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Colic & Foods to Avoid While Breastfeeding

An expecting or new mother fears a lot of possible future scenarios, but one of the more common and everyday issues that she is, unfortunately, more likely to face is also one of the most mysterious, baffling, and frustrating: colic, which one in five infants are said to have. In this article, we’ll go over the definition of colic as well as the link it has to diet - namely, the mother’s. We’ll offer tips for how you can modify your diet, including foods to avoid during breastfeeding, to prevent colic.

Colic in breastfed babies

Colic is one of the more challenging problems a new parent can face. It’s when your new baby cries in a prolonged, intense, and frequent way despite being otherwise healthy. Colicky babies most often have their episodes in the evening, making it even tougher on already-tired parents who desperately want peace and quiet. Naturally, it’s heartbreaking to watch your baby suffer and not know why, and colic is all the more frustrating because it doesn’t seem to have any particular cause and no amount of soothing seems to help. 

Does Your Baby Have Colic? 

Defined as an infant crying intensely for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks, colic usually peaks when an infant is about six weeks old and declines after they reach three or four months of age. It can happen to any baby: breastfed or formula-fed, male or female, premature or full-term.   

Symptoms of colic include: 

  • Intense, often high-pitched crying that resembles screaming or an expression of pain 
  • Crying that doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular reason such as needing to be fed or get a diaper change 
  • Intense fussiness that continues even after the crying stops or declines 
  • Predictable timing of crying episodes that occur especially in the late afternoon or early evening 
  • Facial discoloration such as a reddened face or pale mouth 
  • Body tension in the legs, arms, fists, back, or abdomen 
  • Colic episodes followed by a bowel movement or passing of gas that may bring temporary relief 
  • The baby closing their eyes tight or opening them wide, furrowing their brow, or even holding their breath 
  • Crying that disrupts eating and sleeping patterns  

It’s important to note that colic is a condition that occurs in otherwise healthy babies. If your baby is intensely crying on a regular basis, it’s important to rule out the possibility of a non-colic cause that is leading to pain or discomfort in your baby, such as illness. If your infant experiences excessive crying, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to see if an underlying cause can be found instead of assuming that it must be colic. Together, you will be able to determine if your baby does indeed have colic. 

Can Your Diet Really Upset Your Breastfed Baby? 

While the causes of colic are unknown, there is much speculation about what may lead to this condition. Theories for potential reasons include an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria, childhood migraine, overstimulated senses, acid reflux, an undeveloped digestive system, food allergy, and tobacco exposure.  

Another popular theory is that colic may be tied to the diet of the breastfed baby’s mother. According to WebMD, “A study published in the [November 2005] issue of Pediatrics suggests that excluding highly allergenic foods from a nursing mother's diet could reduce crying and fussiness in her newborn's first six weeks of life.”  

There are several reasons to believe this may be the case. First, it’s known that the diet of a breastfeeding mother does affect the infant. If the mother consumes something that upsets the stomach of the newborn, this can lead to discomfort and crying. There also seems to be a link between colic and gastrointestinal distress; colicky infants are often gassy and passing gas is often followed by relief.  

There are, in fact, several studies that have shown that a change in the mother’s diet can lead to a significant diminishment of colic symptoms, namely in how long the babies cried each day. Other studies have found a link between the consumption of certain foods by the breastfeeding mother and colic in breastfed infants. Ultimately, research suggests that an elimination diet may help ease symptoms of colic.  

Learn more: Can Your Diet Affect The Quality of Breast Milk?

A mother breastfeeding her baby, creating a nurturing bond between them.

Foods to Avoid 

Common Allergens 

One category of colic foods to avoid while nursing is those that many people have an allergy to, such as: 

  • Cow’s milk 
  • Eggs 
  • Wheat 
  • Peanuts, tree nuts 
  • Soy 
  • Fish 

With cow’s milk being the most common infant allergy. In one 2005 study, 74% of breastfed babies whose mothers ate a low-allergen diet eliminating all of the above ingredients showed significant improvement in colic.  

