Susie is eight months pregnant. She thinks breastfeeding sounds fascinating and kind of wants to try it, but just isn’t sure if she can hack it. After all, it’s been eight months of avoiding some of her favorite foods, like sushi and wine, and her best friend said she still can’t enjoy those foods when breastfeeding. The other mom in the doctor’s waiting room told her fast food is off the table when you breastfeed because you have to eat SUPER healthy to make good milk – and Susie really likes a good waffle fry now and then. Then Susie’s mom told her that when she breastfed Susie she had to cut out dairy, eggs, beans, broccoli, salads, raw vegetables, spicy food, caffeine, chocolate, and more. And did you hear that to make enough breast milk, you have to drink a ton of cow’s milk? Plus if the baby ever cries or spits up, you’re basically supposed to stop eating everything until you can figure out what you ate that is triggering the baby’s fussing. Maybe it just seems like a lot to deal with, especially because Susie needs to focus on getting back to her pre-baby weight ASAP. But wait, isn’t breastfeeding supposed to help with that, too?
I’m sure you can tell this is a fictitious story, but I promise you this: I have heard every single one of these sentences (multiple times each!) from pregnant and breastfeeding moms. As a breastfeeding mom myself, I’ve also personally heard a number of these things from well-meaning friends, family, and old ladies at the grocery store.
Can I tell you something, though? About what to do with all of this well-intended, often unsolicited, always confusing “advice”? Smile, say thank you to the nice old lady at the grocery store, and walk away letting the advice go in one ear and out the other.
I want to touch on two different aspects of a “breastfeeding diet”, but just know it all boils down to one thing: ditch the diet.
Physiologically, our bodies are actually more forgiving when it comes to diet and breastfeeding than diet and pregnancy, as there’s just less risk when the nutrition is passing via milk to baby than via placenta to fetus. So if you’re breastfeeding, bring on the sushi! And yes – you can have a glass of wine when you’re breastfeeding and you DO NOT have to pump and dump!!! (I hope this goes without saying, but there is a difference between a glass of wine and going out drinking all night…that’s a different story, and would likely require some pumping and dumping.)
Our bodies are very forgiving when it comes to milk production. They’re basically hardwired to not let the species go instinct, so milk production can keep going even in time of hardship and famine (1). In my CLC training the instructor even discussed how women imprisoned in Nazi Germany concentration camps were still physiologically able to breastfeed.
If you’re breastfeeding, there really isn’t anything you have to restrict or have to include to make “good” milk. You don’t have to restrict a thousand different foods or drink more cow’s milk to make “better milk”. If you want an occasional order of waffle fries or a juicy cheeseburger, go right ahead!
After all, we need an extra 500 calories a day, right? I’m sure every breastfeeding mama has heard that at least once or twice. But honestly? Forget it. Yes, physiologically your body requires more energy when producing milk than it does when you’re not breastfeeding or even when you’re pregnant. But the brilliant thing about our bodies is they tell us exactly what they need. If we eat intuitively and listen to those hunger cues, you don’t have to worry about calorie counting to fuel milk production. In fact, even at my CLC training they stated that the best diet recommendation for breastfeeding moms is to eat to your hunger and drink to your thirst. Keep it simple!
Something else we need to simplify? Our expectations for our bodies post-pregnancy and childbirth. Pregnancy is a miraculous thing, and as our bodies change along the nine month journey to a new human, shouldn’t we celebrate that? I know I do! While to varying degrees, all women experience some type of change in their body, their shape, stretch marks, c-section scars, etc. Some of these changes aren’t even visible, like changes to blood glucose, blood pressure, or thyroid regulation. And if you’re fortunate to be able to breastfeed your child, that’s just another set of changes that your body is doing that is a wonderful, breathtaking thing.
That said, do not buy into the lie that breastfeeding is going to be this magic diet trick you’ve been looking for your whole life that is going to make all the baby weight (and more!) just come rapidly melting off. It’s just simply not true, and also? It’s not important.
Focus instead on nourishing your body, on living intuitively and mindfully. That intuitive nature and mindfulness goes for eating, exercising, sleeping (ha – I know, mom joke?), nurturing this new baby in your life, nurturing your existing relationships, and more. You can still pay attention to typically healthful foods that are good recommendations for everyone, no matter of breastfeeding status (i.e. no one needs to be consuming large amounts of fish with high levels of mercury and most people could use more plants throughout their days). Listen to your body and your body will tell you what it needs. The first step? Ditch the diet.
Disclaimer: There may be times of infant allergy or intolerance where a woman is medically advised to eliminate a certain food when she is breastfeeding, as certain proteins can pass more readily through breast milk, like cow’s milk protein and peanut protein (1). If you are concerned your baby may have an intolerance or allergy, please make your first stop be an appointment with your baby’s pediatrician to discuss symptoms and possible interventions with them.