Stacelynn Caughlan, Cl.N, CH, RNCP
Scientists have discovered a source of liquid gold. For decades they have tried to dismantle, analyze and recreate this amazing substance-to no avail. The only known source is a mother's breast--and it's not giving up its secrets easily.
Scientists have discovered a source of liquid gold. For decades they have tried to dismantle, analyze and recreate this amazing substance to no avail. The only known source is a mother's breast-and it's not giving up its secrets easily.
Shortly after giving birth, chemical messages are sent throughout a woman's body, instructing it to produce food for her infant. The mechanisms involved are mind-boggling, as are the various benefits breastmilk provides. Through diet we can help ensure that mother's milk is in good supply and is of the highest possible quality.
Producing enough milk to feed a rapidly growing child can take a lot of energy about 500 calories each day. You find these calories in nutrient-dense foods, not high-sugar foods. Be sure that such food is readily available to you in the weeks postpartum, because you will be ravenous! Even with additional intake of food, you will likely see a reduction in your weight without giving it much thought. Rapid weight loss (more than two to four pounds per month after the first four weeks) may signal that you are not eating enough calories and you may have trouble producing enough milk to feed that equally hungry child.
The protein found in breastmilk is easily and quickly digested. It has the perfect amino acid profile for growth, unique to human milk. A diet low in protein may lead to a slow-down in recovery time, which may affect your ability to establish a good nursing routine and thus a good milk supply. Some studies had determined that the protein content of breastmilk could be enhanced with an increase in dietary protein, while other more complete studies make no such correlation. None the less, we do know that lactation requires extra protein, so the mother's diet should include at least four protein-dense servings daily (legumes, grains, eggs, nuts, vegetables).
Fats In, Fats Out
The composition of fat found in breast milk is highly variable and very much under the influence of diet. Within hours of a meal, the type of fat consumed is the predominant fat in milk. This means you must be aware of what to eat and not eat! During the prenatal and neonatal stages, fat is the one substance that plays an important role in growth, neurologic development and function and learning and behaviour.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs-found in nuts, seeds, fish and greens) are an important part of diet during both pregnancy and lactation. The parent EFAs (linoleic and linolenic acid) are converted into arachidonic acid (AA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All are important for infant development. AA and DHA are found in great concentrations in the human brain and nervous system and are thought to be part of the reason why the human brain has developed advanced cognitive abilities beyond that of most other mammals. Breastmilk is a very rich source of EFAs, but only if the mother's dietary consumption is adequate. If your diet is high in trans-fatty acids, these too will be passed on to the infant.
Trans-fatty acids are found in hydrogenated oils and processed foods and have been linked to cardiovascular risk, neurological underdevelopment and other lifelong risks in children. Even if the diet is rich in EFAs, the inclusion of trans-fats will prohibit their metabolization. Neither you nor your baby will receive all possible benefits. In addition to regular dietary sources, EFAs can be taken in supplement form. Many products are suitable for nursing moms and are often used therapeutically when milk supply is low, engorgement is common or the infant is susceptible to numerous infections.
Vitamins and Minerals
Many vitamins will pass through to your milk from your bloodstream and are therefore under your influence. Most minerals will not. In some cases the breast has a saturation point, by which you can be assured that nutrient levels will not surpass those needed by your child. But some nutrients, such as B6, manganese, iodine and selenium will continue to accumulate. Thiamin, B12, folic acid and vitamin D may be important supplements to consider if you are at all concerned that your diet does not include enough. These vitamins are crucial to infant development and have been observed to be dangerously low in some women. Vegan mothers should definitely watch that they have sufficient intake of vitamins B12 and D as these are typically found in animal foods.
Obviously the best place to get your nutrients is from the food you eat. Be sure that your diet contains optimal amounts of whole grains and fresh, colourful fruits and vegetables. A good quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement will fill in any gaps and help prevent some of the exhaustion many new moms experience.
It is a sharp realization to a new mother that all of the liquid coming out of her infant (which can sometimes be too copious!) had to enter via her breastmilk! This extra fluid you are creating must be supported with fluids in the diet. Some mothers will experience an intense thirst as their babies latch on. Keep a glass of water nearby at all times! It was once thought that the more water you ingested, the more milk you would produce. This is not actually the case. However we do know that when water intake is low, milk production drops, so drinking eight to 10 glasses of water each day is important.
Toxins in Your Milk?
In addition to trans-fatty acids, there are other substances in your diet that are passed on to your child. Caffeine and alcohol, both very common in the Western diet, are taken in by the infant through milk. The baby's immature liver will have difficulty processing these chemicals, even if no outward signs of ingestion are visible (irritability, sleeplessness). Small amounts in your diet, timed around nursing sessions (if predictable) are usually not a problem. Large amounts are to be avoided.
Many mothers worry about the research that has shown breastmilk to be a high source of environmental contaminants (PCBs, DDT, mercury) and some have doubted the safety of their milk. What's important to recognize is that what is found (or not found) in the alternatives to breastmilk is far more dangerous than these chemicals. Knowledgeable doctors have begun to counsel patients to continue nursing through a course of pharmaceuticals because they know that the alternatives are worse than the baby receiving a dose of the drug themselves. For obvious reasons smoking is best avoided, regardless of whether or not you are nursing. But even smokers should pursue breastfeeding. Their baby's lungs actually stand a better chance at being healthy than if they were to be fed formula.
Scientists will never know how to replicate breastmilk and are only just beginning to understand its value. As a breastfeeding mother you should feel encouraged that you are doing what is best for your child. Taking good care of yourself and eating a whole food, organic, plant-based diet will help you meet the demands of your nursing relationship. Your baby will thank you forever!
The following foods are nutrient-dense and great for breastfeeding moms: