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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Special Topics > Breastfeeding Safety

Breastfeeding Safety

A woman who is breastfeeding should take certain actions to protect her baby. Food, medicines, and activities such as smoking may affect the nursing child.

What is the information for this topic?

When a woman is breastfeeding, many substances that enter her body can also travel through her breast milk to her child. Here are some common safety concerns with breastfeeding:

Risks the Breastfeeding Woman Should Avoid

  • Alcohol passes easily through breast milk to the nursing child. The more alcohol a woman consumes, the greater its effect on the baby. Having a drink once in awhile is fine, but larger amounts of alcohol can make the baby drowsy. Try to limit alcohol intake to just after nursing, rather than just before.
  • A baby may inherit food allergies from the mother or father. Breast milk contains substances that coat the baby's intestines to keep allergens from getting into the bloodstream. As a result, breastfeeding can lessen the baby's chance of becoming sensitized to food. If the baby does develop a food allergy, the mother can stop eating foods that are common triggers for allergies. These foods include dairy products, shellfish, wheat, and nuts.
  • If a breastfed baby has sleep problems, a nursing mother may want to think about decreasing her caffeine intake. When the mother drinks caffeine, a small amount of it passes into the breast milk. The caffeine may build up in the baby's body.
  • Most medicines have not been tested in nursing women. So no one knows just how safe many medicines may be for the breastfed child. Experts do believe that most over-the-counter and prescription medicines are safe if taken in moderation and only when needed. Street drugs and herbal remedies can be passed to the baby through breast milk and should be avoided. To be sure, a breastfeeding mother should talk with her baby's doctor before taking any medicines.
  • There are some medicines a nursing mother may take that are known to be harmful for her baby. They include: bromocriptine, chemotherapy, ergotamine, lithium, and methotrexate. If a woman needs to take these for a short time while nursing, she should pump her breasts and throw out the milk so that she keeps up her supply. Meanwhile, the baby can drink formula or previously frozen breast milk.
  • If a mother smokes, her baby may be fussy and have vomiting or diarrhea. Women who smoke produce less breast milk, and they often wean their babies sooner. The more cigarettes the woman smokes, the greater the effect on the baby. Babies who are exposed to secondhand smoke have a higher risk for pneumonia, bronchitis, and SIDS. People who must smoke should do so away from the baby.
  • The new mother should wait to start a weight-loss program until at least 6 weeks after delivery. During this early period, it is key that her baby gets a high level of nutrients from her breast milk. After that, it is usually OK to focus on gradual weight loss, while making sure to balance a healthy diet with moderate exercise.
  • Silicone breast implants should not keep a mother from breastfeeding her baby. But if the implants leak, some experts believe there could be a risk to the baby. Further study is needed on this issue. If a woman with implants wishes to breastfeed, she should talk with her doctor first.
  • Activities That Are Safe For the Breastfeeding Woman

  • The mother can, and should, start exercising 6 weeks after her baby's birth. It's best to start with mild aerobic exercise and build up a little at a time over a few weeks.
  • It's safe for the mother to have a permanent or dye her hair during the months she is breastfeeding the baby.
  • In general, it's fine for a woman who is sick to continue nursing her baby. In fact, her breast milk will contain antibodies to her illness that will help protect the baby from catching the illness. However, the mother should check with the doctor to make sure that the medicines and treatments she takes for the illness are safe for her child.
  • Healthy Nutrition Leads to Success in Breastfeeding

    Breastfeeding mothers need a healthy, balanced diet. They should eat a variety of foods at regular mealtimes. Nutritious snacks are best for between meals. Breastfeeding mothers need extra calories but should be careful not to overeat. Some key guidelines for nutrition include:

  • choosing low-fat or nonfat dairy products
  • drinking at least 2 to 3 quarts of fluid each day
  • eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • eating protein-rich foods, such as legumes, poultry, fish, and lean meat
  • including healthy whole-grain foods in the diet
  • A woman who is breastfeeding has a significantly higher daily requirement for most vitamins and minerals. Breastfeeding mothers should continue to take prenatal vitamins daily.

    Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby. Breast fed infants are less likely to have allergies, stomach infections, middle ear infections, upper respiratory infections, and pneumonia. Women who breastfeed also reduce their risk for premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis. Breastfeeding also helps the mother to form a strong bonding relationship with her new baby.

    Author: Eva Martin, MD
    Reviewer: Kathleen A. MacNaughton, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed: 10/11/02

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