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Herbs and nutrients for breastfeeding mums

Women's Health, Infant and Children, Diets | September 13, 2016 | Author: Naturopath


Herbs and nutrients for breastfeeding mums

Breastfeeding provides extensive health benefits to mum and baby, both at birth and later in life. The requirement for nutrients during breastfeeding for women is actually higher than during pregnancy, placing such an importance on the need for a healthy diet. If the mother is missing nutrients in her diet then it will lead to a reduction in the quantity and quality of the milk produced. The needs of the baby will place priority and can very easily deplete maternal stores of nutrients.

Breastfeeding does come with its problems and this article will outline what herbs are safe and effective to help with increasing milk supply and relieving the symptoms of mastitis.

Important nutrients

Essential fatty acids 

Essential fatty acids are vital nutrients for infant growth and development. A component of omega 3 found in very high concentrations in breast milk is DHA and is important for healthy brain growth, function and structure. Essential fatty acids are found in linseeds, walnuts and seafood (particularly fresh cold water fish).


CCalciumalcium consumption is one of the most important minerals for a nursing mum. 

Maternal calcium deficiency doesn’t have any effect on the calcium concentration in breast milk, but it does have negative consequences for maternal bones as they lose some of their density.

A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of calcium supplementation in lactating women found that bone density did decline during breastfeeding but calcium supplementation during lactation enhances the gain of bone density after weaning. 

Vitamin D is also important for calcium absorption and with it being a common deficiency in Australian women supplementation may be necessary for maternal health and to ensure adequate concentrations in breast milk.


Iodine is also a nutrient commonly lacking in Australian women and deficiency can lead to fatigue and weight gain due to inadequate thyroid function. The infants need for iodine is over 7 times that for a male if calculations are based on weight. It shows just how important this nutrient is for infants as iodine deficiency can disrupt growth and damage the nervous system.  A study conducted in Morocco on iodine supplementation during lactation found that the iodine concentration in the breast milk increased significantly after just one dose to the mother. The study also highlights the need for regular intake as deficiency than reoccurred in both mother and baby after insufficient dietary sources of iodine were maintained. Sources of iodine in the diet include seafood, seaweed, iodised table salt and milk.


Iron may be indicated during lactation not because it is found in high concentrations in breast milk but because maternal iron stores can dwindle during pregnancy. In addition, blood loss may occur during childbirth, increasing the deficiency. Iron supplementation may be indicated to refill depleted stores and enhance the iron in breast milk.

Folate, B6 and B12

The nutrients folate, B6 and B12 are also likely to decline in breast milk concentrations in response to prolonged inadequate intakes by the mother. Taking a B complex may be helpful for both healthy breast milk but it may also help with the mother’s energy levels in keeping up with the demands of an infant.

Vitamin A

The need for vitamin A nearly doubles for that of a lactating woman to a non-pregnant woman.

Vitamin AVitamin A is important for healthy  vision, protein synthesis and cell differentiation, skin health, reproduction and growth. The richest sources of vitamin A include liver, cod liver oil, full fat milk, butter and eggs. 
Plant based sources of vitamin A called carotenoids, include dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli) and red and yellow coloured plants including carrots, sweet potato, mango and pumpkin.


Zinc needs increase by a third for a lactating woman compared to a non-pregnant woman. In a study designed to determine the zinc status of breastfed and formula fed babies, it found that zinc levels were high at birth with colostrum also found to have high levels. Zinc levels were found to be lowest at 4-6 months of age, suggesting the importance of introducing solids at this age. Zinc is a mineral important for immune health, growth and development which is possibly why it is high at birth to protect the newborn from infection.

It is also important to ensure there are adequate amounts of good quality protein and complex carbohydrates in the diet by eating a wide variety of wholegrains, fruits, fish, meat, nuts, seeds, legumes, dairy and eggs. Drinking 2 litres of water daily is important for adequate hydration. The avoidance of drugs, alcohol, smoking and excessive caffeine is also important.

Ensuring adequate milk supply

Inadequate milk supply can be a particularly stressful time for a breastfeeding mum, making sure she provides enough food for her baby. A number of herbs have been traditionally used as galactagogues to improve milk supply and these include: 

  • Fennel Foeniculum vulgare
  • Fenugreek Trigonella foenum-graecum
  • Goat’s rue Galega offinalis
  • Aniseed Pimpinella anisum
  • Blessed thistle Cnicus benedictus
  • Milk thistle Silybum marianum
  • Shatavari Asparagus racemosus
  • Nettle (Urtica dioca).

In one study fenugreek was found to significantly increase milk volume in mothers who were given a daily herbal tea containing fenugreek. Another study found shatavari effective in increasing supply in nursing mothers.


For sore and swollen breasts a poultice of fenugreek seeds can be made by mixing the ground seeds with hot water to make a paste and then applied topically. Cabbage leaf compresses can also be placed against the breast for relief of inflammation and infection.

In conclusion

It is important to ensure a lactating mums nutritional requirements are met as the baby’s nutritional needs override her own. Deficiency in nutrients can also lead to inadequate milk supply. Herbs can also be implemented if there are issues with the production of breastmilk or if mastitis occurs.

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Whitney E, Cataldo C & Rolfes S. (2002) Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition (6th ed.), Wadsworth, United States of America

Kalkwarf HJ et al. The effect of calcium supplementation on bone density during lactation and after weaning. New England J Med.997 Aug 21;337(8):523-8

Bouhouch R et al. Direct iodine supplementation of infants versus supplementation of their breastfeeding mothers: a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2014 March;2(3):197-209

Hemalatha P. et al. Zinc status of breastfed and formula-fed infants of different gestational ages. Journal Trop Pediatr. 1997 Feb;43(1):52-4

Sarris J & Wardle J. (2010). Clinical Naturopathy, Churchill Livingstone, Australia

Turkyilmaz C, et al. The effect of galactagogue herbal tea on breast milk production and short-term catch-up of birth weight in the first week of life. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 Feb;17(2);139-42

Sharma S, et al. Randomized controlled trial of asparagus racemosus (shatavari) as a lactogogue in lactational inadequacy. Indian Pediatr 1996;33(8):675-677

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