Cruciferous Foods 

Another type of colic baby breastfeeding food to avoid is the category of foods that often creates a lot of intestinal gas, namely cruciferous vegetables. This includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. One 1996 study found that mothers who ate diets high in cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli were more likely to have colicky babies. As these foods are high in fructans, which are difficult to digest, they can cause gas and bloating.  

Unhealthy Foods 

It is often assumed that foods that are unhealthy for adults will also be unhealthy if they make it into a breastfed baby’s diet, which is why many sources recommend that breastfeeding mothers looking to reduce colic should avoid unhealthy foods such as highly-processed foods and foods high in saturated or trans fats.  

While it is debatable whether chocolate is healthy for you or not, with dark chocolate in particular often being cited as a healthy food, the same 1996 study that linked certain cruciferous vegetables with colic also found that mothers who ate a lot of chocolate were more likely to have colicky babies. However, it isn’t specified which type of chocolate, and it very well may be that milk chocolate may have this effect due to containing cow’s milk. It’s also thought that the problem may be the acidity of chocolate, which can cause acid reflux. 

Learn more about postpartum diet and essential elements for proper postpartum nutrition.

a woman sitting at a table with a glass of orange juice and cookies

Breastfeeding Diet for a Colic-Free Baby 

While various sources may name a list of foods to eat while breastfeeding to avoid colic, there isn’t any scientific evidence pointing to the possibility that including certain particular foods in your diet can help colic. That being said, it is reasonable to conclude that a generally healthy lifestyle and diet with a variety of nutritious foods is what will be best for the mother and, in turn, the baby.  

As such, a healthy diet for breastfeeding mothers to avoid colic may include: 

  • Plenty of water to stay hydrated 
  • Fruits and non-cruciferous vegetables 
  • Whole grains 
  • Lean proteins 
  • Mushrooms 
  • Tea 
  • Apple cider vinegar  

It’s particularly worth noting that there have been studies that have shown that probiotics can help colic by helping infants form a protective barrier against harmful bacteria and stimulating the immune system. One 2007 study found that “colic improved in a dramatic 95% of babies given Lactobacillus reuteri once per day for 1 month.” While it is not wise to begin a course of probiotics on your own, it may be something worth speaking to your doctor about.  

If you want to go the more natural route, foods high in probiotics include: 

  • Yogurt 
  • Kefir 
  • Kombucha 
  • Sauerkraut 
  • Pickles 
  • Miso 
  • Tempeh 
  • Kimchi 
  • Sourdough bread 
  • Some cheeses 

However, because many of these contain common allergens like dairy, wheat, and soy, kombucha has alcohol in it, and sauerkraut and kimchi are based on the cruciferous vegetable cabbage, you may not want to take the risk of eating them. For that reason, a doctor-approved probiotic dietary supplement might be the best route for mums who are considering probiotics as a solution to colic.   

If you do decide to change your diet in response to colic, especially if you want to start probiotics or try an elimination diet, it’s important to consult a medical professional such as a dietitian, who can monitor you and your baby’s nutrition and health and make personalised recommendations.  

Learn more: What to eat while breastfeeding

A peacefully sleeping baby with a joyful smile on their face

At the end of the day, the unfortunate truth is that there is no “cure” for colic. However, you can be reassured by the fact that - diet change or no diet change - colic doesn’t last forever; there is an end in sight. Colic is not your fault and while you can do your best to treat it, you should never feel guilty that it is happening. Do your best, take care of yourself and your baby to the best of your ability, and - sooner or later - the colic will pass.

What can you eat while breastfeeding: Common Questions

1. Can you eat sushi while breastfeeding?

Yes, you can eat sushi while breastfeeding. You can also eat sushi while you are pregnant, however specific conditions need to be adhered to, so you don’t expose your baby to any foods or nutrients that are deemed unsuitable.

