Nutrition & The Benefits of Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is one of the first and most important connections you’ll establish with your newborn baby, and it provides an array of benefits for both your baby and you. Some of the benefits include helping your baby fight against infections (due to the antibodies found only in breast milk), establishing healthy gut bacteria to help your baby develop a stronger gut microbiome and immune system, a higher IQ for baby, better absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, the delivery of a high amount of minerals, and stronger jaw development for new babes. Some benefits of breastfeeding for you as a mother include cost savings on baby food, convenience, the facilitation of weight loss after pregnancy, reduced breast cancer risk, and the stimulation of the hormone oxytocin, which facilitates relaxation and emotional bonding, allows your uterus to contract back to its size before birth, and decreases stress and anxiety.
When it comes to breastfeeding, it’s important to know that the quality of your breast milk is heavily influenced by your diet and lifestyle. Understanding how to optimize these factors can make a world of difference for the health of your newborn. For example, while your doctor might tell you that you can eat anything you want after giving birth, including sushi, unpasteurized cheese, and deli meats, the truth is that everything you put into your body - as well as your mental and emotional health - will directly affect your breast milk, for better or for worse. The more you’re able to optimize your diet, stress levels, hydration, and other factors, the more nutritious your breast milk will be and the easier it will be to produce and feed.
Many things can determine the flow and quantity of your breast milk as well, including prolonging the time before breastfeeding, frequency of breastfeeding, insufficient flow to the latch, poor latch from your baby, pacifier use between feedings, hormonal issues, and even previous breast surgery.
The herbal, nutritional, supplemental, and lifestyle recommendations outlined below will help you to produce the highest-quality breast milk, resulting in a healthier and happier baby.
Breastfeeding Benefits for Mothers
Valuable bonding time. Breastfeeding is the beginning of your lifelong relationship with your child. While breastfeeding, and especially while experiencing skin-to-skin contact, various hormones such as oxytocin are released, which lower stress levels and reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
Postpartum weight loss. Breastfeeding promotes greater weight loss than mixed feeding or formula feeding. This natural weight loss occurs even when mixed feeding mothers work out more frequently than mothers who are exclusively breastfeeding.
Reduced risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancers. The longer a mother breastfeeds her child, the more protection she receives from the most common cancers. This is due to balanced estrogen levels, as breastfeeding keeps estrogen in check and doesn’t allow it to spike.
Reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, due to its beneficial effects on insulin and blood sugar level management.
Healthy blood pressure maintenance. The act of breastfeeding can also lower blood pressure, both in the short-term and long-term. Reducing your chances of developing hypertension later in life has many protective benefits against developing various diseases.
Hormonal health. Breastfeeding activates the pituitary gland to release various hormones and helps to balance them naturally.
Peace of mind. Breastfeeding gives you the sure knowledge that you’re providing your child with all the nutrients they need and which are uniquely designed to bring them vibrant health.
Breastfeeding Benefits for Baby
Optimal food. Breast milk is, quite simply, the ideal food for a newborn. It contains all the essential macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in the optimal ratios. Breast milk also contains specially-designed compounds that support the baby’s immune system, contribute to growth and development, reduce inflammation, and help establish a healthy gut microbiome.
Smart sugar. The predominant sugar in breast milk is lactose, which breaks down into glucose and galactose. Galactose is a valuable nutrient for brain tissue development.
Eye health. The DHA found in breast milk is one of the prime structural components of the retina.
Better breathing. Breastfed babies develop a larger nasal space and a larger U-shaped dental arch that does not infringe on the nasal passages above.
Immune support. There are two immune system complexes (immunoglobulins) that can only be passed from mother to baby through breastmilk. The first is IgA, which serves as a mucus barrier to any foreign substances (such as viruses, bacteria, and yeast). The second is IgM, the largest antibody that fights infection. Due to this immune and anti-inflammatory support, breastfed babies have fewer respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in the first several months of their lives. The effects are long-term as well, as these children also have fewer allergies, atopic dermatitis, and asthma later on in life.
Leaner adults. Breastfed babies become leaner adults, in part due to the fact that breastfed babies learn immediately how to control how much they eat and therefore how to listen to their body’s signals.
GI (gastrointestinal/digestive) health benefits. Breastfeeding helps cultivate health gut flora by providing healthy bacteria. A balance of good bacteria is essential for digestive health, immunity, and mood - both immediately and throughout a child’s (and future adult’s) entire life.
Brain health. The nutrients in breast milk help babies with cognitive development. This further leads to higher IQ, brain volume, and intelligence.
Calming effect. The skin-to-skin contact, suckling, and breastmilk itself releases hormones and opioids that have a calming and analgesic effect on babies.
The main focus when it comes to optimizing breastfeeding should be on consuming a variety of whole foods, ensuring that adequate amounts of essential fatty acids get into the milk supply, staying well hydrated, and consuming an abundance of fats and protein to increase and maintain energy levels, nourish your developing baby’s brain, and reduce your risk of postpartum depression. Eating a well-balanced diet will not only assist with breastfeeding, it will have sustained effects on your child later in life - for example, reducing picky eating and the development of allergies.
