Foods To Avoid When Breastfeeding

As highly processed foods are generally high in calories, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, yet low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, it’s recommended to limit their intake as much as possible.

Maternal Diet

Yes. Breastfeeding mothers generally need more calories to meet their nutritional needs while breastfeeding. An additional 330 to 400 kilocalories (kcal) per day is recommended for well-nourished breastfeeding mothers, compared with the amount they were consuming before pregnancy (approximately 2,000 to 2,800 kcal per day for breastfeeding women verses 1,600 to 2,400 kcal per day for moderately active, non-pregnant women who are not breastfeeding). The number of additional calories needed for an individual breastfeeding woman is also affected by her age, body mass index, activity level, and extent of breastfeeding (exclusively breastfeeding verses breastfeeding and formula feeding). The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) Calculator for Healthcare Professionals external icon can be used to estimate calorie needs based on sex, age, height, weight, activity level, and pregnancy and lactation status.

Refer to guidance from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) for more information on vitamins, minerals, and calories needed while breastfeeding in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. pdf icon [PDF-30.6MB] external icon

Should mothers take a multivitamin while breastfeeding?

Maybe. Continued use of a prenatal vitamin postpartum may exceed the iron and folic acid needs of a breastfeeding mother. However, some people, such as those with vegetarian and vegan diets, may not get adequate nutrients through their diet alone and may be at greater risk for nutritional deficiencies. In addition, the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) (the average amount of a vitamin or mineral that meets the daily nutrient needs of nearly all healthy people) for some nutrients (such as iodine and choline) increase while breastfeeding; therefore, it is possible that diet alone may not be sufficient to ensure adequate nutrition for women who are breastfeeding. In these cases, breastfeeding mothers may benefit from taking a multivitamin supplement. Health care providers should work with lactating women to determine appropriate dietary supplements during lactation.

Are there any nutrients that mothers should increase while breastfeeding?

Yes. A mother’s need for iodine and choline increases during lactation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend lactating parents consume 290 mcg of iodine and 550mg of choline daily throughout the first year postpartum. Iodine can be found in dairy products, eggs, seafood, or in iodized table salt. Choline can be found in dairy and protein food groups, such as eggs, meats, some seafood, beans, peas, and lentils. Health care providers should work with lactating mothers to determine if they need an iodine or choline supplement to achieve adequate intake.

Are there any foods that mothers should avoid or limit while breastfeeding?

Photo: A mother preparing food with her baby

Generally, women do not need to limit or avoid specific foods while breastfeeding. Mothers should be encouraged to eat a healthy and diverse diet external icon . However, certain types of seafood should be consumed in a limited amount and some mothers may wish to restrict caffeine while breastfeeding.

Seafood:

Although fish remains an excellent source of protein and contains essential vitamins and minerals for breastfeeding women, some care must be taken in deciding on the amount and types of seafood to consume. Most fish contain some amount of mercury, which accumulates in fish flesh and can pass from mother to infant through breast milk. This can have adverse effects on the brain and nervous system of the breastfed infant.

Breastfeeding women (as well as pregnant women, women of childbearing age) should follow the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) advice external icon about eating fish:

  • Eat a variety of fish.
  • If you eat fish caught by family or friends, check for fish advisories external icon . If there is no advisory, eat only one serving and no other fish that week.
  • Try to avoid eating the “Choices to Avoid” fish or feeding them to children. It is best to eat a variety of fish from the “Best Choices” and “Good Choices” categories on this chart. external icon
  • 1 serving = 4 ounces of fish, measured before cooking. Eat 2 to 3 servings (between 8 and 12 ounces) of fish a week from the “Best Choices” list OR 1 serving (4 ounces) from the “Good Choices” list on this chart external icon .

Mercury can be harmful to the brain and nervous system of any person exposed to too much of it over time. Thus, lower mercury fish are a good choice for everyone. Learn more about mercury exposure and breastfeeding.

Caffeine:

Caffeine passes from the mother to infant in small amounts through breast milk, but usually does not adversely affect the infant when the mother consumes low to moderate amounts (about 300 milligrams or less per day, which is about 2 to 3 cups of coffee). Irritability, poor sleeping patterns, fussiness, and jitteriness have been reported in infants of mothers with very high intakes of caffeine, about 10 cups of coffee or more per day.

If an infant appears to be more fussy or irritable after the mother consumes high amounts of caffeine, she should consider decreasing her intake. Preterm and younger newborn infants break down caffeine more slowly, so mothers of these infants might consider consuming even less caffeine.

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Common dietary sources of caffeine include the following:

  • Coffee.
  • Sodas.
  • Energy drinks.
  • Tea.
  • Chocolate.

