- Sep 21, 2023
* By Marika Luukkonen, MHS, Registered Dietician
It is said that mother’s milk is highly nutritious for the baby, which is completely true. But what makes it special?
You may have found yourself wondering if the quality of breast milk varies from mum to mum, or if you can influence the nutritional values and composition of your breast milk.
We’re going to focus on what breast milk is made of and whether mums can influence the make-up of their breast milk through their diet choices.
Mother’s milk – superfood for the baby?
Breast milk contains all the nutrients the baby needs except for vitamin D (1). It’s mostly made up of water, and the nutritional values are approximately 1% protein, 4% fat, and 7% carbohydrates (2,3). It also contains minerals important for the child’s growth and development, such as:
The nutrients from breast milk are absorbed extremely well. For example, iron absorption from breast milk is 50–70%, whereas from milk substitutes the absorption is only 5–10% (1).
Compared to other mammals, human breast milk contains significantly less protein (3). Instead, it contains lots of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are vital for a child’s brain development. When compared to cow’s milk, human mother’s milk contains more cholesterol, which also supports brain development and works as a hormone precursor.
In addition to the nutrients invaluable to growth and development, breast milk also contains protective and anti-inflammatory ingredients which have been shown to support the development of the child’s immune system and gut health (1,3). Especially colostrum as it contains several different types of immune system cells such as macrophages and lymphocytes. Breast milk has been shown to support the healthy formation of gut microbes in the child.
How does a mother’s diet affect breast milk?
Breast milk is known to change and adapt based on the baby’s needs (4). The composition may change due to the baby’s age and depending on how early in the pregnancy the baby was born (5). Additionally, the temperature can affect the composition of breast milk, as the water content is increased during heat waves (4).
But what about the mum’s diet?
Studies have shown that the quality of the mum’s diet can influence the nutritional make-up of breast milk to a degree (6). However, what is still unclear, is how significant the impact is and how much it affects the child’s wellbeing. What is clear is that a nutritional and balanced diet provides enough energy for the mum to support successful breastfeeding, without depleting the mum’s nutritional stores. Although more research is still required on this topic, certain nutrients and foods have been noted as recommendable or not to ensure good quality breast milk.
What foods are recommended to improve the quality of breast milk?
Whilst breastfeeding your main goal is to eat sufficiently and variably enough to take care of your health and recovery (1). Breastfeeding increases energy requirements and therefore it’s important to aim to fulfil this need by eating sufficiently and regularly. Your diet should provide you with nutrients so that breastfeeding would not deplete your nutrient stores.
One of the key things to influence breast milk composition is what kind of fat the mum gets through her diet (7). If the mum eats plenty of unsaturated fats, the number of essential fatty acids in breast milk increases (1). The mum’s intake of unsaturated fats has been shown to support the development of the baby’s vision and nervous system.
So, how can you increase the amount of essential fatty acids in your breast milk?
- Use plenty of polyunsaturated fats in cooking, such as rapeseed oil or another type of runny vegetable oil
- Add vegetable oil-based salad dressing to your salads
- Use vegetable oil-based margarine on your bread
- Eat a handful of nuts every day
- Eat fish 2 to 3 times a week, aiming to eat different types of fish
Water soluble vitamins such as vitamins B and C have been shown to transfer from the mum’s diet to her breast milk (1,6.) You can therefore boost the vitamin content of your breast milk by eating plenty of vegetables and choosing whole grain products, such as:
- Whole grain porridge with berries
- Whole grain rice, pasta and/or other grains
- Brown bread (instead of white)
- Avocado and tomatoes make a great accompaniment with brown toast!
What decreases the quality of breast milk?
As you are focusing on the things that boost the quality of your breast milk, it is also good to stop to consider the foods you should avoid that could decrease the nutritional value. Some of the bad ingredients in food are also known to transfer over to breast milk.
