Breastfeeding and your diet – is it keeping your baby (and you) awake?

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Sarah and Tim called me desperately. They were exhausted and it seemed that no matter what they did, they couldn’t settle George, their four week old baby.

George was squirmy and crying with tummy pains. He would only sleep for very short spells if he was held and rocked constantly.

I checked baby George’s feeding and attachment at the breast, took a history, including what kind of birth he had experienced and observed how Sarah and Tim were handling him. They were attuned parents resting at home – George hadn’t been bustled about by visitors or outings that may have overstimulated his immature nervous system. George had no issues such as a tongue or lip tie that could have contributed to his restlessness while feeding and no obvious preferred side.  His attachment was good and he was transferring milk well.  Sarah’s diet was healthy and natural. So I asked if there were any foods she had craved or binged on during pregnancy. While there is a paucity of evidence and differing opinions about whether babies can be sensitized to foods in utero,  it can often give a clue to what the mother may be binging on.  Tired mums on automatic pilot often can’t really think straight.

“Yes, citrus –I couldn’t get enough – oranges, mandarins,” said Sarah. I asked, “are you eating oranges now or drinking orange juice?” (I am always specific because in a new mother mindset it’s easy to be a bit foggy: for instance, I have asked, are you eating dairy or chocolate? Mum will say “no” and Dad will ask, would you like a drink of Milo?  This, of course, is milk and chocolate, both of which are common allergens?)

Tim went to the fridge and brought out a two litre bottle of orange juice that was almost empty. He asked Sarah, “when did you buy this? I haven’t drunk any of it.”

It turned out Sarah had bought the juice just the day before and had drunk almost an entire bottle all by herself.  The good news is that when Sarah  eliminated the citrus from her diet, little George became a calm settled baby – and it only took around 48 hours to make the difference.

If you or your partner suffer from allergies such as eczema, asthma or hay fever, or if there is a family history of allergies, there is a stronger possibility that your baby’s restlessness and poor sleep could be due to food sensitivity or allergies – and he could be reacting to foods passing through your breast milk (your baby is never allergic to your milk).

Food allergies in exclusively breastfed babies are caused by foods that pass into your breast milk, not to your breast-milk itself. Allergies in infants may cause symptoms including: colic, nausea, vomiting and reflux, wheezing and respiratory congestion, dermatitis, eczema, and various rashes (although other medical causes should be ruled out for these symptoms). The most common culprit is cow’s milk protein (found in milk, cheese, yoghurt – butter is fat, not protein, so you may still be able to eat butter).

In one study at a UK sleep clinic, 12 per cent of thirteen-month-old infants who presented with persistent night-waking for which no other causes were found, were taken off all milk products when cow’s milk intolerance was suspected. In most of these children, sleep normalised within five weeks, with night-time awakenings falling to nil or once per night .A subsequent milk challenge (double blind) induced the reappearance of insomnia and, after a year, when the challenge was repeated, all but one child reacted as before.

Other foods that may cause allergies are peanuts, eggs, soya products, fish, wheat, citrus and chocolate (this is the reason we don’t make Boobie Bikkies with chocolate). However, reactions to foods seem to vary widely among individuals. Some sensitive babies react even to small amounts of certain foods in their mothers’ diets, so allergy symptoms (including frequent night waking), can be alleviated by the elimination of offending foods from the mother’s diet.

The best way to protect your baby from allergies is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months. If you are bottle-feeding and suspect allergies to cow’s milk, consult your doctor about trying a hypoallergenic formula (these are available on prescription but are very expensive otherwise).

Food additives are present in ever-increasing numbers in almost all processed foods and these can dramatically affect sleep patterns and behaviour. Some babies and children can also become restless after eating foods containing salicylates. These are naturally occurring chemicals which are found in otherwise healthy foods such as broccoli, grapes, apples, citrus and tomatoes as well as in some processed foods.

Like Baby George, who was sensitive to the orange juice his mother was binging on, I have seen remarkable changes in babies’ sleep patterns with simple tweaks to either mum or baby’s diets. An eight month old who loved broccoli (which is high in salicylates) but was waking up to ten times a night settled and woke at around 10 pm and at 5 am (but resettled after a breastfeed), when broccoli was eliminated. Other babies have slept well after the elimination of grapes and berries (also high salicylate foods) from their own and mum’s diets.

