It was one of the more shameful chapters of conventional medicine when, for many decades, physicians actively discouraged women from breastfeeding. Fortunately, by the 1970s, the poor judgment inherent in this recommendation had become abundantly clear. Today, there is no longer any doubt regarding what should have been obvious from the beginning: that human breast milk is the ideal food for a human infant.

Not only does breast milk contain all the necessary nutrients, it contains additional substances such as colostrum that provide important health benefits. In addition, human breast milk lacks allergenic substances found in infant formulas based on cow or soy milk. For this reason, breastfeeding, as opposed to formula feeding, may reduce the risk of the infant developing allergy-related diseases such as eczema.

However, nursing can also cause difficulties for the mother of a newborn. Milk flow may be insufficient, the breasts may become inflamed or infected, and when it comes time to stop nursing, there may be an interval of severe discomfort. There are medical treatments available for some of these problems, although in many cases they are more traditional and low-tech than gleamingly modern.

In addition, the constituents of human breast milk can be affected in both positive and negative ways by the mother’s diet. Herbs and supplements, like drugs, should be considered risky in breastfeeding until demonstrated otherwise—but on the other hand, certain supplements for the mother might benefit the baby.

There is considerable overlap in this subject between conventional and alternative medicine, and only the more “alternative” of the relevant information is presented here.

Weaning/Breast Engorgement

Sageleaf tea traditionally has been recommended to dry up milk supply and reduce breast engorgement for the purpose of weaning, but supporting scientific studies are lacking.3 One early double-blind, placebo-controlled trial did find some benefit for breast engorgement with the use of proteolytic enzymes,15 but considerably more evidence would be necessary before it could be considered an effective treatment.

According to traditional wisdom, the application of cabbage leaves to the breast can reduce the discomfort of breast engorgement during weaning, but controlled studies indicated that it is noteffective for this purpose.4-6

For a discussion of the homeopathic approach to this topic, see the breast engorgement chapter in the homeopathy database.

Nipple Pain

Pain and irritation in the nipples can cause a nursing mother to cease breastfeeding earlier than she might otherwise wish to. A double-blind study performed in Iran found that applying peppermintwater (essentially, lukewarm peppermint tea) directly to the nipples helped prevent nipple and aureola cracks.16

Promoting Milk Supply

The herbs milk thistle and fenugreek have been used historically to promote milk supply, but no studies have been performed to establish whether or not they actually provide any benefit.

The herb chasteberry has also been used traditionally for this purpose, but we do not recommend it. (See Herbs and Supplements to Avoid below.)

Acupuncturehas also been proposed for increasing milk supply, but study results have been mixed.13,17

Preventing Eczema and Other Allergic Conditions in Children

Double-blind, placebo-controlled trials suggest that nursing women may be able to help ward off eczema and other allergic conditions in their children by taking probiotics(friendly bacteria).7-9Cutting down on saturated fat (animal fat) may be helpful as well.10

General Nutritional Support

Because breastfeeding requires a woman to supply nutrients to another human being, use of a general multivitamin/multimineral supplement is advisable. However, such supplements seldom contain adequate amounts of calcium, and for that reason a separate calciumsupplement should be taken. Calcium supplements offer the additional benefit of reducing lead levels in breast milk.14

Essential fatty acids in the omega-3 family are thought to be essential for infant health, especially brain development, and for this reason it has been suggested that nursing women should supplement their diet with this nutrient.

Finally, while human breast milk supplies nearly all essential nutrients, it does not contain an adequate amount of iron. This problem is exacerbated by the modern practice of rapidly cutting the umbilical cord, which has the effect of reducing the infant’s iron stores. For this reason, some physicians routinely recommend that breastfed infants should receive iron supplements. However, some evidence suggests that this practice is only warranted if the infant is anemic; otherwise, supplementation may decrease growth rate.12