Breastfeeding mothers often wonder if it’s safe to get piercings or tattoos, to have their hair dyed or permed, to drink alcohol or go on special diets. Jennifer Peddlesen of Calgary, a pharmacist and lactation consultant, offers reassurance: “Most things, even most over-the-counter and prescription drugs, are safe while breastfeeding. Nature seeks to protect the baby from drugs and other possible contaminants in human milk and, in general, the body will limit the amount that is passed through to the baby.”
It’s not always medications that people are worried about, though. Peddlesen responds to some common concerns:
Intense exercise (such as long-distance running) “If exercise were a problem for breastfeeding, our species would have died out a long time ago,” says Peddlesen. “For many women in the past, what we’d call extreme exercise was just their daily lives, what they did to survive. I’ve worked with competitive athletes who had no difficulties with continued breastfeeding.”
Hair dye or perm “The chemicals from hair dye or perm solutions do not soak into your skin and get into your blood or milk,” Peddlesen explains. “The biggest problem may be that the baby won’t like the smell of the chemicals on your hair.”
X-rays “The radiation from X-rays does not stay in your body — it passes through you,” she says. “So regular X-rays are not a concern. Sometimes, though, you will be given something to swallow to make your stomach or intestines glow during the X-ray, and that is not safe, and you may need to stop feeding for a period of time (while still pumping to keep up your supply).”
Special diets Peddlesen reminds mothers who are anxious to lose any extra weight left from the pregnancy that breastfeeding is a pretty good weight-loss strategy. It may not be fast, but slow and steady is better for keeping the weight off anyway. Many nursing women find their bodies seem to hang on to a few extra pounds until after the baby is weaned, but then lose it quickly.
Considering becoming vegan while breastfeeding? Peddlesen’s one caveat is to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12 (from nutritional yeast or vitamin supplements, since it’s only found in animal products). Vegetarian mothers who eat a balanced diet including eggs and dairy should have no problems. She has more concerns about low-carb diets, which may be missing several important nutrients. “You will still make milk, but the mother’s body can become depleted,” Peddlesen says.
Alcohol Peddlesen acknowledges that alcohol consumption by nursing mothers is somewhat controversial. “While we don’t want to be giving babies lots of alcohol, I see nothing wrong with having occasional drinks at parties or family events.” She advises mothers that they can minimize the effects on their babies by:
• spacing out drinks
• eating foods containing fat, proteins and carbohydrates along with the drinks
• drinking water or pop as well or diluting the drink
• timing their next feeding of the baby so that much of the alcohol has metabolized. For example, if you weigh 140 pounds, the alcohol from one drink will be cleared from your milk after about two hours. If you’ve had three drinks, it will take about seven hours.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to wait until the alcohol content of your milk is zero,” says Peddlesen. “But some people will choose that.”
Herbal supplements “You do need to be careful in using supplements, whether it’s for weight loss or another purpose,” Peddlesen warns. “These are not well regulated, and you don’t always know what’s in a supplement. Some of the weight-loss products, for example, have stimulants in them that are not good for mom or baby.” Discuss them with a naturopath, pharmacist or your physician.
Vaccinations “There’s no reason for a mother not to have a vaccination while she’s breastfeeding,” says Peddlesen. “We’ve seen no problems with any of them.”
Piercings and tattoos The main risk from these is that the mother will contract a serious illness from needles that haven’t been properly sterilized. Choose a facility that is clean and follows the safety rules. She does add a warning that it’s probably better to avoid piercing nipples during breastfeeding. While many women who have had their nipples pierced breastfeed without difficulty, in a few cases there are problems with scarring.
Alice Kennedy* was nursing her four-month-old baby when she decided to get her nose pierced, and checked out the studio carefully to be sure it sterilized the equipment and disposed of needles properly. She was so happy with the results, she says: “I had several more piercings done over the next year or so while breastfeeding — well, you know, I wasn’t actually breastfeeding while I was getting pierced. But it’s common sense stuff. Just check things out.”
*Name changed by request.