It is a commonly held myth that there is a huge list of foods that breastfeeding mothers must avoid when nursing. Many women have been told that foods such as milk, garlic, onion, broccoli, spinach, beans, coffee, chocolate, orange juice and many others can cause colic or gassiness in babies. In truth, there is no food that all breastfeeding mothers must avoid for the health and well-being of their nursing babies.
Let me say that again, because it is important. There is no food that all breastfeeding mothers must avoid. So why are nursing mothers told to avoid certain foods?
Young babies cry… sometimes, a lot. Pediatrician and author of "The Happiest Baby on the Block" speaks of a "fourth trimester" where babies immature nervous systems or digestive systems can create some havoc in the lives of their exhausted and nervous parents. He believes, essentially, that there is no such thing as colic, as we currently understand it, and that the answer to this crying is, most times, recreating the sense of being in the womb. Many parents have found solace and results with his approach. The popularity of his books and DVDs seem to have taken some heat off the assumption that frequent crying is a result of a breastfeeding mother's diet.
This is great news for breastfeeding, because diet restrictions, or concern that some food in breast milk is distressing a baby (often an incorrect assumption) can be seen as a reason to quit nursing and turn to formula which is not affected by a mother's diet (but is probably a much bigger culprit in digestive or allergy concerns than anything found in breast milk!). Alternately, fulfilling the sucking reflex through breastfeeding is actually more likely to be a solution than a problem.
So should mothers ever modify their diet for a nursing baby? Sure… diet can be a culprit in certain infant concerns. True reflux in infants can be diet related – dairy is known to cause this sometimes. In my daughter, she had mild reflux that went away when I stopped eating tomato products (and some of my ongoing stomach complaints disappeared as well – probably not a coincidence!). Excessive chocolate or caffeine can be irritating to some infants, but generally not in minor amounts. Admonitions against "gassy foods," that is, foods that made adults gassy are generally baseless. Air created in the digestive system by these foods is not in any way deposited into the milk! And interestingly the strong flavors associated with some foods like garlic have actually shown in studies to be preferred by babies over milk unflavored by those foods.
Unless facing severe issues of reflux or vomiting, truly unusual crying or visible discomfort, or some other indication of true food sensitivity which requires consultation with health professionals to solve, I generally suggest that mothers refrain from doing much to their diets until their babies are 3-4 months old. As the "fourth trimester" passes, so much of the early concerns melt away, and stressing out over every drink of milk or cup of coffee is much less likely to be a culprit than simple developmental immaturity to explain normal amounts of crying, grimacing or passing gas in infants.
It is important to debunk myths that breastfeeding requires routine elimination of particular foods, because it needlessly restricts the life of nursing mothers and gives women a concrete (and false!) reason not to breastfeed. While some women may need to explore their diet if there are ongoing concerns, there is no routine restrictions that are necessary for all nursing mothers.
Here are links for Harvey Karp's "Happiest Baby on the Block" DVD and Book. I think this is great information for expectant parents or those with new babies to help understand how to soothe and comfort and newborn infant in the first months of life.