The great chocolate dilemma
I remember it so well: I was pregnant with my first child and attending an antenatal class, where we were being told very seriously that chocolate is an absolute no-no while breastfeeding. I was devastated: with me, chocolate is a habit bordering on an addiction! But I was determined to breastfeed, so I decided I would just have to be strong.
I actually managed to go without my daily chocolate fix for about a month (I still don’t know how I did it!), but the festive season came and everyone was having Quality Street. The temptation was just too great. “Surely one small chocolate can’t hurt,” I told myself – but needless to say the one turned into six. And then that night – nothing. Not a cramp, not a burp, not a squeak from my baby. He was just as happy as always. I was flabbergasted – and delighted!
Fast forward 3 years to baby number two (a few weeks old at the time): I’m at a party of some sort and helping myself to an enormous slice of the most delectable chocolate cake on earth. A kindly lady looks at me with concern and says “isn’t that going to make your baby awfully sick?” Well, as it turns out, no. Because I had learned an important lesson: don’t cut out anything from your diet unless you have a really good reason to do so.
These are all pieces of advice that I’ve heard regarding what you should eat while you are breastfeeding:
- Drink lots of tea, it helps you make more milk
- Don’t drink tea, the caffeine will give your baby cramps
- Drink ginger beer, it will help you make milk
- Don’t drink fizzy cold drinks, it will give your baby wind
- Don’t drink any sugar-containing cold drinks, it will make your baby hyperactive
- Don’t eat any spices, it will give your baby stomach aches
- Take fenugreek (a spice!) to help increase breast milk production
- Don’t eat garlic, it will give baby cramps
- If you eat garlic, baby will drink more breast milk (this one was actually proven by research!)
Just that short list leaves me feeling very confused – what one person says is good for me, another person says I must avoid! But things get even worse if you start to list everything you’re supposedly not allowed to eat: onions, garlic, spices, tomatoes, green peppers, cabbage, half the vegetables you can think of, dairy, gluten, pepper, sugar, tea, coffee, juice… the list is endless! We’ll all end up living off apples and water. Oh, no, wait; apples give some people gas – better avoid them too!
Fortunately, the truth about diet and breastfeeding is not nearly as extreme, and you can ignore pretty much all the well-intentioned advice about what not to eat. The list of things to avoid while breastfeeding is, in reality, very short. And that is because your body is very good at controlling what goes into breast milk.
The first thing we need to remember is that breast milk is made from your blood, not from your stomach contents. There is no pipe connecting your stomach to your breast. So only things that can get absorbed into your blood (e.g. medications, alcohol and caffeine) can even get into your breastmilk. And just because something can get into your breast milk, it doesn’t mean it’s going to cause a problem.
Let’s look at a few of the foods we are most often told to avoid:
Onions, garlic, cabbage, beans, green peppers… everyone has a few items that they will add to this particular list. And if you eat these foods, they certainly can cause gas, but they do not cause your breast milk to become gas-forming.
Gas-forming vegetables cause flatulence because of certain fibres that they contain. These fibres are not absorbed into your body; they go to your colon where they are fermented by your gut bacteria –that’s what causes the gas to form. This gas is not absorbed into your blood – so neither the gas nor the fibres that cause the gas can actually get to your breast milk! What does get absorbed is the sulphur compounds in these vegetables (sulphur compounds is what gives these veggies their strong taste and smell). The good news is that these sulphur compounds are actually very good for your health. The bad news is that they can make your breast milk smell funny, and they can make your baby’s farts smell really stinky. That’s it. So feel free to go ahead and eat whatever vegetables take your fancy.
As an interesting fact, one research study seems to show that babies like the taste of garlic-flavoured breastmilk: after moms ate a lot of garlic, it was found that their babies suckled more vigorously and took in more milk!
I’ve heard so many people say that if you eat a lot of sugar, your breast milk will be higher in sugar, and they blame this for everything from sleepless nights to colic. In fact, your breast milk pretty much always contains the same amount of sugar, in the form of lactose: around seven grams per 100ml. The amount of sugar in breast milk is very tightly controlled by the body, regardless of how much or how little sugar you are eating.
