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Home > Living Well > Health Library > Breast-Feeding Support (Holistic)
Continue taking your prenatal vitamin supplement to help supply extra nutrients needed during lactation
Eat a balanced diet of unprocessed foods with extra calories and calcium to support lactation
Reduce or eliminate sources of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine to prevent transferring unhealthy amounts of these substances through your breast milk
Feed your baby frequently, and for as long as possible; help increase and maintain your milk supply by minimizing fatigue and stress
See a lactation specialist or other knowledgeable healthcare practitioner for guidance on changing your baby's feeding position and preventing or relieving sore nipples
Human breast milk is the best food for newborn babies. In December 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement advocating breast milk as the ideal, exclusive food for babies in the first six months of life. They also recommended that breast-feeding continue for at least 12 months or longer if mutually desired.1
In the United States, only about 50% of new mothers giving birth in a hospital breast-feed their babies. This number declines rapidly, with only about 20% of women still breast-feeding at six months.2 There is a large body of evidence on the benefits of breast-feeding for both mother and infant. With adequate support and good information on preventing some of the common problems associated with breast-feeding, a woman's chances of successfully breast-feeding her new baby are greatly improved.
Breast feeding provides significant benefits for baby and mother.
Human milk contains the ideal balance of nutrients, enzymes, and anti-infective and immune supportive agents for babies.3, 4 There are two kinds of breast milk: colostrum and mature milk. Colostrum, which is produced in the first few days after birth, has higher concentrations of protein and immune-enhancing agents and less sugar and fat than mature milk.5 Mature human milk differs greatly from both infant formula and either cow or goat milk. Human milk, made specifically for the nutritional needs of the newborn, is superior to all alternatives.
One significant advantage of human breast milk is its abundance of immune-protective and anti-infective agents, including immunoglobulins (primarily immunoglobulin A, or IgA), lactoferrin, Bifidobacterium bifidum, white blood cells, and other factors. These agents are known to help the newborn fight a wide variety of illnesses. Many scientific studies in the United States and other developed countries have demonstrated the health protective benefits of breast milk.
Breast-feeding has been found to help prevent: diarrhea,6, 7, 8, 9, 10 lower respiratory tract infection,11, 12, 13, 14ear infections (otitis media),15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 meningitis,21, 22urinary tract infection,23 and other serious infections (botulism, necrotizing enterocolitis, bacteremia).24, 25, 26, 27, 28 In addition, breast-feeding may possibly help prevent: sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS),29, 30, 31 insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus,32, 33Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis,34, 35cancer (lymphoma),36, 37 allergic diseases,38, 39, 40 and other chronic digestive diseases.41, 42, 43 Breast-feeding may also enhance cognitive development.44, 45
The protein composition of breast milk is perfect for growing babies and is easy for them to digest. Breast milk also provides absorbable nutrients; the iron and zinc found in human milk is extremely easily absorbed (bioavailable) compared with iron and zinc from other foods. When infants are exclusively breast-fed, 50% of the iron is absorbed. By comparison, absorption of iron from cow's milk and iron-fortified commercial formula is much lower, only 10% and 4%, respectively.46
Breast milk is also quick, easy, and cost-effective. It's always available and does not need to be prepared, and the cost of providing the necessary additional nutrition to a breast-feeding mother is about half the cost of commercial formula.47, 48, 49 And breast-feeding promotes bonding, allowing a mother and her baby to be in close physical contact, enhancing the formation of a close mother-baby bond.50
Breast-feeding a new baby has many important health benefits for the mother as well. Breast-feeding immediately after childbirth causes the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract. This results in less postpartum (after pregnancy) blood loss and a more rapid return of the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size.51 While breast-feeding, most women will not immediately resume their ovulation and menstrual periods. Delaying the return of ovulation may extend the time between pregnancies.52, 53 Women who breast-feed for at least six months lose weight more quickly than women who continue breast-feeding for less than three months.54 And, while breast-feeding can cause a short-term loss of bone density, it also seems to improve the body's ability to rebuild bones postpartum.55 In addition, women who have breast-fed their babies may have fewer osteoporosis-linked hip fractures after they've passed through menopause.56 Breast-feeding has also been associated with a lower risk of ovarian cancer and a reduced risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.57, 58
Several problems common to breast-feeding mothers can be prevented or eased through simple techniques or addressed with common, simple treatment options.
