Thursday, August 2, 2012

Our Babies, Our Guts, Or: What Napoleon Dynamite Can Teach Us About Breastfeeding

Mmm, Gut Flora
Is it normal for a breastfed baby to go for days without pooing? How about weeks? It comes up fairly regularly (puns always intended around here) in online breastfeeding-related support groups, and the conventional wisdom/majority opinion is inevitably that infrequent stooling in exclusively breastfed infants is fairly common and thus, it is normal. But what do we mean by "normal"? If by normal (in this context) we really mean common, then yes, that's true. But does that, therefore, equal healthy?

Usual pattern of discourse:
One parent: "My baby usually went for 4 or 5 days without pooing. Then she'd have a huge blowout/poo all day on the fifth day."

Another parent: "Breastmilk is such a perfect substance that the baby's body just absorbs it all! Breastfed babies don't need to poo regularly." 

Third parent: "Yes! Breastmilk is used so efficiently that there isn't any waste. Mine used to poo explosively once a week. It was just her 'natural rhythm', I guess."

Me: "But . . . if a baby not pooing is a sign that the body is 'absorbing it all', then what does it mean when a baby actually poos? That they are not using it so efficiently and aren't getting the nutrients? And if they are then having blowouts later - doesn't that mean they were not 'using it so efficiently that there is no waste' after all? (And on to information about infrequent stooling sometimes being a symptom of food sensitivities, suggesting a look into gut healing if it;s feasible for the mom, etc, blather, rinse, repeat.)"
You get the idea. I'm always conflicted about this topic and its usual pattern because the women arguing in favor of infrequent infant stooling ARE breastfeeding advocates and are trying to encourage and reassure other mothers. I can't NOT support that right? The intention is so good.

I posit that something being common does not, in itself, mean that it is therefore healthy. 

This frequent conversation was on my mind when I shared this link from The Healthy Home Economist on Facebook yesterday and enjoyed the brief discussion that followed. From her post on relieving baby constipation:
"As little as ten to fifteen years ago, it was almost unheard of for a breastfed baby to be constipated.  In fact, the baby books at that time almost universally stated that breastfed babies don’t get constipated. Nowadays, however, this situation is becoming more commonplace and the continuing decline in the quality of the diet of nursing mothers is a likely reason.
While it is an unpopular position within the breastfeeding community, the diet of the mother clearly impacts the quality of her breastmilk (fats, vitamins and minerals in breastmilk vary considerably based on the mother’s diet although protein and immunoglobulins do not) and studies such as the Chinese Breastmilk Study confirm this.

"Suggesting that a lactating mother can eat whatever she wants and still produce quality breastmilk is also irresponsible and defies all common sense and historical study of healthy traditional cultures which put great emphasis on the quality of the diet of nursing mothers."

I appreciate that she's willing to state an  unpopular opinion on two matters: That even a breastfed baby needs to stool regularly (the body "using it so efficiently" does not mean that there is zero waste and that it just dissolves magically; that's simply not how human digestion functions, whether said human is an infant or an adult), and that maternal diet DOES in fact have an impact on breastmilk composition. Yes, breastmilk absolutely IS still preferable to formula, even with a suboptimal diet, but that does not mean a nutritionally inadequate diet and a healthful diet (and what "healthful" means definitely and obviously varies from individual woman to individual woman) are therefore equivalent.

I think we as breastfeeding professionals and advocates are frequently afraid to address maternal diet because we don't want to create additional pressure on mothers, and I completely get that. I don't want moms to feel that they have to eat "perfectly", and opinions also do vary on what optimal nutrition even is, I know. (Believe me, I know.  Vegetarian? Vegan? Paleo? Raw? Low Carb? Macrobiotic? Kosher? Gluten-free? SAD? GAPS? FODMAPS? Aiiiieeeeee!)  

However, I do feel sometimes that we're assuming that women's commitment to breastfeeding is so fragile and tenuous that giving information that includes suggesting improvement to their nutrition, within whatever their means are (more on that in a sec) will cause them to throw up their hands and give up. I want to give moms more credit than that. Yet I have also heard (as in read-on-forums) moms deciding to formula feed because they can't afford a perfect organic diet for themselves, so what's the point? Clearly we need to do a much better job of getting accurate info out there re: this. 

To wit, while this very conversation was taking place, a comment was posted on an article about the Bloomberg initiative: "[Breastfeeding is] only healthier IF the mother eats properly and chooses to not take in UNHEALTHY substances. . ." 

