The mother's diet

Do I need to eat anything special to help me breastfeed?

A healthy diet with a mix of proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches along with enough calories, vitamins, and minerals gives mothers the best chance for good health and the energy to look after her baby. If a mother is healthy, her milk will meet all of her baby’s needs. That said, there is no strong association between a mother’s diet and her milk quality. Mothers still have excellent milk even if they eat processed (junk) food. Some cultures have specific foods they believe increase the quality and quantity of breast milk. There is little evidence they make any difference in healthy mothers, but if they make mothers feel better and are nutritious, that’s a good reason to eat them. Foods that are safe for the mother to eat usually pose no risk to the baby.

A) The mother’s diet

Some mothers avoid certain foods out of concern that they are making the baby unhappy but this can result in an unbalanced diet. Other mothers worry that a poor diet will affect the quality of their milk and will reduce or stop breastfeeding (Gross 2019).

The best course is to eat a wide range of healthy, flavourful foods and generally avoid processed foods. A healthy diet gives mothers the best chance for good health and the energy to look after the baby.

Healthy mothers who eat a variety of proteins, fruits, vegetables, and starches, and take in enough calories, vitamins, and minerals will nearly always have milk that meets all of the baby’s needs. The breast seems to buffer against minor changes in the mother’s diet and nutritional status (Keikha 2017; Minato 2019). The type of fats and some vitamins (A, B1, C,  and D) in a mother’s diet can affect the concentration of those fats and vitamins in breast milk, but overall there is no strong association between a mother’s diet and her milk components (Keikha 2017; Ward 2021). Mothers still have good milk if they eat highly processed (junk) food.

The mother’s diet will affect the smell and taste of her milk. This exposes the baby to many flavours and may encourage babies to accept a wide variety of foods and be less picky once they start solid food.

B) Special dietary situations

Breastfeeding mothers of twins and higher multiples will need more calories and should make sure they do not lose too much weight. They should take extra care to ensure their diet gives them enough calcium and vitamin D to keep their bones healthy or consider supplements (Lee 2019). 

Healthy vegetarian and vegan mothers produce breast milk that will meet all the needs of their baby (Karcz and Królak-Olejnik 2020).

Unbalanced diets can result in milk that is lower in proteins, iron, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B12 (Sebastiani 2019). Extremely malnourished mothers may have a reduced milk supply and the quality can be affected.

If you have any concerns about your diet, please discuss this with your health-care providers.

C) Special foods

1. Cultural foods

Many cultures have specific foods made by family members and given to the mother after childbirth. Mothers who use our multicultural clinic have told us of the following foods taken to improve the quality and increase the quantity of breast milk:

  • Warm oatmeal
  • Garlic-heavy soups
  • Curry with fenugreek seeds
  • Barfi (a condensed sugar sweet)
  • Fennel seeds
  • Fish and fish soup
  • Cumin (also called jeera) or fenugreek porridge
  • Papaya
  • Dates
  • Clarified butter (ghee)

Most of these foods will make you feel better, which is a good reason for using them. Plus, your family will be happy! However, the evidence that they actually increase milk quality and supply in otherwise healthy mothers is limited (Buntuchai 2017).

2) Lactation cookies

Some mothers will take lactation cookies which can be homemade or store-bought. There is no evidence that these will increase milk supply. Rather they may:

  • Contain items, such as herbs or heavy metals that can be harmful (Canale 2021).
  • Contain items, such as sugar that provide low quality calories.
  • Be expensive.
  • Keep mothers from seeking help.
  • Reinforce the message that a normal diet is insufficient or that a healthy body cannot function normally.

References

Buntuchai G, Pavadhgul P, Kittipichai W, et al. Traditional Galactagogue Foods and Their Connection to Human Milk Volume in Thai Breastfeeding Mothers. J Hum Lact. 2017 Aug;33(3):552-559

Canale S, Blute N, Xia T, et al. Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Lactation Foods and Prenatal Vitamins: Potentially Avoidable Exposure for Breastfeeding Mothers and Infants. Breastfeed Med. 2021 Feb 9

Gross RS, Mendelsohn AL, Arana MM, et al. Food Insecurity During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding by Low-Income Hispanic Mothers. Pediatrics. 2019 Jun;143(6). pii: e20184113
 
Keikha M, Bahreynian M, Saleki M, et al. Macro- and Micronutrients of Human Milk Composition: Are They Related to Maternal Diet? A Comprehensive Systematic Review. Breastfeed Med. 2017 Nov;12(9):517-527
 
Lee EN. Effects of Parity and Breastfeeding Duration on Bone Density in Postmenopausal Women. Asian Nurs Res (Korean Soc Nurs Sci). 2019 May;13(2):161-167
 
Minato T, Nomura K, Asakura H, et al. Maternal Undernutrition and Breast Milk Macronutrient Content Are Not Associated with Weight in Breastfed Infants at 1 and 3 Months after Delivery. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Sep 9;16(18). pii: E3315
 
Sebastiani G, Herranz Barbero A, Borrás-Novell C, et al. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diet during Pregnancy on the Health of Mothers and Offspring. Nutrients. 2019 Mar 6;11(3). pii: E557

Ward E, Yang N, Muhlhausler BS, et al. Acute changes to breast milk composition following consumption of high-fat and high-sugar meals. Matern Child Nutr. 2021 Mar 3:e13168