Tracking down offending foods in your child’s or your own diet may take some effort, especially for already exhausted parents, but in the long run it could gain you more sleep. If you think that sleeplessness may be related to foods in your diet passing through your breast-milk, keep a notepad handy and jot down your baby’s crying times and what you eat to see if they are linked. If there appears to be a ‘cause and effect’ between foods in your diet and your baby’s crying, an inexpensive and simple solution is to eliminate the suspect food for at least a week, preferably two weeks. If your baby’s sleep patterns improve, you can either be thankful and avoid the suspect food, or you can reintroduce a small amount of the food into your diet – if the night-waking or allergy symptoms re-occur, you can be pretty certain you have ‘nailed’ the culprit. Elimination of foods may take anywhere from a few days to several weeks to make a difference to your baby’s behaviour so allergies are difficult to prove or disprove, but if it calms your baby (and you), modifying your diet is a small sacrifice.

Sometimes, sleep will be elusive without major dietary changes but in other cases it will just be a matter of balance, perhaps taking care not to overload on certain foods that seem to affect your baby. A good guide to sensible eating is to include a wide variety of foods in as close to their natural state as possible. If you find the thought of changing your diet overwhelming, seek help from an appropriate professional such as a dietician.

Check out our gluten and dairy free Boobie Bikkies – see a testimonial here from Mel, Mother of an allergic baby.

Pinky McKay is an internationally certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, Parenting By Heart and 100 Ways to Calm the Crying.  Check out Pinky’s baby sleep seminars at her website .

20 COMMENTS

  1. Hi how are you? I had gestational diabetes. I loooove my sugar so I was pretty quick to consume it once she was born. I had a terrible ride of reflux, colic etc.Not one doctor asked me about my diet.I researched and took chocolate out of my diet and we still had problems anyway..through much trial and error – I have just realised (she is 6 months old) that sugar does affect her quite quickly. So no breastfeeding cake eating for me! But my question is – have I affected my bubs with my sugar intake?

  2. When keeping a food diary, what is the duration between eating a food and a negative effect on the baby? Would you link crying to the last meal, or one earlier, or do different foods enter into breastmilk at different rates?

    • Different foods will affect over different times. For instance salicylates ( a chemical found in otherwise healthy foods) can have effects for up to 48 hours so the effects can accumulate. The good news is that if salicylates seem to be affecting your baby, you will see positive effects after just a couple of days when you eliminate them. Caffeine from a single cup of coffee can take almost 100 hours for a newborn to process so several cups of coffee over a day would have a stronger effect ( babies over three months are generally Ok with mum having coffee, just time it for after a feed so when its out of your system, its not in your milk). Alcohol – one standard drink takes around two hours to be out of your system so will be out of your milk. If you keep a food diary over a week you will see a pattern emerge. If your baby is restless you can see a dietician for guidance to eliminate foods. Joy Anderson is a registered dietician and lactation consultant based in WA who does Skype calls.
      http://www.dieteticsandlactation.com.au

  3. Hi Pinky,
    Thank you for the GREAT articles, many of them have really restored my sanity during the tricky phases of being a mother.
    Is it possible that mother’s diet will start affecting baby’s sleep at a certain age or can I rule out any foods that I’ve been eating before without problems?

  4. When my son was born was born, upon my midwife’s advice, I painstakingly omitted certain foods from my diet for the first 6 weeks in the hopes of helping with his reflux & constant vomiting. I was too tired to do much research and didn’t really have much success. I do remember that he cried LOTS during the first 4 months or so and didn’t sleep very well. I recall that, although I proudly managed to go 2 months without chocolate, I did consume a large amount of snakes (from the natural food company) and wonder whether the high amount of sugar was to blame for his constant restlessness. By the time my daughter was born I had stumbled across the food intolerance network and was a bit smarter in my food choices. She has been a much better sleeper and a much calmer baby. I also didn’t drink coffee for almost 3 years – from the moment I discovered I was pregnant I ditched it and only started drinking it again when my daughter was nearly 1. Thank you for your very informative and helpful articles, keep them coming!

  5. Does the elimination of some foods whilst breastfeeding lead to an increase in sensitivity towards that food however? Allergists at the Murdoch institute recommend continuing to consume common allergens such as nuts and dairy while breastfeeding in the hope that babies will become less sensitised to them. If you are eliminating food groups without medical allergy testing doesn’t that lead to an increase in allergies long term?

