By Fritz Lenneman
Human breast milk is the perfect nutrition source for an infant. It strikes a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, water and nutrients. It's easily digested and absorbed, and its composition naturally changes as a baby's developmental needs change.
And because mother's milk is a rich in antibodies, it builds a baby's immune system into a robust defense force. But does what a mother eats or drinks impact the milk she breastfeeds her child?
According to Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Jessica Crandall, RD, CDE, nursing babies are unlikely to develop a food allergy from breastfeeding. "But some foods may not agree with the infant," she says. "Some common foods nursing mothers should avoid if the infant is fussy during feedings are: spicy foods or foods like cabbage and broccoli." If this happens, avoid that particular food for a while.
As a nursing mother, you should consume between 12 and 15 cups (96 to 120 ounces) of fluids a day—this includes fluids from food, by the way—to compensate for the extra water that is used up making milk. One way to ensure you're hydrated is to drink a large glass of water while breastfeeding your baby.
For the most part, a baby doesn't typically need anything but her mother's milk to stay hydrated. "Under ordinary conditions, breast milk does supply adequate amounts of water," Crandall says. "But in very hot or humid environments, infants may require additional water to prevent dehydration."
If it is necessary to supplement a baby's diet with water, do it in a way that will not reduce her appetite for milk. Offer 1 to 2 ounces of plain water (for safety's sake, use sterilized bottled water for a child under 4 months old) after a feeding. If your infant appears dehydrated due to vomiting or diarrhea that lasts 24 hours or more, consult your pediatrician.
What about Caffeine?
A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that a mother who drinks small amounts of coffee is unlikely to affect either her unborn child or her nursing newborn's sleep patterns.
About 300 milligrams of caffeine a day—the amount found in approximately 24 ounces of coffee; seven shots of espresso; or seven 12-ounce cans of cola—is not considered enough to cause adverse effects for nursing mothers. Some women, however, find that their sensitivity to caffeine increases during pregnancy.
Alcohol during Nursing
If you breastfeed, it's best to abstain from alcohol. If your baby's breastfeeding behavior is well established, consistent, and predictable (no earlier than at 3 months of age), a mother may consume a single alcoholic drink if she then waits at least four hours before breastfeeding.
If you do decide to have that glass of wine or beer, Crandall says there are some steps you can take to make sure it does not interfere with nursing. "To ward off dehydration, be sure to down a glass of water in addition to the alcoholic drink," she says.
And because it can take a few hours for alcohol to fully clear from your body, preparation and timing of a nursing mother's drink is key. "Eat beforehand, or when you're having your drink, as this will help lower the amount of alcohol in your blood and your milk," Crandall says. "You can time your drink so that your baby won't be nursing for a few hours afterwards by having it right after a feeding, for example, or during one of your baby's longer stretches of sleep. Another option would be for you to bottle-feed your baby previously expressed breast milk."
Is Fish OK?
While breastfeeding, reduce your exposure to known chemical contaminants such as mercury. Large bottom-dwelling fish are the most common food source of mercury. Avoid shark, swordfish, mackerel, and tilefish; eat up to 12 ounces of other kinds of fish every week with a maximum of 6 ounces albacore tuna per week; and check local advisories about eating locally caught fish. If no advice is posted, limit your intake of locally caught fish to 6 ounces per week and consume no other fish during that same week.
Fritz Lenneman is a web editor for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.