Good for You, Good for Baby: Vitamin C and Breastfeeding


Are you breastfeeding your new arrival? You might be wondering whether the vitamins you’re eating or supplementing with are good for your baby. Let’s take a look at one of them, vitamin C, and its impact on breastfeeding.

When I was pregnant, one of my cravings was for satsumas, a tangerine-type citrus fruit. I would devour them by the pound.

The local store got used to my husband going there every few days and buying them by the box. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my baby was born orange.

As a good source of vitamin C, this was a supplement I didn’t need to worry about, and the cravings soon passed. I was curious, though, how it would have affected my baby during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of vitamin C and how much we should have in our diets when breastfeeding.

Vitamin C for You and Baby

Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, is found naturally in many food sources. It is what we call an antioxidant. It helps protect the body from free radicals, such as ultraviolet rays from the sun and environmental pollutants (1).

This vitamin also has other protective functions in our body, which include:

  • Wound healing: Vitamin C can improve the healing of wounds and reduce inflammation. It helps stop excessive scarring (2).
  • Promotes healthy skin: It plays a role in many ways where our skin is concerned. Vitamin C is involved in the prevention of wrinkles and sagging skin, dryness and roughness, and dark spots or aging from sun exposure (3).
  • Treats and protects against infection: Vitamin C can help protect our bodies against infection from bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. This includes illnesses such as pneumonia, the common cold, malaria, and amoebic dysentery (4).
  • Helps the body absorb iron: Our body needs iron for red blood cell production. Vitamin C helps us absorb it from the foods we eat (5).
  • Other diseases: The potentially beneficial effects of vitamin C on cancer and cardiovascular diseases have been discussed for years. Research is still underway to find out what role this vitamin plays (6).

The vitamin C in breast milk can help pass these benefits on to your baby.

How the Body Gets Vitamin C

Our bodies cannot make this vitamin, so we rely on obtaining it from food sources or supplements.

Good sources of vitamin C are fruits and green vegetables. Fruits high in this vitamin include oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes. For vegetables, eat things like broccoli, green and red peppers, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and green peas.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for babies up to six months old is 40 milligrams per day. This rises to 50 milligrams up to a year old. Then it drops back to 15 milligrams up to three years old.

For pregnant women, the RDA is 85 milligrams, and for a breastfeeding mom 120 milligrams. If you are a young mom aged 18 years old or less, then the RDA is 80 milligrams when pregnant and 115 milligrams when breastfeeding (7).

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Impact of Not Enough Vitamin C

You may have heard of scurvy, the scourge of sailors in the 18th century. Sir James Lind, a Scottish doctor serving with the British Navy, experimented and found that eating lemons and oranges could cure scurvy (8).

It wasn’t until the 20th century that ascorbic acid was recognized as the active component in these fruits that prevented or cured this disease. In fact, this discovery won Hungarian Albert Szent-Gyorgyi a Nobel Prize (9).

Vitamin C deficiency that’s bad enough to cause scurvy in developed countries is rare, but can still occur. About 7.3 percent of people in the U.S. and around 73.9 percent in Northern India have deficiencies below acceptable levels (10).

Vitamin C deficiency can still arise if your diet is limited. Scurvy in infants is rare, though, as both breast milk and formula contain vitamin C.

Vitamin C in Breast Milk

Most moms who follow a balanced diet will have the right amount of vitamin C in their breast milk for their baby. The sort of foods breastfeeding mothers should be eating include plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as starchy foods, dairy, and protein (11).

While you can take vitamin supplements during pregnancy, one study has shown that they do not increase the amount of vitamin C in breast milk. It’s diet alone that can achieve this (12).

It’s also thought that if you do take vitamin C supplements above the RDA, your body will regulate how much vitamin C passes into your breast milk (13).

It will make a difference, however, if you’re deficient in vitamin C due to poor nourishment. Taking supplements in these circumstances can double or triple the amount in breast milk (14).

Impact of Smoking on Vitamin C Levels

Another element that affects the absorption of vitamin C is smoking. This can cause lower levels of vitamin C in your breast milk (15).

It has also been shown that babies of moms who smoke have lower levels of this antioxidant vitamin (16).

The recommendation for people who smoke is to add 35 milligrams of vitamin C per day (17).

Too Much Vitamin C When Breastfeeding?

The upper limit for vitamin C is 2,000 milligrams per day. With most of your supply coming from your diet, it’s unlikely you will have too much. However, if you decided to take supplements in high doses, then you could.

As far as you’re concerned, too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea, vomiting, heartburn, stomach cramps, and headaches (18).

When it comes to the effects on your baby, it is thought too much vitamin C during pregnancy can cause scurvy in a newborn. This is because the liver processes it too quickly, eliminating it from the body. Likewise, not enough can also adversely affect the health of your unborn baby (19).

We have, however, already mentioned that our body regulates how much vitamin C is passed to the baby in milk when breastfeeding.

If you plan to take higher than recommended doses of vitamin C for any reason, discuss it with your health professional first.

Does Vitamin C Prevent Mastitis?

Mastitis happens when tissue in the breast becomes inflamed and painful. Left untreated, it can lead to an abscess on the breast (20).

Antioxidants, including vitamin C, are given to cows that have low levels and are lactating, to treat and prevent mastitis (21).

As mastitis can involve infection, it’s possible that vitamin C might help, as it is effective in fighting staph infections (22).

Some moms have anecdotally reported taking vitamin C for mastitis, but there is no conclusive evidence that it works (23).

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Prevention of Allergic Diseases

Are you a mom who has eczema or asthma and are concerned you might pass this on to your baby? One study has shown that a diet rich in vitamin C can help reduce the risk of passing these allergic diseases on (24).

This same study showed that moms who are sensitive to certain foods and avoid them are more likely to have babies with low vitamin C levels.

Vitamin C Levels in Expressed Milk

Many moms pump their milk and store it in a refrigerator or freezer. It’s handy to have when you aren’t physically available to breastfeed your little one, or when dad wants to feed the baby. But what happens to the levels of vitamin C in expressed milk?

They decrease by about one third when stored in a refrigerator for 24 hours or two-thirds when frozen for more than one month (25).

For this reason, to give your baby the benefits of vitamin C in stored breast milk, use it within one day from the fridge and one month from the freezer.

Time to Eat Your Fruit and Veg

Vitamin C plays an important role in our bodies. It helps protect us from infection and inflammation as well as improving our skin and healing ability. It also helps us absorb iron from our food.

The best sources of vitamin C are in the foods which we eat, such as fruits and green vegetables. When you’re breastfeeding, a healthy diet will make sure your baby gets the right amount of this vitamin as well. While you can take supplements, your body will still regulate the amount passed on to the baby through your milk.

If you have any doubts about whether you are getting enough, or too much, vitamin C, speak to your health care provider.

We hope you enjoyed our guide and found it informative and useful. Please leave us a comment with your thoughts or experiences. Don’t forget to share with other moms so they can benefit as well.

Headshot of Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Reviewed by

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC is a writer, editor, and board-certified lactation consultant for two busy pediatric practices. She is a former La Leche League Leader, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and Certified Infant Massage Instructor.
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