FOR NEW MOMS, LACTATION COOKIES ARE ALL THE RAGE. BUT, DO THEY REALLY WORK?
One of the biggest concerns of breastfeeding moms is whether or not they’re producing enough milk for their little ones. As a new mom myself, this was definitely a concern of mine. You can’t measure your milk output when you first start breastfeeding or until you start pumping (if you decide to pump) and you have to rely only on clues like number of wet and dirty diapers your baby produces or how much weight they gain, which are all after the fact.
Breastfeeding is not an intuitive process for everyone, and if you’re like me, the unknown can be overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. While you and your baby are first learning how to breastfeed (on top of postpartum healing, sleeping, eating, and so on), you don’t need to add worry on top of worry.
Enter the lactation cookie—a compact, handheld, sweet insurance policy. But, can a cookie, or any food for that matter, increase your milk supply?
You can find many recipes for lactation cookies out there, some of which include the oddest ingredients, but when you’re desperate to increase your supply, you’ll do and eat anything, right?! The common themes I found between recipes were oats, flaxseeds, and brewer’s yeast. Most of the recipes also included all-purpose flour and refined sugar, which are fine ingredients, but I wanted more from a cookie especially during the postpartum healing period. And brewer’s yeast, really?! I was not about to put this bitter yeast into my cookie dough unless I could find research to back it up.
As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and new mom, I wanted to know what the science revealed, so I dove into the research and this is what I found… I WAS SHOCKED!
- There is no evidence that supports the theory that any food or ingredient increases milk volume and no research that suggests that eating oats, flaxseeds, or brewer’s yeast increases milk production.
- Specific foods are more likely to change the composition of breast milk rather than the volume. For example, foods that contain quality, healthy fats like fatty fish and nuts and seeds, or have high concentrations of certain vitamins and minerals such as eggs have been shown to positively influence breastmilk composition.
- An extremely restrictive diet or malnutrition while breastfeeding may eventually decrease milk supply, but maternal stress and nursing behaviors are more likely related factors.
- Limited studies show that increased protein intake may be related to increased milk volume, but more research is needed.
- Adequate fluid intake supports breastfeeding needs, but fluids, “consumed in excess beyond natural thirst”, don’t seem to make a difference in milk volume.
- Although not directly related, research shows that different foods can make breastmilk taste more or less desirable for baby which may then lead to more or less suckling and milk removal, which can increase/decrease milk production.
So, basically the research is inconclusive. Honestly, this information really surprised me. We can eat certain foods and make dietary choices that support almost everything else, so then how come there isn’t one food (or many) that increases milk supply?
A few thoughts as to why this might be…
- We are survivors! Regardless of variations in diet, fluid or calorie intake, etc. our bodies are designed to keep our babies alive. Milk is typically made regardless of a woman’s nutritional status. Now with that said, there are known factors for certain foods/nutrients that can improve the quality of breastmilk such as foods rich in B vitamins, healthy fats, choline and more (I’m going to write a whole post on this topic soon, so stay tuned!).
- Few studies exist on this topic because mothers and families aren’t willing to use their children as an experiment and/or subject themselves or their little ones to potentially harmful foods/substances. The studies that do exist are very small and mostly retrospective ones looking at malnourished groups of women in developing countries. Other studies are assessing animal models versus humans, so strong conclusions can’t be made. I imagine, over time, as more research is conducted using generally healthy women, we will learn more.
FOR THOSE LOOKING TO INCREASE THEIR MILK SUPPLY, CONSIDER THESES RESEARCH-BASED RECOMMENDATIONS:
- Skin-to-skin time with baby increases lactogenic hormones like oxytocin and prolactin (and has many other health benefits for mom and baby).
- Breastfeed more often. The more milk that’s removed, the more milk that’s produced.
- Address physiological or mechanical challenges that may be inhibiting baby from properly latching or suckling and expressing milk.
- Breastfeed on both sides.
- Once you’ve successfully established breastfeeding, consider pumping in between feedings. However, keep in mind that your baby will remove milk more efficiently than a pump, which will then signal your body to make and release more milk.
- Stress can decrease the letdown reflex and inhibit milk flow, so minimize stress whenever possible.
- Get adequate sleep and rest.
- Drinking alcohol may inhibit your letdown reflex and affect milk supply, so minimize alcohol intake especially while first establishing breastfeeding.
- Considering using galactagogues or medications and herbs to increase supply.
- Seek out breastfeeding counseling and support—research shows that those who get support are more likely to successfully initiate breastfeeding and continue to breastfeed over time.
Back to lactation cookies… Good news! There’s no need to add that bitter brewer’s yeast to your cookies—phew! Since there’s actually no one food that improves milk supply–regardless of what’s out there on the internet–I recommend evidence based nutrition recommendations for a healthy and balanced diet while breastfeeding.
For mama’s looking to support postpartum health in general while breastfeeding, make sure to include nutrient-dense, minimally processed, whole foods including whole grains, plant-based proteins and/or lean animal proteins, healthy fats, and ample fruits and vegetables.
Since oats, flaxseeds, and yeast are all wholesome foods which include beneficial nutrients to support optimal health during the postpartum period, you can’t really go wrong if you want to include them in your cookies. And some women swear these ingredients helped to increase their milk supply, so there’s no harm in giving them a try! But again, according to the research, none of these ingredients have been shown to increase lactation in breastfeeding women.
A LITTLE MORE NUTRITION INFORMATION ABOUT THESE WHOLE FOOD INGREDIENTS…
Oats contain iron which supports new moms that may have experienced blood loss in childbirth. They also contain digestive fiber that can be helpful after birth especially if taking opioids or other pain medications that may cause constipation. Oats also contain beta-glucans which have been linked to healthy blood sugar regulation. Also, oats are rich in many vitamins and minerals to support overall health and recovery including B vitamins, molybdenum, chromium, and zinc.
Flaxseeds contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acid, or healthy fat, which may improve the quality (not quantity) of breastmilk. Baked goods that contain ground flaxseeds have been shown to have greater antioxidant capacity and lower glycemic index which are both especially helpful for new mamas who may have undergone surgery with anesthesia. They can also aid in healthy postpartum weight loss. Plus, flaxseeds also contain lignans or a type of polyphenol that provides fiber-like benefits and antioxidants, and also acts as a beneficial phytoestrogen. And, there are many studies linking flaxseeds in the diet with the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and decreased insulin resistance, which again, is a great thing for everyone.
Brewer’s yeast, used in many lactation cookies, contains a variety of B vitamins, selenium, chromium, and some protein which are all beneficial nutrients for the average person and those breastfeeding. However, it is not the same thing as nutritional yeast and does not provide dietary vitamin B12 which is a necessary nutrient especially for vegans. Brewer’s yeast is rather bitter as well which makes it more challenging to “hide” in food and is the main reason I have left it out of my cookie recipe.
So, why you might ask, did I create a cookie recipe for breastfeeding moms if there’s no evidence to support increased lactation? Because new breastfeeding moms can use all the healthy, delicious, easy, wholesome, and one-handed foods they can get! If you’re going to reach for something sweet, you might as well have a nutritious and tasty option made with whole food ingredients. My recipe for Almond Flour Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk (Breastfeeding) Cookies includes oats and flaxseeds (whole and ground) and other minimally processed and unrefined ingredients. They’re sweet and salty, chewy and crunchy and have all the yummy goodness of a traditional chocolate chip cookie that every ravenous, tired, breastfeeding mom wants/needs!