To which my classmate Catherine replied: "Right. Because all those cows whose milk is being used to make Similac are on an organic diet (and eating "properly" - so no grains) and are never given unhealthy substances." Those cows are not farmed on a different, uncontaminated planet, either.

Christie Haskell then summed it up neatly: "We want people to know that eating healthy does make things better for baby, but we don't want to fuel the idea that if you don't eat healthy, you might as well formula feed either." This is the dilemma.

My wise friend Arwyn, famed for her excellent blog Raising My Boychick, offered some important perspective with some difficult but extremely relevant thoughts, thoughts that we should keep in mind whether approaching this from either an advocacy role or a professional one:

[T]he majority of toxins in milk come from our own stored backlog, which were laid down when WE were fetuses and infants and children. They come from car fumes and factory fumes and "fire retardants" and water pollution, from a thousand things we cannot control and which big money is invested in preventing us from regulating. Does diet make a difference? Yeah, of course it does. But I think any conversation about diet that takes place outside of a dominant cultural conversation about how our waters and lands and air and food are polluted is the wrong approach.
Arwyn makes very important points - I always appreciate her asking the tough questions. I think it's important to have address ALL of these things. Socioeconomic issues, environmental contaminants, AND also maternal nutrition. And as an IBCLC-to-be, the subject I know most about is the latter, so therefore, it's what I'm most qualified to speak about - that doesn't mean I don't recognize the other things as significant factors. I don't have expertise in social justice or environmental science, but I do in human lactation  It's the area in which I have the best chance of making any significant impact as a professional, therefore it is the main focus of my voice on this matter. She is absolutely right that I still need to remember to consider the big cultural picture - and check my privilege - on a regular basis in all of these conversations.

It is absolutely true that our own health has already been dramatically affected by our grandmothers, quite literally - I say all the more reason to do what we can for our grandchildren in addition to our nurslings. I think we can strive to increase access and be sensitive and empathetic about resource inequity - and also not perpetuate myths in our roles as professionals or advocates about breastfed babies only needing to poo once a month-ish.

No conversation about this would be complete without a link to Jennifer Tow, who is one of the most experienced  and brilliant IBCLCs on the planet, and her poetic musings on "The Gut, Microbes and Poop":

Someday, I am going to write “Confessions of an IBCLC Heretic”, because for almost 20 years, I have been saying that it is absolutely not normal for babies of any age to have fewer than several significant bowel movements per day. Not per week! Per day. The more I learn about the gut and the gut-brain axis, the more I have to learn. But, I am confident that human milk is not “all used up” and that babies are not “efficient enough that there is no waste”.

Such comments do not even bear up under the scrutiny of common sense. If all those babies who stop pooping at 4-6 weeks are using up all the milk, what are the babies who are pooping 6-8 times per day doing? Making it?

And finally, even Napoleon Dynamite knows that maternal diet impacts milk composition.


Napoleon Dynamite: [drinks glass of milk] The defect in that one is bleach.
FFA Judge No. 1 : That's right.
Napoleon Dynamite : Yessssssssss.
Napoleon Dynamite : [drinks second glass of milk] This tastes like the cow got into an onion patch.
FFA Judge No. 2 : Correct.
Napoleon Dynamite : Yessssssssss. 
[Side note: Lily has taken lately to saying "Yesssssss," whenever she's mildly excited about something, and sounds exactly like Napoleon here.]


  1. I've had my doubts about the irregular poop thing, I admit, but I've always felt relieved to hear that other moms have it happen too. So what do I do? I'll look at this Healthy Home Economist post you linked to.

    I'm always working to eat better so that I can be a good example to my kids (and keep the crap out of my house so they don't ask for it once old enough), but I neglected the fact that some of my son's (34 months) nutrition and all of my daughters (5 months) are already affected by my eating habits by virtue of the milk quality I am providing.

    1. The Healthy Home Economist piece is a good place to start, yes. It sounds like you are already doing a lot of great work for yourself and your family! It might be worthwhile to try eliminating some of most common allergens and see if that makes any difference: the biggest ones are typically dairy, wheat/gluten, soy, and eggs. For us it was gluten, soy, eggs and peanuts (she grew out of the egg sensitivity). Probiotics could also make a difference(for yourself and baby).

      I do worry about sending moms on a wild goose chase with difficult and often inaccurate elimination diets, so beyond just those primary culprits, I think it's worthwhile to see a naturopath who works with babies and food sensitivities. BUT, I also realize that this isn't on everyone's health insurance, if they have insurance in the first place (and therein lies the rub discussed above re: resources and privilege).

