Healthy Kids

Is Your Breast Milk Good Enough?

The short answer:  Yes and no.

There has been hot debate on the internets these last few weeks about the quality of a woman’s breastmilk. Breastfeeding advocates got up in arms, guns blazing at some things that a Real Food blogger said as well as what Sally Fallon, founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation (or WAPF for short), said in her new book.

Basically it goes like this: WAPF says that the quality of a mother’s breastmilk is dependent on what she eats and that a woman’s body doesn’t magically make nutrient dense milk if all she is eating is fast food. Which is true and fine to say, but she also says that if you are vegan breastfeeding mother you are making such extremely poor quality and nutrient-deficient milk that commercial formula has more nutrition than a vegan mother’s breastmilk. Some have said that this is telling vegan mothers to stop breastfeeding and give their baby formula.

I love the WAPF. This way of eating has made such a huge difference in my life, how I feel, and I think it is nearly impossible to get adequate nutrition if you are a vegan based on mountains of food science, but also from my own personal experience as a vegan and the damage it did to my body. But I think to completely disregard the non-nutritional aspects and benefits of breastfeeding is NOT OK. Breastfeeding is so much more than nutrition. It is a pure act of love and bonding (and if you are new around here, you might not know I had to bottle feed and exclusively pump for my daughter and that I think that bottle nursing is as much of an act of love and bonding as regular nursing is).

The official stance of Mama and Baby Love is that, yes, what you eat matters. It is just intuitive. Of course what you put in your body is what you put out. But there is a lot of research that backs up my claims and you will find links throughout this post. What you eat is what you are feeding your baby in regards to breastmilk. If you are nutrient deficient, so is your breast milk, but keep breastfeeding! While it’s not just about nutrition, simple changes in your diet can make a big impact on the quality of your milk. There is no reason at all to stop just because you’re not eating well right now. It’s as simple as moving in the direction of a better diet.

Dr. Jack Newman, who I am huge fan of for helping women breastfeed, recently said on his Facebook page:

If the Weston Price Foundation says that home made formula is better for the baby than the milk of a vegan mother, they really don’t know what they are talking about. As long as the mother is vitamin B12 sufficient, the milk of a vegan mother is far superior to any formula, home-made or otherwise. One dose of vitamin B12 is enough to render the mother B12 sufficient for many months, even years. Studies also show that mothers who are malnourished still produce adequate milk. This shows once again that if the Weston Price Foundation says any formula, even homemade made from raw milk, is better than the milk of a mother whose diet is anything but what they think is ideal, they also don’t know what they are talking about.

This statement means that he agrees that if a mother is deficient in nutrients, so is her milk. (Even though for the record, he is totally wrong about one dose of vitamin B12 being enough for several months worth of milk!)  Studies do show that a woman is able to produce milk regardless of diet and amount of calories, but WAPF is not talking about the AMOUNT of milk, or even the amount of fat in the milk, they are talking about the nutrient density of the milk.

Kelly Mom, a site that I truly love for helping breastfeeding mothers, notes:

Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D., breastfeeding researcher and anthropologist, says women throughout the world make ample amounts of quality milk while eating diets composed almost entirely of rice (or millet or sorghum) with a tiny amount of vegetables and occasional meat.

I did some digging and found out the book she wrote on breastfeeding that discusses this issue never once mentions the nutrient profile of breastmilk. When she says “quality” of milk, she is talking only about the fat content and nothing else. The best part about Dettwyler’s book? She cites several studies that did not actually support the idea that nutrition does not matter.

Not to mention that throughout the Kellymom website, you will repeatedly find contradictory statements to Dettwyler’s citation. Most of the Vitamin page is evidence alone that nutrient deficiencies in the breastmilk are best corrected through the diet of the mother. The fat content page again demonstrates that what a mother eats changes her milk. Baby having food allergies? Mom’s diet is the source!

Even the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes where a mother’s milk is deficient and recommends supplementation.

American Academy of Pediatrics, November 2008: “A supplement of 400 IU per day of vitamin D is recommended for all breastfed infants.”

Now, I’m not saying I agree with everything they say or they’re a fabulous source to use on this issue, but the fact that the CDC and AAP recognize that breast milk is deficient in vitamin D, so much so that breastfed infants need additional sources, is really saying something. Take that information and put it into the context of this study on maternal vitamin D supplementation and suddenly breast milk is a good source of vitamin D, enough that an infant does not need supplementation. And no, don’t even try blaming it on the sun. Plenty of traditional cultures such as the Inuit didn’t get adequate sun exposure to produce vitamin D, meaning their survival was dependent on consuming vitamin D in food to pass on to their babies in breast milk. Had their milk been deficient, their babies would have been deficient, and their milk was not “perfect” unless they consumed enough vitamin D.