Search “caffeine” in LactMed external icon for more information on caffeine consumption and breastfeeding.

Are there any special diet recommendations for mothers who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet while breastfeeding?

Yes. Breastfed infants of women who do not consume any animal products may have very limited amounts of vitamin B12 in their bodies. These low amounts of vitamin B12 can put their infants at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can result in neurological damage. Iron may also be of concern as plant source foods only contain non-heme iron, which is less bioavailable than heme iron. The American Dietetic Association recommends vitamin B12 supplementation during pregnancy and while breastfeeding for mothers who eat vegan or vegetarian diets. Health care providers should work with lactating individuals eating a vegetarian or vegan diet to determine if they also need supplementation of iron and other nutrients such as choline, zinc, iodine, or omega-3 fats (EPA/DHA).

5 Foods to Limit or Avoid While Breastfeeding

Breast milk is incredibly nutritious. In fact, it provides most of the nutrients that your baby needs for the first 6 months of life ( 1 , 2 ).

While the composition of breast milk is tightly regulated by your body, research has shown that what you eat does have some effect on the contents of breast milk ( 3 , 4 ).

In general, no foods are off-limits. Instead, women are recommended to eat a balanced, varied diet. Still, there are some foods and beverages that you may want to limit while breastfeeding.

Here are 5 foods to limit or avoid while breastfeeding, as well as tips for how to tell if your diet is affecting your baby.

Breastfeeding woman

Fish is a great source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) — two types of omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain development in infants, yet can be hard to find in other foods ( 5 ).

However, some fish and seafood can also be high in mercury, a metal that can be toxic — especially in infants and kids, who are more sensitive to mercury poisoning ( 6 , 7 ).

Acute exposure to high levels of mercury can permanently affect your infant’s central nervous system. As a result, they may have delays or impairments in ( 6 , 8 ):

  • cognition
  • fine motor skills
  • speech and language development
  • visual-spatial awareness

Therefore, fish that are high in mercury should be avoided while breastfeeding. Examples include ( 9 ):

  • bigeye tuna
  • king mackerel
  • marlin
  • orange roughy
  • shark
  • swordfish
  • tilefish

To ensure adequate omega-3 intake while reducing the risk of mercury poisoning, mothers who breastfeed are recommended to avoid high mercury fish and instead consume 8–12 ounces (225–340 grams) of low mercury fish per week ( 9 ).

summary

Due to concerns over mercury poisoning in infants, women who are breastfeeding should avoid fish that are high in mercury, such as shark, swordfish, and bigeye tuna.

The use of herbs and spices like cumin or basil to season food is considered safe during breastfeeding.

However, when it comes to herbal supplements and teas, there are some concerns about safety, as there’s a lack of research in women who are breastfeeding ( 10 , 11 ).

Additionally, because herbal supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, there’s also the potential for these supplements to be contaminated with potentially dangerous heavy metals ( 10 , 11 ).

While many women try supplements to help increase milk supply, there’s overall limited evidence on their effectiveness, with most studies finding no difference in breast milk production compared with a placebo ( 12 ).

It’s best to speak with your healthcare provider before trying out a supplement.

summary

As most herbal supplements haven’t been evaluated for their safety during breastfeeding, it’s recommended to talk with your healthcare provider before using any supplements or herbal teas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), abstaining from alcohol is the safest option during breastfeeding. However, an occasional drink is likely safe, as long as you’re cautious about the amount and timing ( 13 ).

How much alcohol your baby can get from breast milk depends on how much alcohol you consumed and when you consumed it. Research shows that the amount of alcohol in breast milk peaks 30–60 minutes after your last drink ( 14 ).

Plus, alcohol can remain in your system for up to 2–3 hours. This is just for one drink — the more alcohol you have, the longer it can take to be cleared from your system ( 14 ).

As a result, the CDC recommends limiting alcohol to just one standard drink per day and waiting at least 2 hours after that drink to breastfeed ( 13 ).

One standard drink is equivalent to ( 15 ):

  • 12 ounces (355 mL) of beer
  • 5 ounces (125 mL) of wine
  • 1.5 ounces (45 mL) of hard alcohol

High levels of alcohol consumption have been shown to reduce breast milk output by 20%. ( 14)

Moreover, frequent, excessive alcohol intake during breastfeeding has been linked to an increased risk of disrupted sleep patterns, delay in psychomotor skills, and even cognitive delay later in life ( 13 , 14 , 16 , 17 ).

summary

Women who are breastfeeding are recommended to limit alcohol to one drink or less per day and to wait at least 2 hours before breastfeeding. Frequent and excessive alcohol intake can reduce milk production and have serious effects on your baby.