Proper hydration is key to making breast milk. To get adequate amounts of water on a daily basis, drinking plenty of water (ideally filtered) is essential. Other ways to stay hydrated are through consuming plenty of bone broth, herbal teas, coconut water, and fresh, organic vegetable juices. Aim to drink at least half your body in ounces of water every day. Get a large water bottle that you love and get in the habit of taking it with you wherever you go.
Consume foods known to increase milk production. These include oats, carrots, seaweed, garlic, fennel and fennel seeds, cashews, alfalfa, asparagus, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, coconut, chaste tree fruit, bone broth, cilantro, papaya, pumpkin, dates, and ginger.
Make sure to get enough protein. Protein makes up a large portion of breast milk, so in order to produce the best-quality milk for your baby, you’ll want to make sure you’re increasing your own protein intake. More high-quality protein consumed during the day will mean increased breast milk production and therefore greater growth and development of your babe. Consuming protein with each meal or snack will also help to balance your blood sugar levels and to help your body gain back strength after delivering your baby by increasing muscle tone and building stronger bones. Clean protein sources include organic white meat, organic grass-fed beef, wild-caught salmon and other fatty cold-water fish, pastured eggs, mung beans, lentils, quinoa, tempeh, spirulina, almonds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds. Aim for roughly 70g/day - though this number will fluctuate depending on your body weight, activity level, etc.
Remember your ACEs. Vitamin A, C, and E are all beneficial antioxidants. Vitamin A will help with bruising and wound healing in terms of restoration to your uterus and abdomen. Vitamin E will do the same, and combined with vitamin C it will encourage skin elasticity and the contraction of skin across the stomach. These vitamins are also vital in helping you to produce the best-quality milk. The healthier you are, the more milk flow you’ll have and the higher-quality milk you’ll produce for your baby. Foods high in vitamin C include oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, kiwi, guava, kale, blackcurrants, lychee, red peppers, and papaya. Foods high in vitamin A include beef liver, eggs, kale, carrots, dandelion, sweet potatoes, spinach, papaya, squash, and red peppers. Foods high in vitamin E include almonds, avocados, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, spinach, Swiss chard, natto, scallions, and Brussels sprouts. Incorporating these foods into your daily diet will help you reap the benefits of these important vitamins and will aid in the overall production of milk.
Focus on getting enough essential fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA, in particular, have an overall anti-inflammatory effect and are needed for brain health and development. Healthy fats also help to decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Great food sources are pastured eggs, ghee, grass-fed beef, organic chicken, other game and organ meats, nuts and seeds and their oils, coconut products (oil, butter, yogurt), and wild-caught cold-water fish. To ensure you’re properly digesting the healthy fats in seeds (such as flax), freshly grind them up before consuming them (within 15 minutes to prevent oxidation, which damages the quality of the fats).
Learn to love oats. Rich in fiber and the B vitamins, which help to nourish the nervous system and boost energy levels, oats are also a quick and easy dish to prepare. Top them with fruits such as berries and apples, nuts and seeds, and wild local honey for additional health benefits and flavor.
Eat dark leafy greens. Leafy greens pack a powerful punch: they’re high in antioxidants, calcium (for bone health), and iron (for energy levels). Eat them fresh in salads, steamed, stir fried, and more - however you can get them in on a daily basis.
Incorporate brewer’s yeast into your diet. High in B vitamins and trace minerals like selenium and chromium, brewer’s yeast is a great item to add to your daily diet. The powder can be mixed into various foods or combined with water to consume as more of a supplement.
Include sources of probiotic-rich foods. Kombucha, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and other sources of fermented foods provide a rich source of beneficial probiotics for gut and immune health. This is especially vital as you’ll be passing these beneficial bacteria onto your new babe, helping to form their own gut microbe and assisting in the development of their immune system.
Add alfalfa. It’s great for increasing breast milk production while providing you with many vitamins and minerals. Alfalfa is particularly high in vitamin K, which helps the body’s blood clotting abilities, prevents hemorrhaging, and helps the body recover after giving birth. Vitamin K also supports healthy teeth and bones.
Avoid foods that reduce milk production. These include excess caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, broccoli.
Avoid the same foods you were told to avoid during pregnancy. Sushi (raw fish), fish that are high in mercury (tuna, swordfish, and other large fish), unpasteurized dairy products, processed meats, raw eggs, and the like are best avoided while breastfeeding, to prevent the chances of passing on harmful bacteria, parasites, and toxins to your newborn.
Milk production can be enhanced by consuming the following herbs in teas or tincture form. There are also several herbal tea blends that are fantastic for milk production. Be sure to drink these several times a day if you’re having trouble producing enough milk.
Fenugreek. A common component in many herbal lactation teas, fenugreek is one of the most common and effective herbs to increase milk production. It’s a galactagogue that supports prolactin secretion. Capsule form is best: take 3 capsules 3x per day until the milk starts flowing.
