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 most recent statistics, 81 percent of women in the UK start breastfeeding, with 17 percent of babies still being breastfed exclusively at three months (i).
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 between £6 - £13 a week for powder feeds and £24 - £32 for ready-to-feed products (ii), and that’s without the money you have to spend on bottles and sterilising equipment).
The NHS claims any amount of breastfeeding is good for your baby, no matter how little (iii). 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(iii).
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – more commonly known as cot death – is less common in babies who are breast fed(iii). 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 or becoming overweight later in life (iii). There is also some evidence it may also help prevent allergies such as asthma (iv).
• Breastfeeding also reduces a mother’s risk of developing several medical conditions, including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease (iii). Some experts believe it may help prevent postnatal depression (v). Others also claim it can help mothers lose weight after having their babies (vi).
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 within the first week after you’ve started breastfeeding (vii). 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 says putting a warm flannel over your breast may be helpful, or you could try having warm showers and baths (viii).
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 (ix). 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).
Experts still aren’t sure how much alcohol (if any) is safe for you to drink while you’re pregnant, which is why people like the Chief Medical Offices for the UK recommend not drinking any alcohol at all to keep the risks to your baby to a minimum (x).
Drinking alcohol, especially during your first trimester, increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and having a baby with a low birth weight. Drinking after the first three months could affect your baby after they’re born, with the risks increasing with the more you drink (learning difficulties and behavioural problems are two of the potential effects drinking during pregnancy can have on children after they’re born).
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 (xi). That’s because caffeine is a stimulant that can get into your breast milk and make your baby restless and keep them awake.
To give you an idea of how much caffeine you may be drinking, there’s around 100mg in one mug of instant coffee and 140mg in a mug of filter coffee. Tea has a little less with around 75mg per mug (this includes green tea).
Also remember that other things contain caffeine, including chocolate (a 50g bar of dark chocolate contains up to 25mg caffeine and a 50g bar of milk chocolate up to 10mg), canned cola drinks (around 40mg) and energy drinks (up to 80mg per 250ml can).
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 says you should only avoid eating peanuts if you’re advised to by a healthcare professional or if you have a nut allergy (xi).
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 myths and facts
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 (xii):
You need to eat special foods to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding doesn’t require special foods to produce milk or to increase milk supply. Unless there is a reason for low milk production, a mother who breastfeeds on cue will be able to produce enough milk for her baby, regardless of what she eats.
You always have to avoid certain foods when you’re breastfeeding.
There are no specific foods you always need to avoid just because you are breastfeeding. However if your baby has an obvious reaction every time you eat a certain food you may choose to eliminate that food from your diet. If parents have allergies this can also increase the possibility of their baby having the same allergy (allergic reactions to substances in mother’s milk may include skin, respiratory and intestinal problems in a baby).
There isn’t enough iron in breastmilk.
The iron in human milk is more readily absorbed by babies than the iron in cow’s milk or iron-fortified formula. The quantity of iron in human milk is optimal for babies, despite being less than that found in cow’s milk.
Foods that make a mother gassy will make her baby gassy too.
Gas from a mother’s intestinal tract cannot pass into her blood and eventually into her breastmilk for her baby to drink. For many fussy and gassy babies, the problem can be caused by other things, and it isn’t always related to what food their mothers have eaten.
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 (xiii).
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 (xiv).
For more advice on a range of other health conditions and concerns, visit our dedicated health library.
Available online: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/about/breastfeeding-in-the-uk/
Available online: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/cost-of-infant-formula-inquiry/
Available online: https://www.laleche.org.uk/breastfeeding-and-postnatal-depression/
Jarlenski MP. et al., Effects of breastfeeding on postpartum weight loss among U.S. women. Prev Med. 2014 Dec;69: 146-150. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4312189/
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/foods-to-avoid/
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.
Ettinger . AD, Hu. H, Hernandez-Avila. M. Dietary Calcium Supplementation to Lower Blood Lead Levels in Pregnancy and Lactation. J Nutr Biochem. 2007 Mar;18(3): 172-178.Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2566736/
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. Available online: https://internationalbreastfeedingjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1746-4358-2-7
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.