Breastfeeding: Natural Support
If you’ve decided to breastfeed, experts agree it’s the best way to provide health benefits, not just for your baby but also for yourself. According to the NHS, more than 73 percent of women start breastfeeding, with 17 percent of babies still being breastfed exclusively at three months.
Breastfeeding is convenient, since the milk is there for your baby whenever they need it (which can be very useful during night feeds). Breast milk is also thought to be designed perfectly for your baby, and may help the two of you to form a strong emotional bond.
It has financial advantages too, since breastfeeding costs nothing (the average cost of formula feeding is currently estimated at around £500 a year, and that’s without the money you have to spend on bottles and sterilising equipment).
The NHS also claims any amount of breastfeeding is good for your baby, no matter how little. Feeding them exclusively with breast milk is recommended for the first six months – and the longer you continue to breastfeed, the greater the benefits.
The health benefits of breastfeeding include the following:
It reduces your baby’s risk of developing an infection, thanks to the antibodies that you pass to your baby in your milk. Breast-fed babies also have less diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation, and have fewer chest and ear infections than non breast-fed babies. Experts also claim breast-fed babies are less likely to have to visit a hospital.
Researchers claim sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – more commonly known as cot death – is less common in babies who are breast fed. Why this might happen, however, isn’t clear.
According to the NHS, breastfeeding may also reduce your child’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease later in life. There is also some evidence it may also help prevent eczema and asthma.
Breastfeeding also reduces a mother’s risk of developing several medical conditions, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Studies also suggest it can help prevent postnatal depression. Some experts also claim it can help mothers lose weight after having their babies.
After tackling the bodily changes that occur with pregnancy, breastfeeding comes with its own set of challenges. While breastfeeding has many proven benefits for both mother and baby, it can sometimes be accompanied by pain and discomfort. The earlier breastfeeding problems are tackled, the better. So if you’re affected by a breastfeeding problem, get professional help from your midwife, health visitor or a breastfeeding specialist as soon as possible.
Here are some of the problems that may happen with breastfeeding:
Sore or cracked nipples
According to the NHS, the most common time to experience sore or cracked nipples is around three to seven days after you’ve started breastfeeding. Painful nipples is one of the main reasons women give up breastfeeding, and is usually the result of your baby not being positioned and attached properly.
Getting help from a breastfeeding specialist can help to resolve this problem, and in the meantime you can help yourself by doing the following:
Wear a cotton bra, ideally one that has been designed for breastfeeding or a non-underwired bra.
Avoid using soap around the nipples, as it can make the skin dry.
Make sure your nipples are dry before getting dressed after a feed, and if you use breast pads change them at each feed.
Blocked milk ducts
If your breasts become engorged with too much milk they can feel uncomfortable and even painful. This can happen early on, as it takes time for your milk supply to match your baby’s needs. But if it continues, it can cause a blockage in one your milk ducts (this can feel like a small lump in your breast that may be tender when you touch it).
It’s important to clear a blocked milk duct as quickly as possible. Ask your midwife or breastfeeding specialist to check that your baby is attached properly during breastfeeding, as this can lead to a blocked duct. You can also try feeding from the affected breast more frequently, and try massaging the lump towards your nipple during feeding.
When a blocked milk duct remains blocked, it can lead to inflammation in the breast, a condition called mastitis. This can cause flu-like symptoms, as well as make your breast feel painful and inflamed. Again, ask your midwife or breastfeeding specialist to check that your baby is attached properly during breastfeeding, and carry on breastfeeding, letting your baby feed on the affected breast first.
You could also try having a warm bath or shower, as it can help make the milk flow more easily, and get as much rest as possible. If you need pain relief, the NHS recommends taking paracetamol or ibuprofen, both of which are available over the counter at pharmacies.
Meanwhile, if you don’t feel better after 12-24 hours or if your symptoms get worse, contact your GP or out-of-hours service. Mastitis can cause an infection in the breast, which means you may need a course of antibiotics.
Failing to treat infective mastitis promptly – or if the infection doesn’t respond to antibiotics combined with frequent feeding – can lead to a breast abscess. If this happens, you may need an operation to have the abscess drained.
There are several symptoms and causes of thrush — pregnancy being one of them. Severe pain in both nipples or breasts for up to an hour after a feed may be a sign that you’ve developed thrush. This happens when the yeast Candida albicans gets into your nipple or breast (often a result of having cracked nipples), causing a candida infection. Your baby can also develop thrush in their mouth – signs include white spots in their mouth, a white film on their lips and they may seem unsettled while feeding.
If you think you and/or your baby has thrush, see your GP or health visitor as the infection can spread between you and to other members of your family.
Breastfeeding: what should you eat?