Most women will experience some degree of nipple soreness in the first days of breast-feeding. Discomfort that occurs at the onset of breast-feeding and is relieved by feeding is normal. It is caused by the stimulation of the nipple by the hormone oxytocin, which stimulates milk let-down. True nipple soreness, in which the nipples appear red and are tender to the touch, is rare and is probably caused by the baby's improper grasp on the nipple and areola (pigmented area surrounding the nipple) while feeding.
Correcting the baby's position on the breast is the most important tactic for preventing and relieving sore nipples. A physician, nurse, or lactation consultant can assist in assessing and correcting an infant's grasp of the nipple. Sore nipples can progress to more painful, cracked, and fissured nipples. As the condition worsens, the nipples are more susceptible to infection. In addition to correcting the baby's position, there are a number of self-help measures frequently recommended for the relief of sore nipples. These are most effective when begun at the onset of symptoms.
Check the position of the baby on the breast; the infant's tongue should be under the nipple and the mouth should grasp both the nipple and part of the areola. Vary the position of the breast-feeding infant with each feeding to avoid soreness of a particular area of the nipple.
The infant should be fed on demand; an overly hungry infant may suck harder, causing nipple soreness. Mothers with sore nipples should begin each feeding on the side that is least sore, switching to the sore breast after the let-down reflex has occurred. The infant should not be allowed to suck on an empty breast, which can cause damage to the nipple. If the nipples are sore, a breast-feeding session of ten minutes on each side should be sufficient to nourish the baby.
Ice packs applied to the breasts prior to breast-feeding can have a pain-relieving effect. Allowing nipples to air-dry after nursing can help to reduce nipple soreness.
In the case of cracked nipples, the application of an ointment or cream can aid healing. Ointments or creams allow the skin's internal moisture to heal deep cracks and fissures while keeping the skin pliable.59 A frequently recommended and safe ointment for cracked nipples is medical grade, purified anhydrous lanolin (derived from wool fat). The nipples should be patted dry prior to application of a small amount of lanolin.
Engorgement is a common condition that occurs as blood and lymphatic flow to the breasts greatly increases, leading to congestion and discomfort. The pain associated with engorgement can range from mild to severe. Engorgement typically occurs on the first full day of milk production and lasts only about 24 hours. The breasts may feel firm and hot to the touch and the skin may appear reddened. As with other conditions, the best remedy is prevention. Many health professionals believe frequent breast-feeding (at least every three hours) will successfully prevent engorgement. This is probably true for most women. However, the physical changes associated with initiation of breast-feeding may eventually lead to engorgement in some women. If engorgement occurs, the best remedy is to breast-feed frequently. This can relieve the engorgement and prevent the condition from worsening.
Doctors often recommend additional options for women with engorgement. A well-fitted bra can relieve some of the discomfort of engorgement. Applications of moist heat may encourage flow of milk from the breasts. Women may apply hot packs to the breasts just prior to breast-feeding. Other suggestions include frequent warm showers or alternating hot and cold showers. Cold packs applied to the breasts after breast-feeding can provide a slight pain-relieving effect.
Some infants will have a difficult time correctly latching on to an engorged breast. This can lead to inadequate nourishment and sore nipples. Expressing some excess milk, manually or with a pump, just prior to breast-feeding may relieve this difficulty. Women may also express milk after the infant has finished feeding to relieve any remaining sense of fullness. Massaging the breasts while breast-feeding may encourage milk flow from all the milk ducts and help to relieve engorgement.
