17 July 2006

The bumpy road to breastfeeding

What should you eat while you're breastfeeding? How can you increase your milk production? Why is it better to breastfeed? DietDoc answers a few crucial questions.


The majority of women who have given birth to a baby would like to breastfeed, and Health24's DietDoc says she often receives questions about various aspects of breastfeeding.

Some women want to use strict diets and exercise regimens and/or diet pills and slimming mixtures to lose the weight they have gained during pregnancy as quickly as possible and wonder if this will interfere with their breastfeeding. Other mothers want to know what diet they should follow while breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is best

All women should try to breastfeed their babies for as long as possible, and at least for the first three months of life. Breastfeeding has many advantages, namely:

  • Breast milk provides the most nutritious option for feeding your baby and its composition is much more nutritious than any formula.
  • Breast milk is not contaminated with microorganisms (a serious risk when formulas are not prepared under hygienic conditions), is always fresh, and does not require refrigeration.
  • The anti-infection factors and immune cells in breast milk protect vulnerable infants during the first year of life and provide them with built-in immunity.
  • Babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are less likely to develop allergies than babies who are bottle-fed.
  • Breastfeeding prevents the baby from gaining excess weight, which can lead to obesity in later life (women who tend to gain weight should do everything in their power to breastfeed their babies to prevent the baby from getting fat).
  • Babies that breastfeed develop stronger jaws and their teeth develop normally (bottle-feeding can lead to abnormal development of the teeth and palate).
  • Breastfeeding is highly economical – instead of spending large sums of money of formulas, the mother need only spend a small amount of money on her own diet.
  • Mother-to-child bonding is much stronger and more immediate in breastfed babies.
  • Breastfeeding is more convenient because it is not necessary to sterilise bottles and teats and make up formulas. This is particularly important when mothers and babies need to travel.

Consequently, the greatest gift a mother can give her baby is to breastfeed him or her.

What promotes milk production?

Most mothers who are trying to breastfeed are told a variety of old wives tales about factors that stimulate milk production. 'Drink five litres of water a day!', or 'Drink milk stout!', or 'Don't' eat food X or food Y!' are popular, but unproven bits of advice that your best friend or mother-in-law may give you.

From a physiological point of view, the primary stimulus that promotes milk production is having the baby suck at the breast. When a baby sucks at her mother's breast, nerves underneath the skin of the areola send messages to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which then stimulates another part of the brain known as the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland produces two hormones, namely prolactin and oxytocin.

Lactation hormones

The hormone prolactin stimulates milk production in the breast, while oxytocin stimulates cells in the breast to contract so that the milk moves through the ducts in the breast towards the nipple (i.e. the 'let-down').

So, the more your baby sucks, the more milk you will produce. Women who struggle to produce milk need to let their babies suck as often as possible to get this stimulation system working properly. Frequent sucking is advised to promote abundant milk production.

Factors that influence 'let-down'

A number of factors can influence milk production and let-down. Stresses such as a difficult birth can delay the start of milk production. Emotional stresses that affect the mother, like depression (a common factor after birth - the so-called 'baby blues'), or anxiety can also hamper good milk production.

How a mother feels about breastfeeding is also crucial to her success. If the mother is unsure, or finds the idea unpleasant, she may never achieve successful breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is one of the most natural and rewarding things a mother can share with her child, so get over your repugnance and hesitation and get down to feeding your child with confidence.

Other people such as the staff at the maternity home, family and friends should give a nursing mother all the support she deserves so that she is calm and relaxed and happy. The role of a supportive and encouraging husband should never be underestimated. If your husband is distant or not involved, point out to him how much this will mean to the future health of his child and how much money and effort can be saved by breastfeeding.

If you feel uptight about breastfeeding, do deep breathing and/or relaxing exercises, and your milk will flow. Avoid conflict situations and things you can't handle at this stage. As a nursing mother, your prime goal is to relax and produce milk for your baby. All other problems need to be ignored. You can also ask someone else to solve them for you.

Make breastfeeding your baby a relaxed and pleasant time by settling down in a quiet part of the house in your favourite chair. Enjoying this process will give your child the best start in life.

(Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc, updated August 2012)

Reference: (Mahan LK & Escott-Stump S (2000). Krause's Food, Nutrition & Diet Therapy. 10th Ed, WB Saunders Co, Philadephia, USA. )

Read more:
ABC of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding - the first few days


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