Breastfeeding

Good nutrition as a booby trap

Screen cap of a Google search result. This is probably not where you want to go for information on breastfeeding.
Screen cap of a Google search result. This is probably not where you want to go for information on breastfeeding.

My firstborn was about six weeks old when I received my first and only “care package” of formula. Six weeks of age is the time of a particularly brutal growth spurt. Since even mild growth spurts can make even the most seasoned breastfeeding mom wonder if she’s producing enough milk or if something is wrong with her baby, the timing was no coincidence. The literature in this particular package was geared toward the breastfeeding mother. One thing that stood out to me was the spread that featured beautifully arranged and plentiful fresh fruits and vegetables and other “good-for-you” foods. This was the ideal diet when breastfeeding, Similac told me. I couldn’t do much more than shake my head; my baby didn’t allow me time to eat with two hands, let alone shop for, prepare, and eat such a colorful spread.

From a breastfeeding guide from Abbott Nutrition
From a breastfeeding guide from Abbott Nutrition

As it turns out, telling breastfeeding moms that their diet needs to be a certain way is an excellent marketing tactic that’s disguised as helpful advice and concern. Here’s the rationale: If breastfeeding looks like more of a challenge, giving your baby formula looks more appealing. Parenting is already hard, isn’t it? Who wants to go through the added trouble of having to have the perfect diet to make sure your breastmilk is perfect? Who wants to run the risk of not eating the right things and somehow harming their baby? After all, you always know that formula is always providing the exact same laboratory-tested, government-approved combination of micro- and macronutrients for your little one.

Enfamil offers advice on food sensitivities.
Enfamil offers advice on food sensitivities.

Formula companies also are quick to mention that babies can be “sensitive” or “intolerant” to various foods in milk, without much discussion about how things like fussiness and gas are often normal. And “frequent nursing” as a symptom of food sensitivities? Newborns are supposed to nurse frequently! Plus, they are totally okay with spreading misinformation, such as suggesting the removal of “spicy” and “gassy” foods from your diet. This is yet another case of blaming breastmilk for being the problem.

There is the matter, too, that women (American women in particular) are taught to fear food. We are not supposed to eat a lot of food—adding 500 calories per day, are you kidding? Food is the enemy and we should feel guilty about those extra calories, isn’t that right? We are taught that dieting is the proper way of life, whether it’s following Weight Watchers, the Paleo diet, or excluding certain foods for fear our babies will react to them.

Food, even as something necessary to every human being’s survival, can be a heavy topic. Here’s one place to start on reading about how the idea of “real” food can be problematic.

Advice from Abbott for the South African market.
Advice from Abbott for the South African market.

Now, it’s true that the ideal diet for a breastfeeding mother has a nice variety of various foods from various categories… but that is the same ideal diet as anyone else, and most of us fall short of the ideal. Our bodies do not need us to have an ideal, perfect, colorful, unprocessed, “whole” or “real” foods diet in order to make the best milk possible for our babies.

The booby traps do not stop at formula companies. It’s not difficult to find pro-breastfeeding, natural-minded sources that will dictate that mothers need to have a certain type of diet in order to make the best breastmilk or have an adequate milk supply. Even coming from these sources, being prescriptive in regard to diet may have the effect of discouraging breastfeeding, though it is rarely the intent.

The people who come to my mind when I hear about the specific diet that someone who breastfeeds most follow are those people who don’t have access to those colorful, well-prepared fruits, vegetables, grains, lean meats, and unprocessed foods. I think about the large numbers of people who live in food deserts and whose income or circumstances may prevent them from seeking out the healthful, varied diet that we’re encouraged to consume for our health and that of our children. Should these people avoid breastfeeding because their milk might not be the pinnacle of what human milk could possibly be? Goodness no, because these children are probably the ones who need human milk the most.

There are, indeed, some cases in which diet or depleted maternal stores may lead to breastmilk being low in certain nutrients, but this still does not make that breastmilk inferior to an artificial substitute.

You do not need a perfect diet in order to make the perfect milk for your baby.

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5 comments

  1. Well said, as always.

  2. This is preposterous. I have seen literally the exact same advice from lactation consultants and breastfeeding advocates. It’s good advice. Eating healthy food is….healthy. It is like 1984 in here — arguing that good advice is actually bad advice. Are you familiar with what’s called a strawman argument? No one stated or implied that if you have a less than perfect diet, you shouldn’t be breastfeeding. That’s a gross misrepresentation of the quotes you borrowed from the formula companies.

    There are plenty of legitimate gripes to have with the businesses behind formula. This isn’t one of them. Good grief.

    1. I did point out that breastfeeding advocates and lactation professionals share this advice; I don’t think they’re aware that this kind of advice can be counterproductive. I think it’s worthwhile to be cautious about the advice given, because the evidence shows that very little of what we eat significantly impacts our breastmilk. Mothers/parents *panic* about this; I think advocates and professionals should do whatever we can to return us to a society that sees breastfeeding as normal and uncomplicated (most of the time). At the very least, the quotes I pulled from formula companies – and what I hear from many breastfeeding advocates – does not match up with what we know about the science behind breastfeeding.

  3. I had the same argument with the Australian and NZ food regulator a few years back. They require artificial baby food and bovine formula providers to label their products that a ‘good’ diet is necessary to breastfeed. However, despite (reluctantly I might add) that the scientific/medical evidence didn’t support making such a statment, and that it was misleading, refused to amend it because…..wait for it…’ we would not want to recommend breastfeeding mothers have a poor diet’. So good on you for raising the issue! Be aware however that in subsistence societies and poverty, vitamin K and D (in high latitude countries and dark skinned mothers) can be an issue in the milk. Also be aware of maternal depletion (ie the mother’s milk in quantity and quality is good for the baby, but the mother’s nutritional status can be adversely affected by lactation (& pregnancy) without good nutrition). This is why food aid should directed to the lactating mother and not at the baby (like developed countries providing powdered bovine baby formula).

    1. Thanks for your comment! Exactly.

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