Mastitis is inflammation of the breast that is frequently caused by an infection. The infected breast may feel hot and swollen. The breast may be tender to the touch, and fever, fatigue, chills, headache, and nausea may be present. Some women feel as though they have the flu. A breast infection requires prompt medical attention. Complete bed rest is important for a speedy recovery, and antibiotics are frequently prescribed. In addition, doctors often provide further guidelines for treating mastitis.
A woman should continue breast-feeding from both breasts; the milk from the infected breast is still good for the baby. Moist heat over the painful breast can be helpful, and cold applications after breast-feeding can help alleviate swelling and pain. Breast-feeding women should also avoid constricting or under-wire bras that may irritate the infected breast.
Breast-feeding is the best food for babies, and most mothers will be able to breast-feed their infants. However, there are some uncommon situations in which breast-feeding is not in the best interest of the infant.
Galactosemia is a rare metabolic condition that leads to an inability to break down galactose, one of the components of milk sugar (lactose). Infants with galactosemia should not breast-feed, but should be fed a special formula without lactose.60
Phenylketonuria (PKU) is another rare metabolic disorder, in which a newborn is unable to break down the amino acid phenylalanine. The resulting build-up of phenylalanine in the system can be harmful. There is some disagreement regarding whether it is safe to breast-feed infants with PKU. Some sources recommend against breast-feeding the infant with PKU.61 However, breast milk is low in phenylalanine and there is evidence that the exclusively breast-fed infant with PKU will not have damaging levels of phenylalanine accumulate in the bloodstream. A mother interested in breast-feeding her infant with PKU should work closely with a doctor. Close monitoring of the infant's blood phenylalanine levels will be necessary.62
For infants in the United States and other developed countries born to mothers infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) it may be safer not to breast-feed.63 However, there is controversy over this issue. Some researchers have found HIV in human milk, indicating that there is the potential for passing the virus to a healthy baby while breast-feeding. Other studies indicate a very low risk of actually passing the infection to the baby through the breast milk.64
Additionally, a mother with untreated active tuberculosis should not breast-feed her infant. And the infant whose mother abuses drugs should not be breast-fed.65
It is best to avoid all unnecessary medications, herbs, and nutritional supplements when breast-feeding. Most prescribed and over-the-counter medications, when taken by a breast-feeding mother, are considered safe for the infant. However, a doctor should always be consulted before any medication is taken. There are a few medications that mothers may need to take that may make it necessary to interrupt breast-feeding temporarily.
Caffeine, which is considered a drug, is excreted into breast milk. It is estimated that an infant receives 1.5 to 3.1 mg of caffeine after the mother drinks a cup of coffee (a cup of coffee typically contains 60 to 50 mg of caffeine). Because this amount is fairly low, a morning cup of coffee is not likely to cause any problems. However, if the mother is a heavy caffeine user, caffeine can accumulate in the infant.66 Infants have immature livers that are unable to adequately process caffeine. A baby who is irritable and sleeping poorly may be reacting to caffeine in the mother's diet. A woman can switch to decaffeinated coffees and teas to effectively reduce the amount of caffeine her baby receives through her milk.
Alcohol reaches maternal milk in concentrations similar to those in the mother's blood.67 It is therefore best for breast-feeding mothers to minimize or eliminate alcohol consumption. It is commonly believed that drinking beer can increase a woman's milk supply. In fact, drinking beer intake does increase secretion of prolactin (the hormone that stimulates production of breast milk) in both men and women.68 However, research has shown that infants breast-fed after their mothers drank alcoholic beer consumed less milk than when their mothers drank non-alcoholic beer.69
Breast-feeding mothers should not smoke. Nicotine passes to the baby through the breast milk and can cause feeding problems and illness, especially in newborns. Babies should also be protected from the dangers of second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke has been shown to increase the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)70, 71, 72, 73, 74 and colic in newborns.75
There are many reasons why women decide not to breast-feed or discontinue breast-feeding earlier than the recommended six months. These include a lack of family, societal, or medical support;76 misinformation or lack of education about breast-feeding;77 marketing of commercial formulas to new mothers;78 and the difficulties often encountered in returning to work or school.79 In addition, there are some common difficulties that could interfere with a healthy breast-feeding relationship. These include fear of not having enough milk to nourish the baby, sore nipples, engorgement, and mastitis (inflammation of the breast, frequently caused by infection).