Eating a healthy balanced diet is recommended if you’re breastfeeding – and indeed at any other time. Whatever you eat or drink while you’re breastfeeding can get into your breast milk, so by eating healthily you’ll be giving your baby the best start. There are, however, a few things you should be aware of, including the following:
Don’t have more than two 140g portions of oily fish each week while you’re breastfeeding. Examples of oily fish include salmon, fresh tuna, pilchards, sardines, herring and trout. Don’t have more than one portion a week of shark, swordfish or marlin (this advice is for all adults, not just breastfeeding women).
Avoid drinking more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week, say health experts. Regularly drinking more than two units a day while breastfeeding could affect your baby’s development. A drink now and then, however, isn’t likely to do your baby any harm.
The number of units in alcoholic drinks varies according to the strength of the drink – for instance, a small 125ml glass of with 11% alcohol contains 1.4 units, while the same amount of 14% wine contains 1.8 units (find more about alcohol units at the Drinkaware website).
According to the NHS it’s a good idea for both pregnant and breastfeeding women to restrict their caffeine intake to less than 300mg a day. That’s because caffeine is a stimulant that can get into your breast milk and make your baby restless and keep them awake.
To keep within the 300mg limit, have no more than two mugs of filter coffee, three mugs of instant coffee or four mugs of tea a day (a mug of filter coffee contains 140mg caffeine, a mug of instant coffee has 100mg and a mug of tea 75mg).
Also remember that other things contain caffeine, including chocolate (a 50g bar of plain chocolate contains up to 50mg caffeine), canned cola drinks (around 40mg) and energy drinks (up to 80mg).
If you normally like to eat peanuts or foods that contain peanuts – such as peanut butter – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do so while you’re breastfeeding. The NHS claims there’s no clear evidence that eating peanuts during breastfeeding increases your baby’s risk of developing a peanut allergy.
If you’re worried that something you’re eating is affecting your baby, have a chat about it with your GP or health visitor.
Breastfeeding: what should you eat?
There are many myths surrounding the subject of breastfeeding. Here are some explained by the La Leche League, an international organisation that aims to help mothers around the world to breastfeed:
A mother only needs to breastfeed four to six times a day to maintain good milk supply.
Research shows when a mother breastfeeds early and often, an average of 9.9 times a day in the first two weeks, her milk production is greater, her baby gains more weight and she continues breastfeeding for a longer period. Milk production has been shown to be related to feeding frequency, and milk supply declines when feedings are infrequent or restricted.
If a baby isn't gaining weight well, it may be due to the low quality of the mother's milk.
The most common causes of milk supply problems are infrequent feedings and/or poor latch-on and positioning; both are usually due to inadequate information provided to the breastfeeding mother. Suckling problems on the infant's part can also impact milk supply negatively. Stress, fatigue or malnutrition are rarely causes of milk supply failure because the body has highly developed survival mechanisms to protect breastfeeding during times of scarce food supply.
Some babies are allergic to their mother's milk.
Human milk is the most natural and physiologic substance a baby can ingest. If a baby shows sensitivities related to feeding, it is usually a foreign protein that has piggybacked into mother's milk, and not the milk itself. This is easily handled by removing the offending food from the mother's diet for a time
Frequent feeding causes a child to be obese later in life.
Studies show breastfed babies who control their own feeding patterns and intake tend to take just the right amount of milk for them.
Natural support for breastfeeding
Natural health practitioners often recommend a multivitamin and mineral supplement to support a breastfeeding mother’s general health and wellbeing. Choose a formula that’s suitable for you while you’re breastfeeding – one that contains a good spread of nutrients, including B vitamins and magnesium, plus iron for energy and antioxidants to help support your immune system.
Look for a multivitamin and mineral supplement that also has good levels of calcium, or consider taking a separate calcium supplement, as there’s some evidence calcium may reduce lead levels in breast milk (i).
If you don’t eat any oily fish it’s also a good idea to take a fish oil supplement, since the omega-3 essential fatty acids found in oily fish are considered essential for the health of babies, particularly for brain development. Fish oils are also widely thought to help with inflammation, which may be helpful if you have a breastfeeding problem such as non-infective mastitis.
Meanwhile if you’re taking a course of antibiotics to treat infective mastitis, you could consider taking a live bacteria supplement too. Since antibiotic drugs destroy the beneficial bacteria in the gut along with bacteria that cause infection, most natural health practitioners recommend supplementing with a live bacteria product to avoid a microbial imbalance while taking a course of antibiotics.
Brewing up some peppermint tea could also be useful if you have sore or cracked nipples as a result of breastfeeding. According to one study, applying lukewarm peppermint tea directly to the nipples may help prevent nipple cracks (ii).
For more advice on a range of other health conditions and concerns, visit our dedicated health library.
Hernandez-Avila. M, Gonzalez-Cossio. T, Hernandez-Avila. JE, et al. Dietary calcium supplements to lower blood lead levels in lactating women: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Epidemiology. 2003;14:206-212.
Sayyah Melli. M, Rashidi. MR, Delazar. A, et al. Effect of peppermint water on prevention of nipple cracks in lactating primiparous women: a randomized controlled trial. Int Breastfeed J. 2007 Apr 19.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.