Can what a mother eats really affect her supply of breastmilk? The idea that certain foods can help milk production is not new; special milk promoting foods have been eaten by newly breastfeeding mothers for more than 2000 years. In Mother Food, Hilary Jacobson journeys through history looking at different cultures’ traditional milk-making (lactogenic) foods. She explains that in ancient times, women are said to have noticed that certain foods and plants helped their milk supply and so they grew them as crops e.g. barley, carrot, corn, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, lettuce, onion, sesame, sweet potato and more. Coincidentally these same foods happen to be very good for us as well.
I thought diet didn’t really affect breastmilk?
Many authors covering the topic of nutrition for breastfeeding mothers give the impression that you can have quite a poor diet and still make perfectly good breastmilk. They may mention a passing caution that the type of fats in breastmilk will differ depending on your diet but it’s never made into a big deal. Jacobson disagrees. She thinks there is a connection between a very poor diet and breastmilk supply and composition. And if you are one of the mothers who has a low supply it is important to know about it.
[These] mothers often believe that their diet is sufficient. they may have heard that starving women can still produce adequate milk, or that what we eat is not important to milk quality or quantity, and to their minds this seems to justify a poor diet or under-eating.
Yes, it’s true that undernourished women do manage to produce milk under extreme conditions (severe undernourishment pushes the body into survival mode, when prolactin is naturally higher), but when women in the US reduce their caloric intake, or skip lots of meals and snacks, their milk supply usually drops. (p 24)
Jacobson believes the reason for this playing down of the importance of diet is a fear that either mothers may rely too heavily on diet to fix low supply or they may feel breastfeeding is too difficult if they have to have a special whole food diet.
Many lactation experts, however, are reticent to talk about herbs and food. They fear that mothers could believe that breastfeeding success depends on herbs and diet, rather than on a mother’s responding to baby’s cues of hunger, and on her baby’s ability to latch on to the areola and to remove milk. Another fear is that mothers might become upset or depressed by what they perceive as dietary restrictions. (p xvi)
Get your fats right
Mother Food explains why the balance of fats in our diet is especially important and why what you may think is a good diet, might not be. Healthy fats (essential fatty acids) in a mother’s diet can play an important role with both quantity and quality of breastmilk e.g. milk with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (compare full fat milk vs semi skimmed or skimmed). The same fatty acids have been shown to prevent depression and inflammation in mothers. Jacobson also mentions a link between a lack of essential fatty acids during pregnancy and early childhood with allergies and auto immune diseases in later life. It certainly sounds like win-win for mothers and babies and it’s hard not to be convinced.
A case for a healthier diet
The bottom line according to Mother Food is that a mother’s diet can influence her own health and digestion, her breastmilk and hence her baby’s tendency to be fussy or have slow weight gain. The author talks persuasively about why particular food groups can help or hinder both milk and mood. It’s not just about the fats. The down side of addiction to dairy products, caffeine, sugar, aspartame and refined foods are discussed for both mother and baby. And while caffeine can increase stress hormones and impair the let down; eating serotonin-foods promotes the production of prolactin which helps both a mother’s mood and milk supply. We learn that if a mother’s digestion is poor (leaky gut syndrome is given as an example); partially digested food molecules can enter breastmilk and lead to “fussiness, crying, fretful sleeping—even refusal to breastfeed in some cases.” The author adds that taking dill seed, fenugreek and marshmallow can help a mother’s digestion while at the same time lead to not only an increase in milk supply but also help a baby’s colic and heartburn.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are important too and Jacobson gives general information with a focus on calcium and magnesium’s role in milk production, including foods that deplete calcium in the body and how taking supplements may help mothers with low milk supply in the second half of the menstrual cycle.
Food for your milk supply
The book is full of tips, from which foods are anti-lactogenic (the opposite of milk-inducing), to why not to use margarine or processed oils, to whether flaxseed oil, evening primrose oil or borage seed oil can increase milk supply. There’s also coverage for mothers with let down difficulties, listing foods and techniques that can help with this.
The final section of the book shares lactogenic drinks and foods with recipes and descriptions of dosage plus safety information and cautions for more than 30 milk promoting herbs. Mother Food fills the gaps between The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk and The Nursing Mother’s Herbal, together these three books give a very comprehensive approach to galactagogues1 and maximising milk supply.
Savvy lactation specialists might suggest that a mother support her milk supply by taking herbs such as fenugreek, goat’s rue, alfalfa leaf and blessed thistle, plus oatmeal, nutritional yeast, protein, green-juices and green drinks, supplemental EFAs2 and calcium/magnesium supplements p 159
Mother Food seems to be well researched although some of the references and research studies are a little dated and some of the information may be more anecdotal than scientifically proven. Do check dosages for vitamins and herbs with your medical professional or with the latest information from Medications & Mothers’ Milk. The breastfeeding information is very accurate and gives a good coverage of the underlying issues around low milk production. The author acknowledges milk supply is not just about food and gives plenty of encouragement to contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or La Leche League Leader to help a mother Make more milk.