Another issue that breastfeeding advocates are upset about is the fact that WAPF is breaking the WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines about not marketing or advertising breast milk substitutes. And I totally agree with them on this as well. If you can’t breastfeed and are unable to find donor milk and are planning to buy commercial formula, I am all for mothers knowing that making your own formula is an option. But it is not ok to promote/market/advertise the company that makes and profits from selling homemade formula kits.

Here is what I think is going on:

Breastfeeding advocates have done a ton of good for modern mothers in pushing back against all of the obstacles that we face in trying to do what is best for our babies. Unfortunately, there is a bit of zealotry going on in that some would rather cover up information or cherry pick studies or flat out lie about anything that might make breastfeeding look bad. And understandably so!

Mothers being told that their breast milk isn’t good enough has long been a tactic of formula manufacturers to get them to use formula when they would not otherwise need it. This is particularly nefarious in third world countries without access to clean water where using formula can actually be deadly. As I just mentioned, I understand the issues taken up with WAPF for advertising formula at the same time as saying breast milk isn’t always best.

So, I get it. Breastfeeding advocates want women to breastfeed and want nothing to stand in the way of that. And so do I.

But I am not going to lie to a mama for one second and say that the day she eats McDonald’s and the day she eats a grass fed steak with tons of vegetables that her milk is the same on both days. It’s just not true.

Through Mama and Baby Love, my mission is to inspire mothers to make changes in their lives and diet not only for their own good, but also for the sake of their children. Mamas and babies are a package deal and if mama isn’t taking care of herself, baby is going to suffer for it. This is true from preconception all the way to adulthood. No matter where you are on your parenting journey, children still need healthy parents to truly thrive.

Let’s not lie to ourselves about things like this. The uncomfortable truth is that gas, diarrhea/constipation, excessive fussiness, eczema, sleep disturbances, tooth decay, weight issues, poor immune system, etc. can be caused by poor nutrition and/or poor digestion during pregnancy and lactation. That continues on when you start your baby on solids, too. As your child grows, he will watch what you eat and your healthy habits. Your diet and health will affect your child his whole life.

So what do you do if you aren’t eating well? If you’d guess the answer is to just give up and formula feed, you’d be wrong. Nobody thinks you should do that. The logical conclusion is start taking care of yourself. It is easier and cheaper to support your own health than to just quit breastfeeding and make formula. The take away from this whole discussion should never ever be (and never has been) that you should quit breastfeeding. The lesson is take care of yourself so you can take care of your babies. Which of course, is what Mama and Baby Love is all about.

So to answer the post’s title question, is your breast milk good enough? Yes, it is. Because breastfeeding is not just about nutrition. But don’t you want your breast milk to be even better?

What do you think, readers?

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  • sarahkeith
    May 1, 2013 at 12:58 PM

    YES!!!! Awesome, awesome, awesome post. Best one ever. Thank you so much! I just bought the new Nourishing Traditions book but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I can totally understand why breastfeeding advocates (of which I am one) would be up in arms about Sally Fallon’s statement. We certainly need to be sensitive to the fact that formula-pushers use this type of reasoning, and have for years, to get moms to feel bad about their milk and purchase their products instead. There is no doubt that breastfeeding is amazing for SO MANY REASONS, like you said– not just nutrition. My favorite thing about breastmilk? The immune-boosting properties! Amazing. With all that said, what we eat DOES matter, and will, obviously, affect the “quality” of our breastmilk. Just another great reason to take care of ourselves as mamas (and be taken care of by our partners and family, even after pregnancy). But, dear Sally Fallon, let’s not let better be the enemy of good on this topic. Breastfeeding is important, even if the mama’s milk isn’t “perfect.”

    • Stephanie
      May 2, 2013 at 3:00 PM

      So glad you liked it! And so glad you bought her book, congrats on starting your health journey!

  • Maureen
    May 3, 2013 at 12:38 AM

    Thank you for posting about this. The statements Sarah Pope has made lately about breastfeeding make me mad! Of course diet of the mama in important, however, I think society needs to promote breastfeeding NO MATTER WHAT. In my, what I consider to be quite knowledgeable opinion, breastfeeding is 99% best no matter what. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize nursing women in any capacity, really. Formula is so readily available, really, that I feel it is fair to say most women are nursing b/c they believe it is best. Suggesting formula versus the breast as being a better alternative just boggles my mind! Of course, she recommends making formula, not store bought, as a healthy alternative to a SAD diet while breastfeeding, but I feel confident in saying that those mamas making their own formula are probably eating a healthy diet, and the cost/benefits of eating a healthy diet to boost mama milk potential would be a more likely option that making your own formula. Sorry for the rant… this whole idea that you shouldn’t breastfeed b/c of your diet has given me quite the rage!!