Part of your caffeine intake can transfer to your breast milk and make the baby more restless (1). Drinks to avoid consuming in large quantities (or at all) while breastfeeding are:
- Caffeinated tea/coffee
- Fizzy drinks
- Energy drinks
Alcohol is also known to transfer over to breast milk (1,8). The baby’s liver is not developed enough to handle alcohol like adults can, so alcohol through breast milk can be bad for the baby’s health. The alcohol content of breast milk is the same as the alcohol content of the mum’s blood, and alcohol leaves the breast milk at the same pace as it leaves circulation. It doesn’t get stored in the mammary glands. The alcohol content of breast milk is at its highest 30 to 60 minutes after having a drink. This means that if you drink, it is recommended to avoid breastfeeding until it has left your body.
Learn more: Breastfeeding: Foods to Avoid to Prevent Colic
Allergens and elimination diet while breastfeeding
Allergies and elimination diets are often discussed when talking about the impact of diet on breast milk. Some breastfed babies may experience a dairy intolerance or gluten intolerance, which can make them unsettled. The mum is naturally inclined to try and do everything to try and help her child. This is why some breastfeeding mums eliminate certain foods from their diet to try and avoid passing allergens to the baby through breast milk.
However, studies have shown that the mum’s varied diet healthily exposes the baby to different types of food and allergens and therefore helps the baby to develop their immunity (1,9). Where possible, breastfeeding should be continued even if the baby shows signs of intolerance to some foods the mum eats. Of course, the cause of the baby’s allergy symptoms is important to be investigated by a doctor and a dietician.
Keep a flexible mindset when feeding your little one
Every breastfeeding experience is unique. Breastfeeding for you may have gone just as you imagined, or it may not work no matter how hard you try.
You also may have chosen not to breastfeed. Every mum makes a decision that is right for them and their baby, and this decision should not be judged or criticised by others. Just remember to ask for help, if breastfeeding or any thoughts around the matter have a negative impact on your life.
Whether you breastfeed your baby or not, it is important to eat enough and make good food choices. For some mums, the thought of boosting the quality of their breast milk is a great motivator to focus on making healthy life choices.
But I do have a message to all the mamas out there: remember to also take care of yourself while breastfeeding by having some guilt-free tasty treats now and again while otherwise aiming to follow a balanced and nutritious diet!
If you have any questions regarding breastfeeding or your motherhood journey, don’t hesitate to Ask Lola&Lykke’s Experts! We provide mums a private, judgement-free zone so that you can have your concerns answered by Maternal health experts, all free of charge!
(1) Valtion ravitsemusneuvottelukunta. Syödään yhdessä -ruokasuositukset lapsiperheille. Helsinki: PunaMusta Oy 2019. https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-343-254-3
(2) Fineli®. Elintarvikkeiden koostumustietopankki. Helsinki: Terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin laitos. https://fineli.fi/fineli/fi/index (accessed 12.6.2022)
(3) Boquien CY (2018). Human Milk: An Ideal Food for Nutrition of Preterm Newborn. Frontiers in Pediatrics 2018;6:1-9.
(4) Imetyksen tuki ry (2021). Äidinmaito on superfoodia. Imetyksen tuki ry 2021. https://imetys.fi/odottajan-opas/imetyksen-huimat-hyodyt/ (accessed 12.6.2022)
(5) Naistalo (2019). Imetyksen hyötyjä. Terveyskylä.fi 2019. https://www.terveyskyla.fi/naistalo/raskaus-ja-synnytys/imetys/imetyksen-hy%C3%B6tyj%C3%A4 (accessed 12.6.2022)
(6) Bravi F, Decarli A, Agostoni C, Ferraroni M (2016). Impact of maternal nutrition and breast-milk composition: A systematic review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2016;104:646-662.
(7) Innis S M (2014). Impact of maternal diet on human milk composition and neurological development of infants. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2014;99:734S–741S.
(8) Ruokavirasto (2019). Elintarvikkeiden turvallisen käytön ohjeet. Ruokavirasto 2019. https://www.ruokavirasto.fi/henkiloasiakkaat/tietoa-elintarvikkeista/elintarvikkeiden-turvallisen-kayton-ohjeet/turvallisen-kayton-ohjeet/ (accessed 19.6.2022)
(9) Odottavan äidin käsikirja (2020). Ravitsemus imetysaikana. Terveyskirjasto Duodecim 2020. https://www.terveyskirjasto.fi/odk00096 (accessed 19.6.2022)
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