Have you been craving the foods that were off-limits while you were pregnant? Are they safe for you to eat now, or are there foods to avoid while breastfeeding?
Let’s take a look at some of the myths and facts about what you can and can’t eat when you’re breastfeeding.
Foods To Avoid While Breastfeeding
For the last nine months, you have been a paragon of virtue and avoided all the foods you were advised to. No visits to the sushi bar, no alcohol, no store-bought salads, pate, or soft cheese. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
There were so many things you had to steer clear of while your baby was growing inside you. However, now that your little bundle of joy is here, are the rules the same?
You will be pleased to hear they aren’t. There are nowhere near as many restrictions on what you can and can’t eat when breastfeeding, despite what your mother-in-law or friends might tell you.
While they mean well, there are as many myths surrounding what you should eat when breastfeeding as there are when you’re pregnant.
Very little of what you eat passes through your breast milk to your baby. Although, it can affect the smell and taste of the milk, and your cherub might not like it.
However, let’s look at the shortlist of foods you should avoid, and the reasons why you need to do so.
1. Mercury-Laden Fish
Fish is an essential part of a healthy diet and should be included in your meal plans. That said, you do need to be careful which fish you choose.
Unfortunately, we aren’t always kind to the planet we live on. Over time, chemicals have found their way into the oceans and waterways, and these can be found in some fish. The one chemical, in particular, that is of concern is methylmercury.
The rule of the sea decrees that the plankton feed the small fish, which feed the bigger fish, and finally the huge fish. The larger the fish, the more mercury they are likely to have accumulated (1).
Mercury can pass through your breastmilk to your baby. It can affect the development of baby’s nervous system and brain. Fish to avoid include swordfish, shark, and king mackerel (2). Albacore tuna and tilefish can be enjoyed in moderation – 6 ounces or less per week.
Better Fish To Choose
You will also be pleased to know that many of the fish that were banned while you were pregnant are now back on the menu. This handy chart from the FDA gives you some guidance on which fish you can eat (3).
What about sushi? The risks of bacterial contamination – which is why sushi was to be avoided in pregnancy – are less when breastfeeding. Choose reputable sources for premade sushi, and be sure high-quality fish is used.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
2. Caffeine and Herbal Drinks
For the coffee addicts out there, you will be pleased to know you can still have your daily fix, but in moderation. Basically, you’ll have the same restrictions as those for moms-to-be, about two to three cups a day, up to 200 milligrams.
A small amount of caffeine can pass to baby in your milk and they might not tolerate it well. It is, after all, a stimulant and might make baby alert, active, or fussy.
Remember it’s not just coffee that contains caffeine. Other drinks like hot chocolate, sodas, energy drinks, as well as some medications, contain caffeine. Then there are others, like herbal supplements, which have guarana or kola nut, that are to be avoided.
What about herbal teas? Again, while many are fine, there are some you should steer clear of. These include dong quai and teas that act as herbal laxatives.
It might be worth timing your caffeinated drink to have after you finish a breastfeeding session. That way, after a few hours, when you are ready to breastfeed again, the caffeine in your system will be less.
You might think we are about to tell you that glass of wine you have been looking forward to for nine months is off the list. Don’t worry, it’s not. While we are not encouraging you to drink, the occasional intake of alcohol in moderation is okay.
The keywords here are “occasional” and “moderation.” Just so you know, alcohol clears from your breast milk at the same rate it does from your blood. It takes one hour for one unit of alcohol to disperse from your system (5).
For this reason, to avoid passing any alcohol to your baby, wait for about two hours after that glass of wine (which is about two units) before breastfeeding. Alcohol can interfere with the letdown of milk, too, and your baby might receive less milk when you’ve had an alcoholic drink (6).
Interestingly, in the past, new moms were encouraged to drink Guinness, a dark beer, to encourage milk production. Research has shown there is some substance to this, in that a polysaccharide in the hops can help produce prolactin. This hormone is necessary for the production of breast milk.
Just the same, alcohol-free beer can have the same effect. This might be a better choice if you want to have a drink (7).
Dispelling Some Myths
We earlier mentioned all the advice you might be given by well-meaning friends. Let’s look at these myths in more detail.
