It’s something you’re eating! The importance of food while breastfeeding

Even the healthiest of mother’s diets can cause trouble for young babies who are breastfeeding, as certain foods may cause issues like gas, allergic reactions, colic, and cradle cap, among others. Ebeth Johnson (aka. The Breastfeeding Chef) shares insight on how new mamas can change to improve the comfort and health of their babies.

As a holistic doula, the nutritional recommendations you make to new and expectant mothers can make a real difference. Click here to learn more about Birth Institute’s Holistic Doula program.

My amazing daughter Cayenne Victoria (yes I’m a chef who named her daughter after a spice) was born on July 16, 2011 at 2:56am, with her eyes open and ready to take in the world.  She latched on to my breast right away and she and I quickly became nursing partners.  My challenge was, that if my daughter wasn’t nursing she was crying.  At first I thought, “Crying is just what babies do.” That’s what I’d seen on TV ad heard from some moms. But after Cayenne had been crying nearly non-stop for several weeks, it hit me that something must be wrong.

My first thought:  Cayenne’s not getting enough milk.  So, I went to see an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Counselor. After checking Cayenne’s latch and pre and post feeding weigh-ins, she assured me that Cayenne was getting enough milk. Maybe I’m not changing her diaper often enough. So I changed her diaper more often. Cayenne’s cries continued. Maybe she’s too cold or too hot so I put on more clothes and then fewer clothes. Nothing helped.

Things got worse. Skin irritations popped up on Cayenne’s belly, bottom and face.  She scratched these bumps continuously. I immediately changed her soap and lotion.  I bought organic cotton clothes and chemical free diapers.  But she kept crying and scratching.   And, perhaps scariest of all I was having trouble producing enough milk to pump and save for my return to work. I was at the end of my rope.  Finally I called my Naturopath friend Norman. Instantly he blurted, “It’s something you are eating.”  “WHAT?!”  I replied? “It can’t be.”

I rebutted my friend’s assessment. I was a graduate of NYU’s Food Studies Program.  I was a chef trained by the innovative program at the Natural Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts in NYC, a culinary school that combines Japanese and French cooking technique with an emphasis on food’s ability to both prevent and address a variety of diseases.  I had ten years’ experience as a food and wellness educator.  Whatever was distressing Cayenne was clearly not anything I was eating.

“You KNOW I eat well!  This is what I DO!  I teach OTHER people how to eat,” I insisted.  Norman stood firm:   “It’s something you’re eating.” I got off the phone and heard my daughter crying. I put her to my breast and considered what my friend and seasoned healer said. I didn’t believe him, but I trusted him. So I started to investigate my diet.

Could this be an allergy or digestive issue?   I stopped eating some of the obvious known allergen foods like nuts, wheat and corn. To test the digestion theory I stopped eating cabbage, broccoli and harder to digest beans. Knowing that well cooked foods are easier on the stomach, I began roasting, braising, preparing soups and using other long-cook methods.  I frequently added spices that aid in digestion like cinnamon, cardamom and cumin. This was a start, but I needed more information.

I decided to research traditional diets of nursing women around the world. I found out that some foods, called galactagogues — like oats, hemp seeds and collard greens– can help support and increase milk supply. I followed the lead of Peruvian mothers and began to eat more quinoa and amaranth both in meals and as tea.   I learned that many of the foods I had been eating like raw and lightly cooked food, peppermint and thyme (two of my favorite herbs) and raw almond butter sandwiches are great when you’re not breastfeeding, but can cause indigestion, lowered milk supply and allergic reactions for your child when you are breastfeeding.

As I made changes to my diet, Cayenne changed.  She cried less and had less gas.  Her skin cleared up and she scratched less. And I started pumping more milk.  What’s more, I felt and, if I do say so, looked better as most of my pregnancy weight disappeared with no extra effort. The foods I was eating and omitting were good for my daughter, my milk supply and me!

During this journey, I joined a mommy group. Hanging out with them I learned that Cayenne and I were not the only ones struggling with these challenges. I went out on a limb and shared my experience and new findings with these moms. I thought they’d be skeptics like me, but hoped they’d give these theories a shot. As they tried new ways of eating they watched their babies improve and their own milk supplies increase.

Banking on my years of teaching experience I created a workshop based on my findings.   Classes were full of women seeking answers. One thing was certain:  new nursing moms and moms-to-be had no idea what to eat while breastfeeding.  And, just like me, few had ever considered that food might be a key culprit.  I realized that the struggles Cayenne and I had been through could benefit other moms and babies if I spoke up.

Now, Cayenne is 2 years old and thriving.  Her transformation into a spirited toddler inspires me every day to spread the word about the simple steps that any mother can take to support her body’s effort to make the best breast milk on earth for her child.  This has given me a new purpose: to teach breastfeeders-to-be new nursing moms and weaning moms how to use whole foods to launch their children on a lifetime path of wellness and vitality…and nurture their own health, too.

Ebeth Johnson is a Plant-Based Culinary Nutritionist specializing in the unique nutritional & lifestyle needs of nursing moms, and is a Certified Lactation Counselor. As the Breastfeeding Chef, she offers consultations, workshops and events that teach breast-feeders-to-be and new-nursing-moms how to use whole food to support their milk production and address issues like colic, cradle cap and allergy prevention all while keeping them energized and helping them return to their pre-pregnancy weight. She also helps weaning mothers transition their babies to whole, nutrient- dense solids. All of her work is infused with positivity, joy and laughter and free of judgments and fear tactics.

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