      So, take that with a grain of salt, of course! I do think it's worth exploring the food sensitivities in particular.

  2. Right, so what do I do? My son poops about once a week, and it's always much thicker than my first baby's was. I eat what I would consider to be a healthy diet. I'm not constipated myself. In the past I've had symptoms of magnesium deficiency, but it doesn't seem to be correctable by diet ... I eat lots of supposedly magnesium-rich foods. But I hear our soil is so bad that food in America is becoming magnesium-deficient. So back to square one ... take a supplement? Or is it something else that's missing in my diet? Or does my homebirthed breastfed baby have messed up gut flora for no reason? He's never had an antibiotic, a vaccine, or even tylenol.

    1. Well, it might be that some of the above re: certain food sensitivities might be a factor worth exploring. I also know for myself personally, my own gut had some healing to do from years of crappy dieting and such. NO idea if that might be true for you, but possibly a place to start? I wish I knew more to be able to help from a distance.

    2. Sheila, check out the Weston A Price Foundation website, it is the perfect place to start. What most people think is healthy, is not really healthy.

  3. This is such an important topic and one that has actually been on my mind a lot recently. My first tongue-tied baby struggled mightily with breastfeeding and had to practically live on my boob to just barely get enough. He had a blowout once a week. When I had my daughter I got her TT corrected within the first week and breastfeeding was infinitely easier. I was also eating a much, MUCH healthier diet and I found my baby pooped after literally every nursing, sometimes twice! I was telling a friend and she said, "What, did you forget how it is in the early months?" and no, I didn't forget, my first baby just did not behave the same way. Anyway, it's such a complex issue. I'm so glad that I spoke to Jennifer and cleaned up my diet a TON before having the second baby and have continued to eat much better ever since. But I don't ever want a mom to think that her diet has to be perfect in order to make good milk. But still, there is evidence that moms who eat better make better milk. I've always heard IBCLCs tell moms that they don't need to take their prenatals while nursing, but I wonder if that's a good place to start. Would even just adding in a good, food-based multivitamin make a difference? I know it was hard for me to eat well as a new mom, trying to take care of a newborn and a toddler, period. Is there any practical advice we can offer new moms that is easy to implement, that they can feel good about doing, so we can at least begin the process of healing while they maintain the breastfeeding?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Elita! "But I don't ever want a mom to think that her diet has to be perfect in order to make good milk." SO much yes to this. I hope I've put that across well enough. On practical advice: I really, truly hope to have more viable answers as I progress through my education. Much, much more to learn.

      Interesting on the vitamin/prenatal matter - I think this is situation dependent. Say you have a mom who lives in a food desert and doesn't have a lot of resources - but she is able to get prenatals due to Medicaid coverage. For her, that could be a helpful option, maybe?

    2. I would say just pick one new habit/food at a time and integrate it. The easiest and best thing you can do for your health and gut is switch to raw milk and homemade stock, taking cod liver oil and probiotics. Those four things will catapult you into the next level of good health and make a huge difference in the quality of your breast milk.

  4. GL I'm amazed!!!!It's 26 years since I BF my daughter. What has happened to diet in the meantime, I'm horrified!!

  5. I totally agree with this post. My diet has improved a lot since my first child, and I beleive that I can see this in my son as he is developing. He is stronger than she was at this age. He's 4.5 months and already starting to crawl! Also he poops s
    everal times a day. Fortunately we EC, so almost always in the potty. :) But even as a doula I try to stress to moms how important their diet is to a healthy pregnancy and breastmilk, and that doesn't just mean taking a prenatal. It's healthy fats and no vegetable oils, with lots of nutrient-dense foods.
    And constipation is NEVER good, not for breastfeeding babies or anyone else!

  6. I know this article is old but maybe someone has an opinion on this. My son is 8 weeks old and has only pooped once a week for about 4 weeks. His poops are not formed so he's not constipated and they aren't blowouts. I definitely think diet is important so that's why I changed my diet with my second baby. But he poops way less than my daughter did when I was on more of a regular American diet. Here's an example of what I eat every day. Breakfast: two apples. Snack: raw almonds. Lunch: sweet potatoes and eggs. Dinner: broccoli, carrot, cashew stir fry over rice. Snack: popcorn. I rarely eat wheat and sugar. I have meat 1-3 times a week. I eat only organic and the only beverage I drink is water. What's with the kid not pooping?!
    Thanks in advance!!