For nine months, you carefully avoided deli meat, hot dogs and unpasteurized cheese (and all the other non-pregnancy-friendly foods) to keep baby safe and healthy. Of course, now that baby is finally here, those protective instincts are probably only heightened—so it’s normal to wonder if there are foods to avoid while nursing. After all, molecules from the food you eat can make their way through your breast milk and into baby’s system. But here’s the good news: There really isn’t a list of foods to avoid while breastfeeding.
“There are actually zero foods that every breastfeeding woman should avoid completely. Most breastfeeding mothers can continue to eat the foods they normally do,” says Lindsey Shipley, RN, a childbirth educator, IBCLC-certified lactation coach and founder of Lactation Link, an online resource for breastfeeding education. “Moderation is important here, just like at any other time of your life. A well-balanced diet is important to help both you and baby feel your best.”
While there may not be a strict list of breastfeeding foods to avoid completely, there are a few things you may want to cut back on while nursing to keep your milk production levels up and ensure baby is happy and healthy. Read on to learn which foods to limit when breastfeeding and how much of these foods is safe to consume.
Foods to Limit While Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding moms don’t need to stress too much about what not to eat while breastfeeding—but it’s important to be aware of the foods that, when consumed in large quantities, can affect baby’s health and impact your milk supply. Here’s a breakdown of the foods to partially avoid while nursing, and why.
After nine months of no drinking, you’d probably like to have an occasional beer or glass of wine—and that’s totally fine. But keep in mind that alcohol can pass through the breast milk into baby’s system. “You can have alcohol, but assess yourself afterward. If you feel too inebriated to drive or walk around or act normally, you shouldn’t breastfeed,” says Andrea Syms-Brown, IBCLC, RLC. “Pumping and dumping does nothing: It removes the milk but the alcohol levels are still high in your blood.” If you’ve had even a bit too much, wait until the alcohol has cleared your body before breastfeeding. By the time your blood is free of alcohol, your milk will be too.
Of course, how much alcohol it would take to make you tipsy—and how long you’d need to wait before you’re sober again—varies from person to person. But it’s generally safe to breastfeed after having one alcoholic drink (5 ounces of wine, one shot of alcohol or 12 ounces of beer), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). If you can, aim to have that drink after breastfeeding baby, then wait two to three hours before your next nursing session so your body has time to clear the alcohol. You can also plan to pump before drinking to have some expressed breast milk on hand.
If you need a jolt after all those late nights you’ve been spending with baby, here’s the good news: Breastfeeding and coffee don’t have to be contrary terms. Caffeine is okay to consume while breastfeeding, in moderate doses. So go ahead and enjoy your morning coffee, an afternoon tea or even the occasional soda. As long as you limit your caffeine intake to no more than three cups of a caffeinated beverage a day, Syms-Brown says, you and baby will be just fine. But while things containing caffeine aren’t necessarily foods to avoid while breastfeeding, it’s a good idea to enjoy your coffee or tea after your nursing session is finished. Like alcohol, caffeine passes into your bloodstream and into your breast milk, so having too much java could make some babies (especially newborns) jittery. By the time baby’s next feeding rolls around, the caffeine should be out of your system.
When it comes to consuming chocolate and breastfeeding, you don’t have to worry. “Chocolate has a very low amount of caffeine, so you should feel comfortable enjoying a bar of chocolate,” says Tamara Hawkins, FNP, RN, IBCLC, president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association.
Virtually all fish contain some mercury, a common pollutant that’s a known neurotoxin, meaning it can affect baby’s brain. But most of the time, the health benefits of eating fish (high protein, low fat) outweigh the risk. Most fish, after all, only contains trace amounts of mercury. The exceptions—and the fish that are labeled as foods to avoid while breastfeeding, according to the AAP—are shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel. These older, top-predator fish contain the highest levels of mercury, so eliminate those foods from your breastfeeding diet. Instead, feel free to eat about to 12 ounces (that’s about two meals) per week of fish that have lower mercury levels, such as shrimp, salmon, pollock and catfish.
Peppermint, parsley and sage
These three herbs are what’s known as antigalactagogues, meaning that in high doses, they’ve been known to decrease breast milk production. “There’s truth to that, but you’d need to eat so much sage, you’d have to eat a sage sandwich,” Hawkins says. “That sage-seasoned turkey sandwich or cup of peppermint tea isn’t going to reduce a mother’s milk supply. Applying peppermint essential oil during a massage? Maybe, since it can get into the bloodstream.” If you notice your milk production dropping off after eating a bunch of peppermint, parsley or sage, it’s best to avoid it while breastfeeding for a while.
