This is a guest post by Stephanie Canale, M.D., a family physician at UCLA and co-founder of Lactation Lab. Canale is a mom of two young kids and currently resides in Los Angeles, where her practice focuses on young families.
Nursing moms are often concerned about their diet and how it may impact their breastmilk. I often get asked if continuing to take their prenatal vitamin is all that they need or if there’s something else they should be doing to ensure baby is getting everything they need.
That’s a hard question to answer because breast milk is a complex matrix made up of hundreds of sugar molecules and proteins and fat. Fat is the main caloric component of breast milk. Early milk, called colostrum, which is what moms have shortly after delivery and which lasts for several days after delivery, has a higher protein concentration than “term” or mature milk. Human milk is dynamic in that the level of certain cytokines, immunoglobulins and other proteins can change in response to a mother’s health status. Although human milk varies, it doesn’t change significantly within the same mother from the beginning of a feed to the end. It does however, vary significantly from mom to mom.
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Breast milk has been shown to change and vary depending on mom’s levels for certain nutrients and not others. For instance, certain minerals like zinc, sodium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium do not vary significantly. However, certain vitamins such as Vitamins A, C, B6 and B12 have been shown in many studies to directly correlate to maternal levels. That means if a woman’ s level of Vitamin B12 is low, it may also be low in her breast milk. Most physicians know that there is a range of normal levels and that even when the mother’s level is in the “normal range” this could translate to low levels in her milk.
If you’re concerned, I recommend ensuring you get adequate intake of the following four nutrients:
- Vitamin A: A family of compounds called retinoids, which includes Vitamin A, are important for vision, bone growth and supporting a healthy immune system. If your levels are low, you should discuss your results with your healthcare provider and assess your intake (diet and supplements). Foods that are rich in Vitamin A include liver, fish oils, milk, eggs, leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables and cantaloupe.
- Calcium: Important for skeletal structure (bones!), calcium is also essential for cell, muscle and nerve function and necessary for blood clotting. Supplementation can increase calcium levels in milk. Some examples of foods rich in calcium, include: milk, yogurt, cheese, cabbage, kale, broccoli, spinach, fortified grains and tofu. Low levels should prompt a discussion with your healthcare provider.
- Iron: Essential for blood cell production, iron carries oxygen from lungs to tissues. Low levels have been associated with anemia in mothers. Dietary sources of iron include meat, poultry, seafood, dried beans, dried fruit green vegetables and eggs. It is important for pregnant or breastfeeding women not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because of their high mercury content.
- Vitamin C: An important building block for collagen, Vitamin C also promotes connective tissue. It’s an antioxidant and also aids in iron absorption, so it can be beneficial to eat Vitamin C and iron-rich foods together. Low levels should prompt you to success with your healthcare provider. Dietary sources of vitamin C include citrus, dark leafy greens, strawberries and melons.
Stephanie Canale, M.D., is the co-founder of Lactation Lab, which was born out of a personal need to understand what was in her breast milk, and in turn, wanting to help mothers optimize their milk and their baby’s nutrition.
Canale is from Montreal, Canada and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees from McGill University. She completed her residency training in family medicine at UCLA. After medical residency, she joined the teaching faculty at the UCLA Family Health Center, before joining the Santa Monica Parkside office. She enjoys seeing patients of all ages, especially families with young babies and young adults. Canale is a Member of the American Board of Family Medicine. She is married with two young children and despite loving the weather in Southern California, still enjoys winter sports such as skiing and playing ice hockey.