Coffee, soda, tea, and chocolate are common sources of caffeine. When you consume them, some of that caffeine can end up in your breast milk ( 18 , 19 ).

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This can be problematic, as babies have a hard time breaking down and getting rid of caffeine. As a result, large amounts of caffeine over time could accumulate in your baby’s system, causing irritability and trouble sleeping ( 19 , 20 ).

According to the CDC, mothers who are breastfeeding are recommended to consume no more than 300 mg of caffeine per day, which is equivalent to two or three cups of coffee ( 18 ).

As energy drinks often contain added vitamins and herbs, in addition to high amounts of caffeine, women who are breastfeeding are recommended to avoid these products unless otherwise approved by a trusted healthcare provider ( 21 ).

summary

During breastfeeding, women are recommended to limit caffeine intake to 300 mg per day or less to prevent irritability and disrupted sleep patterns in your infant.

To meet the increased nutrient demands of breastfeeding, it’s incredibly important that you eat a healthy, balanced diet ( 22 ).

As highly processed foods are generally high in calories, unhealthy fats, and added sugars, yet low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, it’s recommended to limit their intake as much as possible.

Early research has also suggested that a mother’s diet while breastfeeding may influence her child’s diet later in life ( 23 , 24 , 25 ).

Specifically, animal studies have found that flavors infants are exposed to through breast milk can influence their food preferences as they grow up ( 26 ).

One study observed that rats born to mothers with a high junk food diet were significantly more likely to prefer high fat, high sugar foods than those whose mothers had a balanced, healthy diet ( 27 ).

While more research is needed in humans, there’s a concern that frequent exposure to fatty, sugary foods as an infant may lead to less healthy eating habits and obesity as the child ages.

summary

As highly processed foods are generally low in essential nutrients and may affect your child’s food preferences later in life, it’s recommended that breastfeeding moms limit their intake of foods that are high in added sugars and processed fats.

As flavors of foods and beverages end up in your breast milk, some moms find that strongly flavored foods like onion, garlic, or spices cause their babies to refuse to feed or become fussy after eating ( 28 , 29 ).

While there’s no evidence to suggest that all mothers should avoid strongly flavored foods, if you notice changes in your baby’s feedings, it’s important to talk with your dietitian or pediatrician about eliminating certain foods or spices from your diet ( 29 , 30 ).

Other potential food groups that may need to be avoided during breastfeeding include cow’s milk and soy products.

Approximately 0.5–2% of breastfed infants may be allergic to cow’s milk protein from their mother’s milk, while 0.25% may be allergic to soy protein ( 31 , 32 , 33 , 34 ).

If your pediatrician suspects that your baby may have an allergy to milk or soy, it’s recommended to exclude all cow’s milk or soy protein from your diet for 2–4 weeks if you want to continue breastfeeding ( 35 ).

summary

Some babies may be more sensitive to strongly flavored foods or have an allergy to cow’s milk or soy protein. In these cases, it’s important to talk with your pediatrician before eliminating foods from your diet.

Every baby is different. However, there are some common signs that your diet may be affecting your baby, including ( 36 , 37 ):

  • eczema
  • bloody stools
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • hives
  • constipation
  • wheezing
  • congestion
  • abnormal fussiness
  • excessive gas
  • anaphylaxis — while rare, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention

If your baby exhibits any of these symptoms, it could be a sign that your baby is allergic or intolerant to a food in your diet. It’s important to make an appointment with your pediatrician, as they can work with you to help identify the problematic food.

For some food allergies, you may be instructed to cut out any suspected allergens for 2–4 weeks to see if symptoms subside.

Keep in mind that though your baby may have intolerances or allergies as an infant, they may still be able to tolerate those foods as they get older. Consult your pediatrician before adding foods back into your diet or your child’s ( 38 ).

summary

Symptoms like eczema, bloody stools, diarrhea, and congestion can indicate a food allergy or intolerance in your infant. It’s important to work with your pediatrician to identify which food(s) may be affecting your baby.

Breastfeeding provides essential nutrients for your growing infant.

While most foods that were off-limits during pregnancy are back on the menu, there are some foods and beverages that may not be tolerated by or have negative effects on your baby.

While it’s recommended to completely avoid fish high in mercury and some herbal supplements, foods like alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed products can still be consumed but in limited amounts.

If your baby has symptoms like eczema or bloody stools, it may be due to something in your diet. It’s important to share your concerns with your pediatrician before making any sudden dietary changes.

Last medically reviewed on April 24, 2020

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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