Spiced-up breast milk benefits babies

Breast-fed babies accept more foods later because they’ve experienced a variety of flavors from the start.

When I had my children I felt that there was a tendency by experts, including those in my own pediatric profession, to push certain principles that took all the fun out of life. This played out for me, in particular, after I gave birth to my first child, and was told as part of my breast-feeding “support” that I should avoid all spicy foods, because they would upset the baby.

Why are women told to avoid strong flavors when breast-feeding?

Twenty-five years ago, researchers asked a group of nursing mothers to load up on garlic. In the study, “Maternal Diet Alters the Sensory Qualities of Human Milk and the Nursling’s Behavior,” which ran in 1991 in the journal Pediatrics, nursing mothers who ate garlic produced breast milk with a stronger smell, as evaluated by researchers who didn’t know which sample was which. What was most interesting was how the milk tasted to the babies, those poetically named “nurslings.” When the garlic effect was there, the babies stayed longer on the breast, and nursed more vigorously.

Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, was the lead author on the 1991 study; she has continued to study the effect of early exposures on the development of taste. “Amniotic fluid and mother’s milk have a lot of sensory information,” she said. “The baby gets the information when they feed on the milk.”

Another study, published in 2001, showed that babies who had been exposed to a flavor in utero or while nursing were more likely to like that flavor when they were weaned.

What goes into your stomach goes into your bloodstream, broken down into molecules of protein, carbohydrate, fat. The flavors cross as well.

The variety of flavors that you eat during pregnancy go into your blood and then into the amniotic fluid, which the baby is constantly drinking, in utero, and the flavors that you eat while nursing cross from the blood vessels that supply the mammary glands into the breast milk.

“Breast-fed babies are generally easier to feed later because they’ve had this kind of variety experience of different flavors from their very first stages of life, whereas a formula-fed baby has a uniform experience,” said Lucy Cooke, a psychologist specializing in children’s nutrition, who is a senior research associate at University College London. “The absolute key thing is repeated exposure to a variety of different flavors as soon as you can possibly manage; that is a great thing for food acceptance.”

Her own research has included working with children at the age of weaning to increase the acceptance of vegetables by offering repeated exposures to them.