A new mother should try to breast-feed her baby as soon as possible after delivery, ideally within the first hour of life.80 An infant should be fed on demand. A hungry infant will first get fussy, with increased activity and rooting (a reflex wherein the infant appears to be searching for the breast with his or her mouth) or mouthing behavior. Crying is a late sign of hunger. To get into the habit of feeding their babies, new mothers are often instructed to follow a schedule of breast-feeding every four hours around the clock. However, these imposed schedules, if followed beyond the first few weeks of life, often lead to frustration and confusion. The only infant who needs to be breast-fed on such a schedule is the infant who does not demand to be fed. Feeding on demand is the best way to increase milk supply. Most infants will empty the breast in 10 to 15 minutes. Some doctors advise gradually increasing the duration of breast-feeding over the first week of life. If this regimen is followed, it is important to breast-feed for at least five minutes on each side to get the benefit of the let-down reflex (which promotes the release of milk from the storage ducts in the breasts).81
Infants need no additional foods or liquids, if exclusively breast-feeding. Early introduction of these items may make successful breast-feeding difficult. Most breast-fed infants will not require any supplemental vitamins or minerals to meet daily requirements until at least six months of age.82Vitamin D may be required for infants whose mothers are vitamin D-deficient or those infants not exposed to adequate sunlight. Iron may be required for infants with low iron stores or anemia.83
Breast milk is made on demand. The more often a baby feeds, the more milk will be produced. If breast-feeding sessions are frequent and long enough, the milk supply will rarely be inadequate. Parents can be reassured that their infants are receiving enough milk if they have six or more wet diapers a day while exclusively breast-feeding. If a parent still feels anxious about the adequacy of the nourishment provided by breast-feeding alone, weekly weighing may allay fears. A weight gain of 0.38 pound (190 grams) per week is evidence of sufficient nourishment and growth.
Some low-birth-weight infants will require intensive care and ventilation in the hospital. Mothers of these infants often have difficulty continuing to produce breast milk. These mothers must rely on expressing breast milk manually because their babies cannot effectively breast-feed. Pumping milk is much less efficient than breast-feeding. Due to the inadequacy of pumping milk, milk production can decline. In low-birth-weight infants in an intensive care setting, skin-to-skin holding over a four-week period postpartum has increased a mother's milk supply.84 In contrast, women who did not participate in skin-to-skin holding of their low-birth-weight infants did not experience an increase in milk production. These findings may have implications for all mothers experiencing a diminishing milk supply. In addition, some doctors will prescribe a day of rest to busy mothers whose milk supply seems to be lessening.85 Spending a day in close and relaxed contact with one's newborn, with its associated increase in frequency of feedings, can effectively increasing milk supply.
Stress and fatigue can greatly inhibit the let-down reflex, lessening the production of milk. In a clinical trial involving mothers of premature infants, mothers who listened to an audiocassette tape based on relaxation and imagery techniques increased milk production by more than 60%, compared with mothers not listening to the tape.86 Whether relaxation techniques would increase milk supply in the mothers of full-term infants is not known.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women should choose a well-balanced and varied diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish. Many doctors recommend limiting intake of refined sugars, white flour, fried foods, processed foods, and chemical additives.
A woman should continue to take prenatal vitamins in order to meet the nutrient requirements of breast-feeding. Especially important is continued intake of calcium and calcium-rich foods.
Breast milk contains essential fatty acids. The fat composition of breast milk varies with a woman's diet. If a woman consumes foods that provide essential fatty acids (e.g., vegetable oils such as canola oil, corn oil, and safflower oil; nut and seed oils; and fish), the breast milk she produces will contain higher quantities of essential fatty acids.
