Holiday tips for breastfeeding families

Get it? Turkey BREASTS? This image is all over the internet, but the original source is unbeknownst to me.

Ah, the holidays. Good food, good cheer, family togetherness (which has its pros and cons), and people passing around the baby for snuggles. For most people, whether they’re lactating or not, the holidays also come with their fair measure of stress and challenges. While my advice in general for this time is to do whatever brings you the most joy, juggling a baby and all of this joy can bring with it some unique considerations.

Yes, you can eat stuffing and drink a peppermint mocha (and wine).

Sage and peppermint (and sometimes caffeine and alcohol) frequently make the DO NOT EAT WHILE BREASTFEEDING lists. While both sage and peppermint have been used as folk remedies to reduce milk supply, such as during abrupt weaning, there is little information to be gleaned about from scientific sources about their effect on breastmilk. Sheila Humphrey, author of The Nursing Mother’s Herbal and a wonderful IBCLC, writes:

Sage (Salvia officinalis) is noted in lactation and herbal texts alike as having a folk reputation for lowering milk supply (Bissett 1994, Riordan: and Auerbach 1993). Peppermint (Mentha piperita) and parsley (Petroselinum crispum) are viewed by some traditional herbalists to lower milk supply, especially if the oil is taken internally in therapeutic doses (Ody 1994). Keep in mind that consumed on occasion, in small amounts and as part of a reasonably varied diet, peppermint, parsley, sage and other culinary herbs currently have no documented negative effect on lactation.

I could go on and on about caffeine and alcohol and someday I will, but for now, it will suffice to say YES, you can consume caffeine while breastfeeding, and YES, you can consume alcohol while breastfeeding (and do not need to pump and dump).

In order to consume enough of these substances to have an impact on your milk in any way, you’d have to consume a whole lot of them. It’s far more likely that if your milk supply dips during the holidays, it is not because of what you’re eating or drinking, or a lack of eating or drinking, but because feedings or pumping sessions are being missed.

Make time for breastfeeding (or expressing milk).

The #1 most important factor in making milk is removing it from the breasts, and the #1 most likely reason for a decrease in milk supply or baby’s intake is a baby not being fed often (or well) enough. This doesn’t happen deliberately; especially during the holidays, we’re consumed by our tasks and conversations or our baby happily plays in everyone’s arms but our own. Long car rides may make for babies who sleep longer than normal. Feedings can be missed or shortened by these distractions.

Build time into your schedule to account for making time for nursing and snuggling your baby, or for expressing milk if you’re apart. Plan your shopping around pumping, if your baby will be with a caregiver. Ask hosts where you can have a comfortable, quiet, distraction-free spot to nurse if you have a baby who is easily distracted or you prefer privacy. Watch your little one closely for feeding cues even if she’s being passed around by the relatives, and don’t be afraid to be the parent who plucks baby away when she starts to fuss.

Some babies, of course, won’t sleep through car rides, but will scream through them. In that case, remember to build time into your travel plans to account for pulling the car over for a nursing session and snuggles often, because breastfeeding is more than just food.

Your milk supply isn’t the only thing that will benefit: If you’re not removing milk often enough, you’re risking engorgement, leaking, plugged ducts, and mastitis. You’ll thank yourself for anything you can do to avoid these things.

Kiss your baby even more than usual.

Lots of people = lots of germs. Isn’t it nifty that nature provided you with a built-in way to protect your baby? By kissing your baby—or, heck, give ’em a lick, I won’t judge—and just being in the same environment as your little one in general, you’re exposing your immune system to pathogens. Your immune system will ramp up its defenses and transmit antibodies through your breastmilk to your infant. Your baby’s saliva also “talks” to your breast, and your immune system responds locally. If your little one does get sick, breastmilk can help reduce the intensity and duration of illness.

If you happen to get sick, the best thing you can do is keep breastfeeding as often as possible. There’s no reason to stop breastfeeding or avoid your baby to prevent illness; he’s already been exposed to what you have. If other people are sick, though, try to keep them at arm’s length. Some illnesses can be devastating for infants, even if they have received some vaccinations.

Steel yourself against well-meaning relatives.

It is the lucky family indeed who does not receive advice (or criticism) about their parenting style or choices. I believe that most people who offer advice mean well, even if their social graces may be lacking. Whether you respond or not is up to you, and your reaction will probably differ depending upon who you’re talking to. Great Aunt Edna might get a smile and nod while you might feel comfortable telling Uncle Joe, “Thanks for your concern, but this is working well for us.” Joanne Ketch offers a great approach to boundaries that she calls “The Bean Dip Response.”

I’ve found new moms often confuse boundaries and trying to convince someone of the rightness of their choices.

The best thing is to assert your boundary and not try to defend your choice.

Parenting choices should be on a “need to know” basis. Most people don’t “need to know”. If asked “how is the baby sleeping?” Answer: Great! Thanks for asking! Want some bean dip?

It works both ways, as well. When your cousin is explaining her family’s approach to feeding or sleeping (the two hot topics when you’re a parent of an infant), be gracious if their approach is different from yours, and respect their choices.

The support of like-minded friends can also help you weather comments you may receive.

Remember to take care of you during the holidays.

Nutrition and hydration are important not so much because your milk will disappear or be lower quality if you’re not eating and drinking well, but because you’ll feel awful. Rest is obviously pretty important for this, too. Even if you have to force yourself or schedule time to do so, remember to work self-care into your holiday season. In my experience as someone who likes to do All The Things, trying to do them while running on empty is a recipe for crashing and burning. Fill up your tank; you’ll fly better.

Happy holidays to you and yours!