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Making the Best of Breast Feeding

by Nicki Woodward(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 149 - July 2008

The benefits of breastfeeding are outstanding; good nutrition plays a vital role in the quality and quantity of milk production. Breast milk is a complete food, and for the first six months of life it is what a baby needs. It contains the protein casein to protect against infection, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to ensure vital nervous system development, highly absorbable iron, vitamin C and the digestive enzymes lipase, lactase and amylase. Lactase not only helps to digest the milk but also boosts intestinal flora to further enhance baby’s immunity.

If you are breastfeeding, what you eat will make its way into your breast milk. Organic food in your diet is certainly an advantage as it contains higher levels of nutrients, including minerals and lower levels of contaminants including pesticides. Continue with the supplement you took during pregnancy, as this is likely to be formulated for breastfeeding as well. It will enhance your intake of nutrients vital for your child’s immunity such as zinc and vitamin C. Breastfeeding requires up to an extra 500 calories per day, so eat plenty of complex carbohydrates from cereals, antioxidant rich vegetables and protein rich meat and eggs. Don’t diet when you are breastfeeding, as your milk is likely to dry up, and consider increasing your intake of essential fatty acids found in wild or organic oily fish, avocados and olive oil. Flavour your food with beneficial foods such as garlic and ginger, as this provides antibiotic properties for yourself and your baby. Some research suggests that babies feed longer when their mothers eat garlic laden foods. Breast milk contains lower levels of phosphorous, sodium, potassium, protein and calcium, so it is much easier on baby’s digestive system and helps to prevent dehydration. Mums also need to remain hydrated, as breastfeeding is very thirsty work. Keep topped up with herbal teas, pure water and antioxidant, rich fruit juices.

Unfortunately, it is not only beneficial compounds which make their way into breast milk. Pesticides, tobacco smoke compounds, alcohol, body lotion ingredients and even perfumes can end up in human milk. In Sweden, where breastfeeding occurrence rates are one of the highest in the world, one research project showed very high levels of a particular pollutant in mothers’ milk. This did not deter the Swedes from breastfeeding, but led to a huge public outcry and the eventual banning of the offending substance. Over-the-counter and prescribed medications also reach your breast milk, so only take them if necessary and under the guidance of your GP. Also bear in mind that certain herbal remedies and supplements should be avoided during breastfeeding whilst others are safe. The basic rule is to seek advice if you are unsure.[1]

The first milk produced after birth is called colostrum, a protein and antibody-rich liquid vital for baby’s immunity. Mature breast milk comes in a few days later, and provides thirst quenching watery foremilk, followed by rich hind milk to satisfy nutritional needs. Problems can be encountered at all stages of breastfeeding. When your mature milk ‘comes in,’ breasts can get engorged and tender as they adjust to how much milk they need to produce. It helps to feed baby on demand and for as long as possible. Express milk between feeds by applying heat to the breast via a hot flannel or shower, and massage the breast to release the excess milk. If engorgement continues and a breast duct becomes blocked, a painful infection known as mastitis may occur.

A tried and trusted age old remedy is a cabbage leaf placed in the bra. Savoy cabbage has the perfect cup shape, gently crush it first to release its juices which draw inflammation from the breast. Take garlic internally at the same time to help fight the infection.

When you begin to breastfeed, your nipples can take a while to toughen up and can become sore and cracked. Find relief by applying avocado oil, olive oil or calendula ointment. A poultice made from slippery elm powder is also soothing. Feed regularly so that an overly hungry baby does not apply too much pressure on your nipples, and keep them dry between feeds. Milk production can become insufficient at any stage. Traditionally fennel seed, fenugreek, blessed thistle and hops are drunk as herbal teas throughout the day to increase milk flow. If you are producing too much milk, drink sage tea and eat parsley leaf everyday. A good nutritive tea for the quality of your breast milk is nettle which can also be drunk daily.

Even when you introduce solids, keep breastfeeding as long as possible. Most women in the UK aim for up to a year, but if you live elsewhere in the world, two years or more may not be unusual. If you feed for 13 weeks or more your baby is less likely to develop stomach and respiratory infections. Allergies, childhood diabetes, obesity and heart disease are also less common in breastfed babies. It’s good news for mothers too, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Not to mention that breast feeding is a wonderful bonding experience which creates an intimacy important for the trust between you and your baby.


1.    Anne McIntyre is one of the leading herbalists when it comes to mother and child. A good book is The Herbal for Mother and Child The Nutricentre ( stocks many of her books.
Advice on taking herbs whilst breastfeeding can be obtained from The National Institute of Medical Herbalists at
Advice on taking supplements when breastfeeding can be obtained from The British Association of Nutritional Therapists at

Further Reading

Gladstar R. Herbal Healing for Women. Fireside Books. 1993.
Karmel A. Superfoods for Babies and Children. Ebury Press. 2001.   
Mackonochie A. Babycare Week by Week the First Six Months. Harper Collins. 2007.
Ody P. The Herb Society’s Complete Medicinal Herbal. Dorling Kindersley. 1993.
Balch and Balch. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Avery. 2001.


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About Nicki Woodward

Nicki Woodward BA Hons DN MED MBANT Dip Phyt MNIMH ITEC is a fully qualified Nutritionist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist who practises in Middlesex and Surrey. She is a member of the NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and BANT (British Association of Nutritional Therapists). Her experience to-date includes training, research and supplement development. She may be contacted on Tel: 07989 968 349;

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