In my postpartum doula practice and talking to friends with newborns, I frequently hear about how mothers have stopped eating certain foods they enjoy because they heard that the food is behind their baby’s gas or crankiness. A well meaning mother, friend, or Yahoo! answerer has told them so, and have even sworn that it was that way with all the babies they’ve known. I think it’s a really sad thing that this poor advice is passed around so much because it just makes breastfeeding harder and possibly less successful by restricting a woman’s choices and causing unwarranted anxiety. And it just has no basis in fact.
I hear from mothers who have stopped eating lentils, or all foods in the cabbage family, or are suffering trying to figure out how to go a year or more with no onions or garlic, or even (YIKES!) have been told not to eat chocolate or some other food. Most of this is just, well, bunk that probably has either to do with faulty reasoning or cultural bias, but certainly not anything biological. That is not to say that there isn’t a small percentage of babies out there with true allergies (like to cow milk) or sensitivities (like to caffeine), but most moms with most babies can eat what they like while breastfeeding without worry about causing the baby problems.
First, let’s looking at the most common group of foods moms tell me about, the “gassy” foods. These include foods like onions, beans, and other vegetables that cause adults gas. Put simply, that cannot give your baby gas when you eat them. Not even if you get gas from them. The reason is simple; they give you gas because they gas causing substance is indigestible to humans. All these foods contain indigestible sugar called raffinose. It’s the raffinose that causes your gas. Your body does not digest or breakdown raffinose, and does not absorb it into the bloodstream. Instead, it sticks around in your intestine and is broken down by bacteria. The bacteria produce gas as a byproduct of their digestion of the raffinose. If you don’t digest it, it doesn’t get into your bloodstream and doesn’t get into your breastmilk. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter what the folk wisdom or lady next door has said, it’s not physically possible that these “gassy” foods give your baby gas. Go back to enjoying their flavor and nutrition.
So what is giving the baby gas, and why are many babies so fussy right after mom has eaten a dinner of beans and onions? Let’s take these as two separate questions.
Why are babies so gassy?
Healthy babies have gas for several reasons. First, their immature digestive systems aren’t organized very well. They swallow a lot of air, particularly when crying and eating. Swallowed air is gas and causes the symptoms of gas. Another issue in the immature gut that causes gas is that the baby’s intestines may not be colonized by all the bacteria older children and adults have that aid in digestion. This will happen in time. Long intestinal transit time can also cause gas. Some breastfed babies starting at 6-8 weeks of age do as long as a week between bowel movements. This is normal, but food sitting in the gut that long has more time of ferment and produce gas. Lastly, you might notice that little babies seem to struggle to pass their gas, and that is seems really difficult and distressing for them. Think for a second about what it takes for an adult to pass gas. You have to coordinate two seemingly opposing muscular tasks to do it comfortably: push the gas out while relaxing the anal sphincter. Babies just are not practiced at doing that, so it is not easy to do! All of these factors work together to make a baby have uncomfortable gas.
There are some less healthy reasons for gas in babies as well. Thrush can make a baby gassy because their may be undergoing yeast fermentation in their tummies. Another abnormal reason for gas in newborns is milk oversupply issues, in which the baby has frothy green poop. Lastly are true food allergies. True allergies, however, also come with other symptoms like rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and nasal congestion. If you ever think that your child has a problem more serious than normal infant gas, please talk to your pediatrician or lactation consultant.
So what about all the gas, fussiness, and crying after mom has eaten a big dinner of beans, broccoli, and brussels sprouts? No, it’s still not from the food. It’s timing, and it may or may not have anything to do with digestion. What may be happening is a normal developmental stage that can be managed by parents.
It is normal for infant to go through a period between 2 weeks and about 3 months of age in which they cry for extended periods and for no apparent reason. This normal crying tends to happen in the late afternoon or early evening. The peak of this phase is at about 6 weeks, and the boughts of crying can last for a few hours almost every day. This normal crying can be managed by parents in ways that can help parents feel empowered and help with early bonding between the child and her caretakers.
What does this have to do with gas and food? As we mentioned, babies swallow air when crying. That swallowed air during the crying period may contribute to evening and night time gas. And guess what else? It happens in the evening, so this gas and fussiness coincides with your dinner.
So that’s it. Eat the “gassy” foods you want while you’re breastfeeding. You might enjoy them and they’re full of vitamins and other nutrients that are good for you. They are not causing your baby’s gas because they can’t. Newborns get gas for a lot of reasons. If your baby is getting gas after your dinner, don’t worry. It’s coincidence; not your food. Don’t make breastfeeding more difficult on yourself than it has to be.