The myth is that eating peanuts can lead to your baby developing an allergy. Recent studies, however, indicate this is not likely to be the case and it can, in fact, help prevent allergies. So unless you have a peanut allergy, go ahead and have that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
One study carried out by Boston Children’s hospital showed that breastfed mice obtained important allergy-preventing antibodies from their moms, who were exposed to allergens (8).
This also seems to be the case in humans. Babies whose moms eat peanuts while breastfeeding might have a lower chance of developing an allergy later in childhood (9).
Now there are some caveats here concerning moms who have an allergy already. Just because it’s for baby, it might not be for you. If you have a peanut allergy, you should not eat them.
Keep a close eye on your baby for any adverse reactions after you have eaten peanuts and then breastfed your baby. Things to look out for include fussing, rashes, congestion, excessive crying, or diarrhea. If you see these signs, seek medical advice straight away.
Another thing to take into account is a family history of peanut allergies, whether it’s a sibling or another family member. There is a possibility that baby may have this allergy as well. In this case, it’s more advisable to avoid them.
You can ask your pediatrician to test for these allergies in your baby to be on the safe side.
Guidelines from the National Institute of Health suggest we start introducing foods containing peanuts to a baby’s diet between 4 and 6 months old (10).
2. Gas-Producing Foods
Okay ladies, while we don’t like to admit it, we all get gassy sometimes. My partner would like to ban me from eating Brussels sprouts, but I love them. Unfortunately, they are guaranteed to produce gas every time I eat them.
So how does eating gassy foods affect your baby? In a nutshell, it doesn’t — it’s one of those old wives’ tales.
Fibrous veggies, like cabbage and broccoli, might make mom gassy, but it’s unlikely to be the cause of gassiness in your little one. Eating fiber-rich foods is good for our digestive health. It helps in maintaining a healthy weight, keeping our bowels moving, lowering cholesterol and blood sugars (11).
Leafy green vegetables are also good for the overall health of our gut. They help look after the good bacteria and keep the bad bacteria at bay (12).
If your baby is gassy, this is more than likely a result of their own digestive system working properly. Breast milk provides baby with good bacteria to help them maintain general good health. It also helps them develop good gut health (13).
3. Spices and Garlic
Spice up your life, in a culinary way! Eating foods enhanced with spices or garlic is fine and shouldn’t upset your baby. He or she will already be used to the flavors of the foods you eat and might appreciate the varied tastes in your breast milk.
If you notice your baby is particularly fussy after you’ve eaten something like a Madras curry, then swap for a korma in future. They’re a bit like us — some foods we like and others we don’t.
4. Cow’s Milk
Many of the dairy products you weren’t allowed during pregnancy are now fair game again. Some schools of thought veer toward cow’s milk and dairy products causing a milk allergy in babies.
Once again, unless you have this allergy or have a family history of it, then it’s unlikely to affect your little one. The one thing that restricting dairy products might benefit is the severity of eczema in a baby. Even then, it’s felt that further investigation is needed.
So go ahead, eat cheese, drink milk and know that your breast milk is all your baby needs. Allergies to cow’s milk protein are rare and your milk might even help prevent them (14).
Herbs you consume in food or in teas can get through to your breast milk. Unlike medications, these herbs are not regulated by the FDA. There are no guarantees about their purity, strength, or safety for your baby.
You would probably have to consume a huge amount for them to affect your baby, but let’s take a look at a few in particular.
Things like fennel and fenugreek have been used for many years to boost a mom’s milk supply. The effectiveness of these herbs are anecdotal to a degree and the effects on the baby are unknown (15). There are also supplements which can increase your milk supply.
A few herbs can reduce your milk supply, some of which could be used to help when weaning. Peppermint and sage are two of these, but you would need to consume a lot of them. It’s worth bearing this in mind if you use breath mints or eat peppermint candy.
Enjoy Your Food
There are a few foods to avoid while breastfeeding, but on the whole, your diet can return to what it was before you were pregnant. Following a well-balanced healthy diet will provide baby with lots of different flavors and give you the nutrition you need.
Let’s be real — the first month or so, your diet might not be the best in the world. You are likely to grab whatever is on hand to eat when you get the chance. It’s okay to have a bag of chips or a few cookies or even the cold slice of pizza leftover from last night’s takeaway.
Our body is an amazing machine and if your diet is less than perfect, your breast milk will still be a good quality for your baby. It will contain all the nutrients they need, gleaned from your own body stores and your diet (16).