Sushi that is made using fully cooked fish, veggies and/or vegan alternatives are safe to eat when breastfeeding. Consider fish that is low in mercury, such as shrimp or salmon, and it has been prepared in a sanitary environment where there is no risk of cross contamination with raw fish or seafood.

You can bulk out your sushi rolls with sweet potato, cucumber, rice and other vegetables to prepare a rounded and balanced meal. If you’re unsure about eating sushi while you’re breastfeeding, you can consult your doctor or lactation consultant for further guidance.

2. Can you eat honey while breastfeeding?

Yes, it is safe to eat honey while breastfeeding. The question stems from the nutritional guidance that says babies under 12 months old cannot consume honey. This is because of the spores that are found in honey, increase the risk of botulism which could lead to serious illness for your baby. The spores are too large to be transferred to your baby through breast milk.

Consuming honey in any form, raw or pasteurised, is safe for breastfeeding mums and babies. Honey has antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. The recommended amount for women to consume is no more than 6 teaspoons due to the high sugar content. It should be consumer in moderation to avoid weight gain, diabetes, or any other adverse health effects (1).

If you’re unsure whether honey is ok to include in your diet while breastfeeding, you can get further clarification from your doctor.

3. Can you eat peanut butter while breastfeeding?

Yes, you can eat peanut butter while breastfeeding.  Consuming peanut butter is safe for breastfeeding mothers and their babies, if there is no family history of nut allergies.

In fact, a Canadian study found that exposing your baby to peanut butter might reduce the risk of developing an allergy for peanuts. Their bodies will be used to peanuts and will learn to digest them properly. As long as you don’t overdo it, two sandwiches with peanut butter a day will not do any harm to your infant. If you overeat peanut butter, however, the reaction might be just the opposite. Your baby might develop an allergy to peanuts because too much of the peanut butter you eat, get to them via the breastmilk (2).

woman spreads peanut butter on her bread

If you’re worried about your baby developing a food allergy, speak to your doctor or health visitor. They can provide you with more information and guidance on how to safely introduce new foods into your diet while breastfeeding.

However, if you have a family history of peanut allergies or your baby has shown signs of an allergic reaction to peanuts, it is best to consult with your doctor before consuming peanut products while breastfeeding.

4. Can you eat pate while breastfeeding?

Eating pâté while breastfeeding should be done with caution, depending on the type of pâté you're considering. There are two main types of pâtés: meat-based and liver-based.

Whilst breastfeeding, or during pregnancy, the consumption of meat and liver-based pâtés is discouraged because they are more likely to contain Listeria. Listeria is a type of bacteria which can cause food poisoning and can lead to serious health complications for newborns or young children. Liver-based products also contain a high amount of Vitamin A which in excess can be harmful to your baby.

However, the Cleveland Clinic suggests that most foods are safe to eat while breastfeeding, as long as they’re part of a well-rounded diet. If you’re craving pâté, you might want to consider vegetable pâté instead of meat-based pâté. Vegetable pâté is generally considered safe to eat while breastfeeding.

Although the chances of transmitting listeria to your baby through breastfeeding are considerably low, it’s encouraged that you choose other alternatives which are safer for you and baby.

To ensure the safety of your diet while breastfeeding, it's important to:

  • Choose meat-based pâté made from fully cooked ingredients.
  • Avoid liver-based pâté or liver products in excess.
  • Maintain a balanced and varied diet to provide essential nutrients to you and your baby.

If you have any concerns about consuming pâté while breastfeeding, you can always consult with your doctor or a lactation consultant for more information.

Source materials:

(1) Kaczor, A. Can I Eat Honey While Breastfeeding? Is It Safe? Pregnancy Food Checker. https://www.pregnancyfoodchecker.com/eat-honey-breastfeeding-safe/ (on 13.12.2022)

(2) Nursing Moms (2019). Can you eat peanut butter while breastfeeding? https://nursingmoms.net/can-you-eat-peanut-butter-while-breastfeeding/ (on 13.12.2022)