  6. My child is 10 and a half months, never slept well.. Should I look at my diet or is what’s done is done – as in shouldn’t matter now? Still breastfeeding 🙂

  7. Thankyou for this article, I have been following your approaches for my baby but I must admit recently my little girl has been a horror sleeper and I am getting close to trying the hard leave her cry approach as much as I don’t agree with it. But after this article you have given me another lease on trying what I feel is best. I was craving milk when I was pregnant and only after reading this article have started thinking milk is what is causing my baby to wake 5-10times per night at 5months of age so I’m going to cut it out and hope it helps her sleep. I have had allergies all my life and I know food allergies are extremely common now, but is there anything to say that if she’s allergic to dairy while I’m BF her she will be when she is eating solids? As solids will be introduced within the next month Via BLW and I’m trying to work out whether I should keep her away from dairy. Thanks in advance pinky

  8. Is there any food I should try eliminating first? And how long should it take before expecting any changes?
    My baby is on medication for reflux which appears to have assisted somewhat, however he still wakes frequently with wind and tummy aches. He will sleep fabulously in our arms but not well in his bassinet..

    • Is there anything you eat a lot of? Dairy is usually the first food to eliminate , also look at salicylates (see http://www.fedup.com.au)as eliminating these usually gets results within a few days. Dairy needs to be totally eliminated for at least 2 weeks, preferably 3 weeks.

  9. My son is 14 months. He was very sensative to dairy and chocolate in the beginning. He extremely colicky. I elimated them entirely from my diet til he was about 6 months and he was a diff bub within 3 days of me doing so. He was a good sleeper from then until around 4 months (7pm-5am). When I reintroduce it to my diet. I noticed he would get a bit spewy if I had too much but the all day crying was gone. I’m trying to wean now but he doesn’t seem too happy about it. He does feed throughout the night still. Some nights he is more unsettled than others with 3-4 feeds a night. It is almost always at least once though. I have tried a bit of dairy in his diet though he doesn’t have a lot of it. He has been a bit spewy (reflux type spewy) but I can’t be sure that’s what it is. Would u think that would be a likely source of his night waking at this stage? The doc and MCHN were both pretty pushy about getting rid of the night feeds and introducing more dairy exposure. Choc and coffee are my vices and he is feeding 2-3 times during the day from me. Am I back to square 1??

  10. Thank you for this article pinky! Being a first time breast feeder to an almost 4 week old bub I don’t know what to look for…. I suspected my daughter may have a sensitivity to dairy as she seems quite unsettled especially after I have chocolate (which wasn’t great around Easter.) also her stool is the colour of breastfed stool with curds but sometimes stringy which makes me think it’s mucus…
    I craved chocolate and indulged a lot when I was pregnant with her, I think I had chocolate at least once a day.
    Should I eliminate dairy all together, or just start with chocolate?
    (I love my dairy!!)

    • Hi Courtney, breastmilk poo can have a range of textures that are perfectly normal but if your baby is unsettled – yes chocolate can affect babies – it would be helpful to eliminate foods that seem to be a problem. You can start with chocolate or you can do 2 weeks without chocolate AND dairy, then start re-introducing dairy first. You may find dairy is tolerable but in smaller amounts

  11. I am bit confused, Pinky.. How come the food you mentioned is actually affecting the breast-fed babies? The breast milk comes from mothers blood – not the content of her stomach. So whatever doesn’t go to the mother’s bloodstream – will not go to her breastmilk. I understand the cow milk proteines ‘goes’ to mother blood, so does the eggs’ proteins and the salicylates, right? How about chocolate? What is going to breastmilk from there (let’s say it is a chocolate without a milk)? Also I was always told 1 cup of coffee a day is perfectly safe while breastfeeding (the safe limit is 300 mg coffeine per day). I hope my question makes sense.

    • Hi Anna,

      chocolate,even dairy free chocolate or white chocolate contains amines, a naturally occurring food chemical and may upset some babies. Re coffee , according to Hale (medication and Mother’s Milk) , the half life in neonates is as high as 97.5 hours; decreasing with age to 14 hours at 3.5 months and 2.6 hours at 6 months and older. The average cup of coffee contains 100-150mg of caffeine depending on preparation and country of origin. Peak levels of caffeine are found in breastmilk 60 – 120 minutes after ingestion. Hale says: irritability and insomnia have been reported. Occasional use of caffeine is not contraindicated, but persistent, chronic use may lead to high plasma levels in the infant particularly during the neonatal period.

  12. HI, can you explain more on the correlation between what a mom may crave during pregnancy and a babies intolerance? I craved milk during my pregnancy, and still drink a lot of milk. I am exclusive BF and I have a very gassy baby. I’m now sure I should omit milk from my diet, but I would think drinking milk while pregnant would desensitize my baby’s tummy to it, not make it worse. Can you explain why this is? Thanks!

  13. Pinky,
    Have you ever considered making these without egg also? Many people that have a dairy allergy also have an egg allergy. It is to do with animal derived proteins. I’m still on the look out for a vegan lactation cookie.

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