Breastfeeding, like most things related to parenting, can be awfully confusing. There's more than one way to do almost anything, and because the same goes for breastfeeding, you might get contradicting advice depending on who you ask. A good example of this is eating spicy food while breastfeeding — some moms swear it causes excessive gas or fussiness in their babies, while others claim they can eat an entire platter of buffalo wings and it has no effect on their nursing infants. But will that burrito with extra jalapeños and hot sauce that you had for lunch really make a difference when breastfeeding your baby?
“Most foods and flavors that we eat don’t translate directly into breast milk, however some foods — specifically heavily spiced foods, asparagus, garlic, as well as peppers that create a tingly sensation or heat in our mouth because of a chemical called capsaicin, can have some of their unique proteins secreted into breast milk,” Dr. Heather Richardson, M.D., of the Bedford Breast Center tells Romper. “For moms to routinely consume these types of foods, their babies in utero would have been exposed to these sensations and may in fact find them comforting and familiar.”
How Spicy Foods Impact Breast Milk
In many parts of the world, spicy foods are a regular part of nursing moms' diets. Though strong flavors do pass from the mother's milk to the baby, it typically only impacts the taste of the milk. If spicy foods are a regular part of your diet, your baby may already be accustomed to these flavors from pregnancy as they have the ability to change the smell and taste of the amniotic fluid your baby is exposed to in utero.
“For moms who don’t typically eat such flavored foods, some babies really appreciate the variety,” Richardson explains. “Some studies have shown that babies exposed to multiple types of foods through mom‘s diet may be more open to eating a variety later on in life. However, if baby is arching his back, or if she seems to turn away and not want to feed, especially at the beginning, it may be because they do not find the breast milk palatable.”
Because all breastfeeding mothers have unique body chemistry and metabolism, there is no one answer for how long it takes for these flavors to metabolize into your milk. Though the average is four to six hours, it can take anywhere from one to 24 hours for food to metabolize and for the flavors to make it into your breast milk.
Can Eating Spicy Food Make Your Baby Feel Bad?
So, what about the fussiness and gassiness that some moms report happening to their baby after a feeding? While those spicy chicken wings you had for dinner might be the culprit of your own indigestion, it’s unlikely that your baby is feeling the same way for the same reason.
“In most cases, with very few exceptions, the foods that cause stomach discomfort in the mother do not affect the breast milk composition, changing the way the baby digests and reacts to the milk,” lactation consultant and Motif Medical Lactation director Ashley Georgakopoulos tells Romper. “Gas is predominantly caused by bacteria breaking down foods in the gut, especially more fibrous foods. The gas does not travel, nor does the fiber, to the bloodstream and therefore to the milk — only nutrients and calories.”
Georgakopoulos explains that the exception to this isn’t actually anything spicy at all, but rather the inability to break down complex proteins in foods like cow’s milk. “Lactose gets blamed for a lot of discomfort, but lactose is also prevalent in human milk — it is merely the breast milk sugar found in all types of mammalian milk,” she says. “Babies make enzymes to break this down easily and make less as we age. Proteins and their makeup, however, vary from species to species.”
Though moms may restrict their diets if they notice their babies are unusually gassy or fussy, there's a good chance that it has nothing to do with the spicy food you are eating. Excess gas or fuss in your baby may just be a blip or a change in their development, or it could be from swallowing too much air while feeding.
Of course, if you are truly concerned that certain foods are affecting your baby, it helps to keep track of what you eat, and how that milk potentially affects your child. If you notice a pattern of fussiness, gassiness, spit up, loose stools, and other digestion issues, talk to your pediatrician. They may suggest not eating the food (such as dairy products, a common allergen) for a few days to see if there's any change.
“Elimination may be encouraged, but it’s almost always something else going on that may not be obvious. Mothers are quick to take blame on themselves,” Georgakopoulos tells Romper. “Consult with a lactation professional, preferably an IBCLC, if discomfort or other issues persist or reoccur.”
Possible Benefits Of Eating Spicy Foods While Breastfeeding
As it turns out, there may actually be some direct benefits to exposing your baby to a variety of flavors via your breast milk.
“One of the great things about your milk is that your milk changes flavor depending on what you eat. This means that your baby is exposed to many different tastes before they ever get their first bite of table foods,” lactation consultant Rebecca Costello of In the Flow Lactation tells Romper. “We think that this is one of the reasons babies who drink human milk tend to be more adventurous eaters once they start eating other foods. Spicy foods are just another flavor that your baby will be exposed to, which will hopefully help them be more willing to try different foods as they grow up.”
A study published in 2001 by Pediatrics, found that babies who had been exposed to a flavor in utero or while breastfeeding were more likely to like that flavor when they were weaned. This often makes breastfed babies easier to feed later on. So you could be doing your baby a big favor by not restricting your diet and continuing to eat whatever is delicious to you. The other big plus of that is, since food gives pleasure, eating flavorful and healthy foods just might boost your happiness in the depths of difficult parenting.
Rebecca Costello, IBCLC, MPH of In the Flow Lactation
Ashley Georgakopoulos, IBCLC and Motif Medical Lactation Director
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