Can Breastfeeding Moms Have it All?

One evening, Barbara Stratton of Baltimore, Md. enjoyed an extra-large helping of spicy hot buffalo wings, but her breastfeeding 5-month-old had a different opinion. That night, no one in the Stratton household slept. Something was bothering baby, and Stratton had a hunch she knew exactly what it was.

Tales circulate about what breastfeeding mothers can and can’t eat. Some women swear that certain foods cause their babies distress. Other moms worry that they won’t be able to enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner or relieve their cold symptoms for fear of harming their breastfed baby. But is there really any truth to this?

Broccoli and Burritos

Rumor has it that spicy foods and gassy vegetables ingested by mom can cause a breastfeeding infant to be very unhappy.

When Pam Weiss of Flint, Mich. decided to breastfeed, her mother-in-law warned that she’d have to watch everything she ate, and not for nutritional value. Instead, the elder Weiss said to avoid broccoli, green peppers, onions, Mexican foods and much more.

“I was scared to death,” says Weiss. “I spent the first few weeks worrying about everything I ate.” But a chat with a lactation consultant did not support her mother-in-law’s claims. As a result, Weiss relaxed her guard, and baby never did encounter a problem with the foods mom ate.

Looking at Weiss’ case, it would seem that the food mom eats does not have an impact on the breastfeeding baby. According to Pat Dwiggins, a nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in Pensacola, Fla., “Most babies and mothers do well with most foods.” But there’s ambiguity in that statement, and enough room to validate the experiences of women like Stratton.

While relatively uncommon, it is possible for a baby to have a sensitivity to something in the mother’s diet. For example, common allergens — such as dairy products, corn, wheat or eggs — may upset your baby. If there is a family history of food allergies, you should consider a food in your diet as a possible source of fussiness, gassiness or even chronic ear infections. You may want to try an elimination diet to see if the problem goes away when you temporarily remove the offending food from your diet. As a rule, if you think your baby reacts to a food in your breastmilk, talk with a lactation consultant or medical professional about removing the food from your diet.

Coffee and Chocolate

Aside from spicy buffalo wings, Stratton suspects that her son might also have trouble with the occasional afternoon cup of coffee or chocolate binge. When the food or drink contains caffeine, the speculation can quickly turn to fact. Fortunately, moms who can’t function without their morning cup of coffee need not worry.

“Only limited amounts [of caffeine] are excreted into breastmilk,” says Dwiggins. “Generally, one or two servings a day are OK.” But because some babies are more sensitive than other babies, she cautions mothers to keep an eye out, watching for irritability and wakefulness. Also, it can take young babies longer to process substances such as caffeine through their livers, so the amount of caffeine a mother drinks over the course of a few days should be considered.

Coladas and Coolers

Of course, every woman knows that alcohol during pregnancy is a no-no, but what about during breastfeeding?

“I drank an occasional glass of wine with our pediatrician’s OK,” says Michelle Alcido, of Houston, Tex. “She actually suggested it for times when I had a hard time sleeping, but no more than one glass.”

Moderation is the key, Dwiggins says. And to be on the safe side, she suggests avoiding breastfeeding during and for two to three hours after the drink of alcohol. Most importantly, she points out that drinking large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis can inhibit let-down and even deplete milk supply, not to mention affect baby’s development.

Tinctures and Tonics

Breastfeeding is best for baby and mother. But no matter how relaxing and no matter what the health benefits are, mom is bound to get headaches and colds.

The good news is that breastfeeding moms don’t have to tough it out. “Most medications are safe for use with breastfeeding women,” says Dwiggins. Only one percent of most drugs actually get into your milk. When you’re standing at the drugstore trying to decide which over-the-counter remedies to buy, one way you can determine if a drug may be safe is by looking at the medicines available for children of the same age you are nursing.

For example, you will find ibuprofen for adults and infants, so this is likely to be safe. However, you won’t find antihistamines labeled for use in young children, so you would want to check with a healthcare professional before taking them. (However, it’s always best to check with a healthcare professional before taking any medications when nursing, especially if your baby is very young, premature or is having nursing problems.)

Dwiggins adds that contact with a doctor or lactation consultant should be made to verify the safety of individual medicines. Keep in mind that many doctors do not know which drugs are compatible for nursing, so get a second opinion from a lactation consultant or La Leche League Leader if you don’t like what your doctor tells you. They should have a copy of Dr. Hale’s Medications and Mother’s Milk, the most comprehensive source for information on the relationship between drugs and nursing available.

Then, there’s vitamins and herbs. Many women take multiple vitamins, and a daily dose of herbs is become more and more popular. Is it safe to continue these practices while breastfeeding?

Vitamins are fine to take, but there might not be any reason to do so, says Dwiggins. Most women can meet their daily requirements of vitamins and minerals by eating a balanced diet. If a women does decide to take a multi-vitamin, there are those specially formulated for nursing moms. It is also possible to continue taking prenatal vitamins for the duration of breastfeeding.

And herbs? Dwiggins admits that herbs can be beneficial to a breastfeeding mom. In fact, some women, like Yvette De Luca of Arizona, use herbs to increase their milk supply. Despite the benefits, Dwiggins warns that caution is necessary, as some herbs can be toxic. Before anything is taken, a woman should do extensive research or ask the opinion of an expert in lactation or herbal medicine.

Cigars and Cigarettes

While many things can be termed unhealthy, few have had the same intensely negative publicity that smoking recently has. The habit is bad for the smoker’s health and the health of those around them. Still, many moms think the occasional cigarette on the back porch is the next best thing to quitting.

The truth is, the nicotine ingested by a nursing mom is present in her breastmilk. It can decrease milk supply and the lessen the fat content of her breastmilk, thereby affecting baby’s weight gain, says Dwiggins. Of course, the best action is to quit. But until that day comes, Dwiggins suggests not smoking during feedings and waiting for as long as possible after having a cigarette to breastfeed.

When it comes to the relationship between foods, drinks and remedies and nursing, the bottom line is: “You do not have to eat perfectly in order to breastfeed,” says Dwiggins. “Only in the most severe cases of malnutrition will mother’s milk supply be affected. It is more important that [mom] eats right for herself. Breastfeeding doesn’t have a lot of rules and is very doable.”

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