Blessed thistle. Helps to elevate mild forms of postpartum depression, which is linked to difficulties breastfeeding. This herb is best combined with fenugreek. Capsule form is best: take 3 capsules 3x per day, again until the milk starts flowing.
Raspberry leaf. Containing anethole, which stimulates the release of mammary building hormones, raspberry leaf also helps to alleviate mild forms of depression and helps with uterine healing to accelerate your road to post-labor recovery. It’s best taken as a daily tea or herbal infusion. To make an infusion, combine 3-4 tablespoons of raspberry leaf with a quart of filtered water in a large mason jar, and allow to infuse for 4+ hours or overnight. Strain the tea and then consume 3-4 cups per day.
Shatavari. An Ayurvedic herb, shatavari works as a female adaptogen to balance female hormones. Due to its phytoestrogenic properties, it can increase milk production.
Get adequate rest. Easier said than done, we know. Allowing your body to feel more calm and relaxed does not require huge time commitments, though. Whether you decide to do a 5-minute meditation, take a 10-minute shower, go for a 20-minute walk, or do a 30-minute restorative yoga practice all by yourself, try your absolute best to squeeze something in daily. Nap when the baby naps if you can, and give yourself permission to rest whenever possible. Breast milk will not be produced in sufficient amounts if your body doesn’t feel rested. Use calming herbal teas such as chamomile to help you relax at night. Using essential oils such as lavender can also help put you in deep sleep mode.
Understand the importance of skin-to-skin contact. After giving birth, mothers are meant to be skin-to-skin with their newborns as often as possible. The oxytocin released when doing so triggers the body to produce more breast milk.
Include acupuncture + massage. Both of these will help to improve lymphatic drainage, allowing your body to rest and feel restored. Breast massage is especially beneficial while nursing, as it can help your baby receive more milk through the pressure put on the breast. Massage the breast with your thumb in a downward motion while feeding your baby to help milk flow through your mammary glands. This can also reduce any discomfort you’re having during the first month or so. You can also gently compress the top of your breast to reap the same benefits.
Switch sides. You’ll need to pay attention in order to understand when to switch from one breast to the other. When you notice your baby is not drinking or swallowing anymore, switch your baby to your opposite breast. When there is less flow of milk, you may also notice your baby drifting asleep. This is when a breast massage to promote flow or switching breasts is most beneficial in order for your baby to have a good feed.
Become a breast-pumping pro. If done in addition to nursing, pumping can be a highly effective way to increase breast milk supply. To do so, pump after each nursing session, add an extra pumping session or two during the day, cluster pumping (pumping every half hour for a couple of hours), and take “nursing vacations” (spending 2-3 days relaxing, nursing, and pumping as often as possible).
Ensure all beauty products are chemical-free. Chemicals are fat-soluble and can land up in your breast milk. To protect your baby from dangerous toxins, ensure your products are clean and natural. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a great tool, the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, that allows you to look up your beauty products in order to evaluate the health effects of any toxic ingredients.
Light exercise after giving birth is important, but it’s also extremely important to ease back into movement. If you have kept on track with exercising during pregnancy, this step will be a bit easier, but don’t let this discourage you if not! With consistency and patience, light exercise will help you feel more energized and is amazing for your overall health. Start with gentle yoga or tai chi 3x per week for 30-40 minutes at a time. Both of these can be done before bed, when you wake up, or while baby is sleeping. Light movement will improve circulation and oxygenate the blood, which will help with the production and flow of milk for your baby.
Feed frequently. While building a good milk supply is important, yet challenging, one thing to keep in mind is that the more you feed your baby, the more milk your body will produce.
Nipple cream. Breastfeeding often causes nipple to hurt, get chapped and even bleed. To reduce the pain, begin using a nipple balm right away. Try to avoid lanolin as it is made from sheep, which can be exposed to chemicals, pesticides, and hormones. When choosing a product, keep in mind that your baby will be ingesting it and make sure that it is safe to do so.
Breast pads. These help women experiencing leaky breasts and women with sensitive nipples. Look for ones made from organic cotton or bamboo. They can be used as heating or ice pads as well. Dropping breast pads in warm water and using them as a compress pre-nursing is also a great way to increase the flow of milk. Soaking and freezing them to use as ice packs post-nursing will help to reduce any pain.
Nursing bra. Your rib cage will expand in the later months of pregnancy and come back down to normal 3-4 months postpartum. It’s best to find an organic cotton bra with no wiring, in case you need to sleep in it.
Red lights. When breastfeeding needs to be done in the middle of the night, keeping your and your baby’s hormones as undisturbed as possible is ideal. This can be done by using red lights at night to preserve melatonin and to help everyone fall back to sleep much faster.
Breastfeeding isn’t easy for all new mothers, but with the right tips and tools, it can be very doable. The benefits are huge for both you and your babe, so give follow this advice to make the process as smooth as possible.If you’re having trouble with breastfeeding or with milk production - reach out to a lactation consultant for support.