Caffeine is absorbed into the blood, so yes, it can definitely get into the breast milk and into the baby. And yes, some babies do not react well to caffeine. So it is worth having a closer look at caffeine.
Caffeine is a chemical compound that is naturally found in coffee, cola drinks (Coke, Pepsi and the like), tea (green and black tea, but not rooibos tea) and chocolate. Most energy drinks are also very high in caffeine (I’m talking about things like Red Bull, not sports drinks). When you drink caffeine, it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and after hanging around for a while, it is broken down by the liver and excreted. In very young babies, the liver is not able to break down the caffeine effectively, so it stays in their system for a longer time. Caffeine can make babies quite irritable; it can cause them to cry more and not settle, which can be very difficult for the adult looking after them!
Does that mean you can’t have another cappuccino until baby is weaned? Not at all! As babies grow, the liver gets much more adept at metabolizing caffeine. From about a month old, most babies don’t even notice if you have a cup of tea or coffee. In fact, some babies tolerate it even from birth. There’s only one way to know: try it and see. Start with a small dose – a small chocolate, say, or half a cup of weak tea or coffee. If baby doesn’t react badly, try a bit more next time. And if baby does get irritable from it, just wait a week or two and try again. In the meantime, there’s always decaf.
Let’s just make something clear: eating chillies will not cause you breastmilk to burn like Tabasco sauce! What spices can do is flavour your breast milk – and that’s not a bad thing at all. If your family likes to eat heavily spiced foods, those traces of their flavours in your breast milk makes it more likely that your baby will enjoy the same foods once he starts eating. Many cultures base their diets around heavily spiced foods, and they find it thoroughly strange that we think spices should be avoided during breastfeeding.
Cow’s milk and gluten
These are two proteins that can cause problems in babies who are intolerant to them. They key thing to realise is that most babies aren’t intolerant. Don’t cut these out unless you have a good reason to do so (as I explain below)
So, is it ever necessary to avoid something?
Babies are individuals, and just like adults, some babies simply do not tolerate some foods. But there’s no way to predict how a certain food will affect a specific baby: you just have to eat it and see. You can assume your baby is sensitive to a certain food if it follows this pattern:
- Whenever you eat the offending food, your baby has some unpleasant symptoms – cramps, colic, phlegm on the chest, eczema or whatever. (Sometimes, with food allergies, the reaction only comes later, so it may be difficult to pin it on a specific food)
- When you stop eating the offending food, the symptoms disappear. The problems may stop immediately, or decrease gradually over a number of weeks.
- After not eating the food for a while, if you eat it again, the symptoms return. This is a step that a lot of people leave out, but it is an important one. It is always possible that the problem resolved because the baby grew out of it (this is especially true of stomach problems), and the food actually had nothing to do with it. So try it again and see – there’s no point in needlessly depriving yourself of something you enjoy!
If you go through this 3-step process for a certain food, and your baby still reacts badly, then and only then do you need to avoid that particular food. And allergies are often outgrown over time, so try your offending food again every few months and see if it is still a problem.
A balanced breastfeeding diet
That just leaves one question: what do you actually have to eat while you breastfeed? Pretty much what you would usually eat. If your diet was balanced enough to sustain a healthy pregnancy, it will be just fine for breastfeeding. There’s no need to worry about the precise nutritional content of your breast milk: your body is very good at making sure your baby will get what he needs. In fact, if your diet is deficient in any nutrient, your body will take it from your own stores to make sure that your breast milk stays perfect. For that reason, it is a good idea to carry on with a multivitamin like the one you used during pregnancy, to ensure that your body’s own stores don’t get depleted. And it is common sense to eat lots of healthful, natural foods; a diet of junk food will not give you the energy you need to raise a child. But as long as you include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, protein and whole grains, you can’t go wrong. And that leaves room for my chocolate 😉