  • Kristi
    May 3, 2013 at 12:44 AM

    Amen Mama! I couldnt agree more. I have to really keep on myself to get enough calories and nutrition since I’m nursing. I can completely tell a difference in my milk after a day of a well balanced eating. I always have so much more milk on those days. I am a busy mom of four and what I eat isnt the problem its how much. I tell mommas this all the time, your diet during pregnancy is just as important after baby. Love this thanks for sharing!

  • Natalie
    May 3, 2013 at 12:58 AM

    I think one of the most important parts of your entire post was saying that new mom’s in poverty in third world
    Countries, nurse their babies.. They are probably hungry themselves, but their babies thrive and can live on their Mother’s milk. I nursed my son for a year until we found out he has nut/ egg/ dairy allergy. Once I cut those out, he was a different child. Nursing is hard, it takes sacrifice… But after a month or so… It’s like tying your shoes ! Just gets easier with practice. Thank you for your post!

  • Mandy
    May 3, 2013 at 1:02 AM

    I’m curious what kind of damage a Vegan diet did to your body? Have you written about hat anywhere?

    • Stephanie
      May 4, 2013 at 11:11 PM

      The biggest thing was that I was nutrient decifient in many vitamins and nutrients. I was anemic, fatiqued, gained weight (totally messed up my metabolism), and had insane cravings. I just did not have the nutrients I needed to be healthy.

  • Jennifer
    May 3, 2013 at 1:10 AM

    I would love to hear some menu ideas for breast feeding moms (pregnant with my fourth and want to do a better job in this area!). Interesting blog post! I am curious about your mention of “mom’s diet being the source” of food allergies. I read the Kelly mom article you linked to and it doesn’t seem to fit what you said- it actually says the opposite- that allergies are inherited. (I am thinking maybe I misunderstood your comment.). I am curious because my youngest has severe food allergies but the multiple doctors/professionals (natural and traditional minded) I have spoken with say that there was nothing I could have done to prevent them and that food allergies such as his are primarily hereditary (which the precedent is clearly there on both sides of the family.). Just curious! 🙂

    • Stephanie
      May 4, 2013 at 11:16 PM

      That is a good idea!
      Allergies are inherited in a sense, because digestion is inherited. The quality of your digestion when you were pregnant and your child was born is what the quality of their digestion. And if a baby was not born vaginally, their digestion may be a little worse too, because they didn’t get the vaginal bacteria to start the good bacteria in their gut.

  • Nic
    May 3, 2013 at 1:39 AM

    This is so poignant for me! I’m breastfeeding my 4th baby who is 8 weeks old and I’m rarely hungry, which is really bizarre but when meal times come around I force myself to eat something really nutritious (this is a new experience for me..who isn’t ravenous while nursing? A matter I must look into…)
    My body has been through a lot, for the past 9 1/2 years I have been pregnant and / or breastfeeding almost the entire time!!! ….I nursed my first daughter (born July 04) until she was 2 and fell pregnant with my second daughter born August 07…I fell pregnant again in November 2009 2 months after night weaning my second daughter…. miscarried in early Feb 10 (natural, no (physical) problems), fell pregnant again 2 weeks later, gave birth in November 10 to my third beautiful daughter, nursed…fell pregnant in Feb 2012, miscarried and d&c in April, my daughter weaned in the mean time…a lot of trauma and hard times…fell pregnant in June….gave birth in March 2013 to a 4th daughter….breastfeeding now! My body is amazing, but I honestly believe what I put into it helps immensely…I know my healthy diet and lifestyle helps me be the best mama I can be

  • Anastasia @ eco-babyz
    May 3, 2013 at 2:52 AM

    Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth and hey, now I don’t have to write a post on it and can just send my readers your way 🙂 lol. I fail every day in terms of traditional foods, we try hard, we can’t make it to a farm every week, but hey – there is no way I should stop breastfeeding just because I consume non-raw organic dairy and sometimes cheat with non-traditionally prepared grains. Sheesh! 😉

    • Stephanie
      May 4, 2013 at 6:58 PM

      lol, thanks for sending readers my way!!

  • Jen
    May 3, 2013 at 6:31 PM

    I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for writing this. My son is about to turn 6 months old and we have been having Breastfeeding struggles this whole time. I am not producing enough milk for him, despite trying every herb, food, technique imaginable. I supplement him with a friends donor milk and he is doing well. I was eagerly awaiting Sally Fallon’s new book and I listened to several speakers at the Village Green conference. I have decided to focus on making my milk as nutrient dense and creamy as possible. I was so put off by the formula comments though that I have been struggling with everything she says. I love Nourishing Traditions and we try to eat a nutrient dense diet but I find myself critically scrutinizing everything she says. I really appreciate you getting to the crux of the issue. I work so very hard to feed my son well it’s nice to hear some positive reinforcement and not just another voice in the crowd calling for supplementation! Thank you. Now I’m off to take my cod liver oil and fermented beet kavas. 🙂

    • Stephanie
      May 4, 2013 at 6:59 PM

      Thanks so much for reading Jen! And please let me know if I can be of any service with breastfeeding questions about supply, I am always happy to help.

