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Ohio State’s Dr. Jonathan Schaffir breaks down breastfeeding myths

Pop superstar Mariah Carey caused quite a stir in 2011 after news surfaced that she’d sipped some yeast-heavy dark beer to boost milk production while breastfeeding her twins. The centuries-old folklore remedy – something not supported by science – reportedly was recommended by a nurse at the California hospital where the twins were born.

jonathan_schaffirAfter hearing his patients discuss getting non-scientific recommendations of this type from health care professionals, Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, an obstetrician at Ohio State University’s Wexler Medical Center, decided to research the topic.

He surveyed 124 breastfeeding consultants affiliated with major U.S. medical centers and found that 65 percent had suggested at least one folklore remedy to patients. Results of the online survey were published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine. talked with Schaffir to learn more.

How did you get interested in the use of folklore in breastfeeding?

I often hear from patients that they’re using recommendations they’ve heard from other sources or trying alternative medications. So, I was curious about where they’re hearing these things from, since they’re not usually the sorts of things passed on through routine medical channels.

Did you hear about any really weird remedies in your research?

The most common recommendation was for herbs, such as fenugreek (often used in Indian cooking) and milk thistle (a flowering herb in the same family as daisies and ragweed) to stimulate breast milk production. Also, quite a few (breastfeeding consultants) recommended methods to help with breast pain, the most common being cabbage leaves on the breasts, and also placing tea bags on the nipples.

Is there science to show that any of these practices work?

Very little. Most of these things have not had any trials to see whether they’re effective or not. There have been some studies on cabbage leaves used for breast pain, and (cabbage leaves) have not been shown to be more soothing than using any sort of compress. Interestingly, (one piece of advice not mentioned by many) lactation consultants was to avoid foods that may cause changes in the infant from breastfeeding – for example, some people say don’t eat onions or cauliflower or broccoli because it makes the baby gassy. And there was actually a study that looked at women whose diets included a lot of cruciferous vegetables (like cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower), and it found that there was some increase in colic in those babies.

What’s the problem with relying on anecdotal evidence? Is it only right to pass on science-based information?

I do think it’s preferable to pass along information that you know is going to be helpful and work well. That said, most of these things are pretty innocuous, and there’s probably some placebo effect to some of them. If a woman feels better putting a cabbage leaf to her breast, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

What about sipping beer?

There were not any lactation consultants (in the survey) who recommended beer to their clients, though that’s one recommendation I have heard from patients. Avoiding alcohol while breastfeeding is important. Alcohol has been shown to decrease the production of breast milk. And although the amounts of alcohol that would get into the breast milk are pretty small, one wouldn’t want to purposefully expose one’s infant to alcohol.

Is it OK to take herbal medication during breastfeeding?

Things like herbal medications are just not very studied and, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of regulation with most of these supplements that are sold. I would say, in general, it might be best to avoid them until there’s a little more research to see if they’re effective or not.

Are there remedies that have actually been studied and proven to increase milk production, assist with breastfeeding or ease pain?

In general, there are a lot of tried-and-true things that lactation consultants do instruct women on – such as making sure they’re taking care of their health, making sure they’re getting enough sleep and fluids and vitamins, and putting the baby to the breast on a regular basis to encourage the infant to latch on. Those are things that are proven effective in establishing a good breastfeeding pattern.

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