sensitivity, they may recommend you eliminate certain foods from your diet for two to three weeks to determine the culprit. The only way to treat food allergies or intolerances in babies is strictly avoiding the problem-causing food. 

For more information about breastfeeding or how your diet can affect your baby, contact an INTEGRIS pediatrician near you.