  • Jenny
    May 8, 2013 at 8:15 PM

    Thank you for posting this. I needed this. I am currently nursing my 11wk old, while taking care of a 3 1/2yr old & a 2yr old. It’s been hard, because they still need me & well nursing the baby does take time away from them as my children are very active. And I think of stopping sometimes for several reasons. But I won’t, because I OWe it to my daughter. She deserves the very best & although I may cheat & eat junk once in a while, I mostly eat good, healthy, whole foods for her. And being able to breastfeed and/or lactate without problem, is a blessing. How could i not? Isn’t breastmilk unique & uniquely made by our bodies for our babies? So, how could any amount of it not be good for baby unless mom is drinking or taking drugs?

    • Stephanie
      May 9, 2013 at 2:43 AM

      Breastmilk is unique for your baby as far as immunities and white blood cells in the milk, but the milk your body makes is based on what you eat and what nutrional stores you have available. It doesn’t pull nutrients out of thin air, so some milk has more nutrients in it than others based on mothers diet and health. But ALL milk has white blood cells and probiotics in it.

  • Jen
    May 13, 2013 at 12:33 AM

    hi stephanie.

    what type of breast pump did you like to use? i exclusively breastfeed my baby & have been using a hospital grade rental to help keep my supply up. the rental fees are getting costly, so i want to purchase. i read about your long pumping experience & imagine that you have some good input on the most effective home pumps.

    thanks so much! & happy mothers day 😉

    • Stephanie
      May 13, 2013 at 12:54 AM

      Hi Jen! Happy Mother’s Day to you too! I was lucky and was given a used, but never used Medela Pump n Style pump. About six months into pumping, I bought another one that was barely used, to have on hand as a back up. It worked great for me, but some women have said that hospital grade pumps work better. Let me know if I can help in any other way. 🙂

    • Leslie
      May 13, 2013 at 6:38 PM

      I have a Mendela Swing. If its just to keep your supply up, it might be a good choice! I only used it for that or to keep some milk in the freezer for baby when we went out or “just in case”. I didn’t want to spend too much on something I would only use once in a while since I’m a stay-at-home mama =)

  • Leslie
    May 13, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Love the fact that you make it a point for a “malnourished” mama to keep on breastfeeding even if their current diet is less than ideal. Small changes make a huge difference, I agree, like continuing taking prenatal vitamins while breastfeeding. It doesn’t take much try eat well. Think about how much formula costs… and fast food, so many times a day (times) 7 days a week. I am so thankful that I didn’t have to spend a dime on formula! the money that saved us! And even though I can’t shop at whole foods for our groceries or buy everything organic (because I can’t yet afford to make the switch) I always try to make home-cooked meals. Plan-ahead meals or crockpot meals save time and dirty dishes! The other day I ran out of chicken, and ground anything.. I had a packet of white beans, left them soaking since the morning for dinner and ended up doing a “vegan chili”. Work with what you have! =) Just takes a little creativity, will and maybe even pinteresting for recipes! lol

  • Kayla
    August 31, 2015 at 11:20 PM

    I find this article to be heart breaking to say the least. It only confirmed what I already feared; that since I myself suffer from nutrient deficiencies due to malabsorption from galbladder removal…that my breast milk is in turn also nutrient deficient. I have been exclusively breastfeeding my 4 week son until about a week ago, but found my lingering questions and guilt about the quality of my milk to be too much to bare. I have started to give him formula, increasing the amount of times each day. This decision has tore me up inside because I very much wanted to breastfeed him since I know he is my last baby. Unfortunately I am in no position to heal my gut by following a WAPF or traditional diet due to my low income. I find it quite appalling that in our country only the ones who are able to afford it can take charge of their health and well being through clean eating. I have for quite a few years studied closely the benefits of a traditional diet, and felt as though it was just beyond my reach. Until I am in a financial position to do this, I am very literally stuck eating as healthy as I can on 600$ a month (for family of five) in SNAP assistance.

    • Stephanie
      September 1, 2015 at 6:03 AM

      Sorry to hear about your situation, but I am proud of you for being honest about it. I think you are doing great, doing the best you can is all that is required in any situation. If you believe in God, praying before you eat anything, pray for a straight up miracle.