Nutrition in the Breastfeeding Mother: Does it Affect the Quality of Her Milk?
As a new mother who was fully committed to breastfeeding (and slightly terrified of it at the same time), everything about breastfeeding and breast milk amazed me; the nutrients, complexity, antibodies and enzymes contained in breast milk, the healing properties of breast milk, and the fact that even if something was lacking in my diet (unknowingly or out of necessity), my body would make up for it by taking it from my body and putting it in my milk.
Let’s begin with a little information about breast milk. Human milk “breast milk” is specifically adapted for human babies, having a constant level of carbohydrates (roughly 7 g/dL), and proteins (9 g/dL), but with fats varying according to neonatal growth, mother’s intake and period of lactation. Breast milk contains these three key nutrients as well as vitamins, minerals, immune and non-immune protecting agents, growth factors and hormones, and enzymes.
One example of an immune compound is lysozyme, which is primarily found in breast milk, and tears, and breaks bonds in bacterial cell walls; this protects the infant from infection by bacteria. Breast milk has other compounds that protect the infant from viruses, fungi and parasites. Non-immune agents that protect the infant from immune responses are antiproteases, antioxidants and enzymes, which are anti-inflammatory and prevent conditions such as necrotizing enterocolitis (the intestines become inflamed and begin to die), which can be fatal to infants. An example of a hormone is thyrotropin releasing hormone (TRH) which stimulates thyroid production in the infant. Enzymes facilitate the absorption of the nutrients in breast milk efficiently; xanthine oxidase allows the infant to absorb iron. Most enzymes are specific to each nutrient, vitamin or mineral, and help the infant get the most out of every drop of human milk.
According to a study published by Georgetown University Medical Center, “Even when a mother’s own supply of nutrients and energy is limited, she still is able to produce breast milk of sufficient quantity and quality to support the growth and health of her infant,” (Hamosh). These main nutrients remain constant when a lactating mother has a decent diet, even when lacking in some nutrients. Kellymom.com states that “except in special circumstances, women in developed countries are not likely to have nutritional deficiencies that will affect their milk.” The nutrients that a mother may be lacking are calcium and zinc, but supplementing will not affect the amounts in her milk; in fact these supplements are for mom’s benefit, not for mom’s milk. The levels of these two minerals remain pretty constant in her breast milk.
Now when we get into moms that are severely malnourished, often in cases of starvation and famine, amazingly some nutrients remain constant while levels of other nutrients do decrease. Lactose, the most abundant nutrient in human milk, remains constant regardless of maternal nutrition, and protein also remains constant. Fat content in milk varies according to many factors, such as gestation, lactation, milk volume, and weight changes in mom. The fat content in milk is impacted by diet in that whatever type of fats mom ingests seem to be transferred to her breast milk. Mothers who take in unsaturated fats have more unsaturated fats in their breast milk than a mother who takes in more saturated fats; however the amount of fat is relatively consistent. Kellymom tells us “one study has shown that black mothers in South Africa who eat a traditional maize diet have less monunsaturated fatty acid in their milk than urban mothers who consumed more animal proteins and fats” (Bonyata).
“When maternal intake of specific vitamins is chronically low, these vitamins in turn are found in lower levels in the milk,” (Hamosh). Vitamins are found in lower levels when mother’s levels are chronically low, when a mother is very malnourished. When supplements are added to the mother’s diet, her vitamin levels increase along with the levels in her breast milk. Some trace minerals such as fluoride and iron are dependent on how long a mother has been lactating, and other minerals like manganese and selenium depend on maternal nutrition.
The recommended diet therapy for a nursing mother who is extremely malnourished and lacking in many key vitamins and minerals is to reintroduce a balanced diet. While supplementing the infant with formula would be the first thought to some, it has actually been shown to be more beneficial to supplement the mother’s diet with nutritious foods. Adding formula to the infant’s diet will deprive the infant of antibodies in the mother’s milk, and create the potential for formula to be mixed with unclean water, which could the infant unnecessarily to bacteria or parasites. The breast milk of malnourished mothers who are given nutritious foods and vitamin and mineral supplements have shown dramatic increases to what is considered a normal level within a short period of time. The infant receives the benefits of the added nutrition, as well as the immune factors and enzymes present in the breast milk that would not be present in formula.
For nursing mothers who have an adequate diet that may be lacking in one or more nutrients there are simple ways to make sure that they receive the right nutrients in proper amounts. While her milk will be adequate in nutrition, good nutrition fosters overall health. According to the La Leche League International website, a nursing mother’s diet should be varied, balanced and natural. It should include fresh vegetables and fruits of all types, raw or cooked, different grains as close to their whole form as possible, proteins from plants and/or animal sources, and small amounts of fat, preferably from vegetable sources such as vegetable oils.
Nursing mothers who have healthy eating habits foster overall health. While her milk will almost always contain everything her growing infant needs, regardless of her diet, the habits she sets her family up with by eating a healthy, natural, balanced and varied diet will extend far beyond breastfeeding into the rest of their lives.
Bonyata, Kelly IBCLC. “How Does a Mother’s Diet Affect Her Milk?” n.d. Web 1 March 2012. <http://kellymom.com/nutrition/mom/mom-diet.html>
Khan, Sheri Lyn Parpia. “Maternal Nutrition During Breastfeeding.” New Beginnings, Vol. 21 No.2, March-April 2004, p. 44. Web. 1 March 2012. http://www.llli.org/nb/nbmarapr04p44.html
Hamosh, Margit PhD. “Breastfeeding: Unraveling the Mysteries of Mother’s Milk.” Medscape Women’s Health eJournal 1(5), 1996. Georgetown University Medical Center. Web 1 March 2012. < http://asklenore.info/breastfeeding/resources/mysteries.shtml>
“Necrotizing Enterocolitis.” PubMed Health. Web 1 March 2012 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002133/
Morgan is a student at Seminole State College, studying to become a Registered Nurse. She is currently breastfeeding her daughter Sloane.