Drinking to quench thirst is enough to support a healthy milk supply. Women are frequently instructed to drink extra fluids to increase milk supply. This is a common misunderstanding, however, and excessive fluid intake should be avoided.
The caloric needs of a breast-feeding woman are even higher than during pregnancy. An extra 400 to 500 calories per day above pregnancy requirements are needed. Most women should consume approximately 2,800 calories per day to meet the energy needs of breast-feeding. Therefore, under most circumstances, doctors discourage dieting (i.e., calorie restriction). Weight loss following pregnancy usually occurs naturally, particularly if a woman can engage in moderate exercise. Breast-feeding uses up fat stores, and is a natural way to lose weight.
Our proprietary "Star-Rating" system was developed to help you easily understand the amount of scientific support behind each supplement in relation to a specific health condition. While there is no way to predict whether a vitamin, mineral, or herb will successfully treat or prevent associated health conditions, our unique ratings tell you how well these supplements are understood by some in the medical community, and whether studies have found them to be effective for other people.
For over a decade, our team has combed through thousands of research articles published in reputable journals. To help you make educated decisions, and to better understand controversial or confusing supplements, our medical experts have digested the science into these three easy-to-follow ratings. We hope this provides you with a helpful resource to make informed decisions towards your health and well-being.
3 StarsReliable and relatively consistent scientific data showing a substantial health benefit.
2 StarsContradictory, insufficient, or preliminary studies suggesting a health benefit or minimal health benefit.
1 StarFor an herb, supported by traditional use but minimal or no scientific evidence. For a supplement, little scientific support.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid present in cod liver oil and other fish oils, is important for normal development of the brain and eyes. Studies have shown that higher concentrations of DHA in mothers' milk are associated with better visual acuity in the infants. Other studies have suggested that DHA improves the development of infants, although not all research agrees. Because DHA in the mother's diet passes into the breast milk, some doctors advise nursing mothers to supplement their diet with cod liver oil or another fish-oil supplement. Women wishing to use this or any supplement while breast-feeding should consult their doctors and use only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Numerous herbs are used traditionally around the world to promote production of breast milk. Herbs that promote milk production and flow are known as galactagogues. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) enriches and increases the flow of breast milk and restores the mother's energy following childbirth.Vitex (Vitex agnus castus) is one of the best-recognized herbs in Europe for promoting lactation. An older German clinical trial found that 15 drops of a vitex tincture three times per day could increase the amount of milk produced by mothers with or without pregnancy complications compared with mothers given vitamin B1 or nothing. Vitex should not be taken during pregnancy. Goat's rue (Galega officinalis) also has a history of use in Europe for supporting breast-feeding. Taking 1 teaspoon of goat's rue tincture three times per day is considered by European practitioners to be helpful in increasing milk volume. Studies are as yet lacking to support the use of goat's rue as a galactagogue. In two preliminary trials, infants have been shown to nurse longer when their mothers ate garlic than when their mothers took placebos. However, some infants may develop colic if they consume garlic in breast milk.
The safety of using anise during pregnancy and breast-feeding is unknown, though it is very likely safe and has traditionally been used to support breast-feeding in some cultures.
For sore nipples, some healthcare practitioners may recommend a warm, moist poultice of herbs with demulcent (soothing) properties. Demulcents are traditionally used to aid healing and soothe any irritated tissue. Examples of herbs traditionally used as demulcents to relieve sore nipples are marigold (Calendula officinalis), comfrey (Symphytum officinalis), and chickweed (Stellaria media). To prepare a poultice, the dried herbs are moistened with boiling water and wrapped within two layers of gauze. The poultice is then applied to the breasts. Application of a hot water bottle over the poultice will keep the poultice warm longer. Any residue should be washed from the breast before the baby breast-feeds. Individuals wishing to use herbs during breast-feeding should do so only under the supervision of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
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Last Review: 06-05-2015
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