Foods to Limit While Breastfeeding: Strong Flavors?
You may have heard a rumor that strongly flavored things—such as garlic or spicy dishes—are among the foods to avoid while breastfeeding, but there aren’t any hard and fast rules about the tastes you can enjoy. After all, how you flavor your food depends largely on your cultural cuisine. Somewhere in the world, a breastfeeding mom is eating a garlicky or spicy dish, and her baby is just fine.
In fact, exposing baby to different tastes might even make your child more open to flavors later on. “ Studies show that some of the flavor compounds in the foods a breastfeeding mom eats show up in her milk within one to two hours,” Shipley says. “But rather than making babies fussy, this seems to give babies a preview of the tastes they'll experience when they start solid foods. Babies are more likely to accept and enjoy new solid foods when they were exposed to a wide variety of tastes through breast milk.”
Here’s the deal with eating spicy foods and garlic while breastfeeding:
Spicy foods and breastfeeding can go hand-in-hand without a hitch, Hawkins says. But this is where cultural traditions and personal habits come into play. “If you ate spicy foods throughout your pregnancy, baby is primed for those flavors,” she says. For some babies, spicy food doesn’t bother them at all. For others who are less accustomed to the taste, they might not enjoy it. “Just don’t have an out-of-the ordinary spicy meal. If you ate something spicy and baby is responding in a not-so-pleasant way, then maybe spicy foods could be cause.” If that’s the case, just cut back on the spice.
Garlic does flavor a mother’s breast milk, and some say the taste of it can turn baby off. But when it comes to garlic and breastfeeding, how baby reacts can depend on how accustomed she is to the taste. “If you’re someone who ingests a lot of garlic and had it during your pregnancy, chances are baby is going to enjoy it,” Syms-Brown says. In fact, one study found that babies who haven’t been exposed to garlic actually nurse for longer periods of time, apparently finding the new flavor extra-delicious.
Foods to Limit While Breastfeeding: Food Allergens?
If you were dealing with gas during pregnancy, your doctor may have suggested staying away from certain foods known to cause gas, such as beans, cauliflower and cabbage. So a lot of moms logically wonder what foods to avoid when breastfeeding a gassy baby. But the truth is, foods can make baby gassy only if he has specific sensitivities to them.
When a breastfed baby has a food sensitivity or allergy, the molecules from whatever mom ate make their way through her breast milk into baby’s digestive system, where they irritate the lining of baby’s gut and cause pain, Hawkins explains. Of course, food sensitivities are specific to each child, but there are some common culprit foods, including:
- Peanuts and tree nuts
But while these foods are most likely to be the problem, moms shouldn’t treat them as foods to avoid while breastfeeding—at least not right off the bat. “The best way to find out [if baby has a sensitivity] is by exposing her to different foods,” Syms-Brown says. So how do you know if your child does in fact have a food sensitivity? Babies typically develop telltale symptoms within 12 to 24 hours after eating, Syms-Brown says, including:
- Crying and colic
- Bloody or mucusy stool
- Excessive spit up or vomiting
- Congestion, runny nose, wheezing or coughing
- Trouble sleeping
“If baby is showing these symptoms, there’s a high chance that there’s a family history of allergies,” Shipley says. “Cow's milk is the most common allergen for babies and seems to be more likely to cause problems for babies who were given formula in their first few days of life, because this early exposure to cow's milk-based formula sensitizes their immature digestive systems.”
If you suspect baby is reacting to something you’ve eaten, the next course of action is usually to eliminate that food completely from your diet for two to three weeks and see if it makes a difference. Before you start an elimination diet on your own, though, it’s best to bring your concerns to your pediatrician to confirm that baby’s distress isn’t being caused by something else.
At the end of the day, remember: Unless certain foods have been flagged as a problem for your child, there’s no definitive list of foods to avoid while breastfeeding. “We try to make nursing as easy as possible from the start, because it’s hard enough as it is,” Hawkins says. So instead of stressing about which breastfeeding foods to avoid, focus on what you should eat: A colorful, varied diet full of nutrient-rich foods.