By Bri Ziganti
While chocolate-flavored breastmilk may not ever come to be, nursing mothers can dramatically influence the taste of their milk through the foods they eat- and, more importantly, this stronger flavor of breastmilk may encourage the baby to nurse longer. Longer nursing times are generally beneficial for preemies, who are underdeveloped and need extra nourishment to gain weight quickly. Studies show that babies exposed to flavors in utero and while nursing are also more likely to prefer that flavor once they are weaned- a great way to widen your toddler’s palate without the fights at the dinner table.
How is it Possible to Change the Flavor of Breastmilk, and Why is this Beneficial?
Foods eaten by the mother are broken down in the stomach and transported as nutrients around the body via the bloodstream. Interestingly, many flavor profiles will cross into the blood as well, including “volatiles,” molecules which carry scent. Humans’ sense of smell is connected to the sense of taste, meaning these volatiles influence our perception of how pleasant a food is.
During pregnancy, the mother shares her blood with the fetus in order to grow the baby. Blood passes into the baby via the placenta and the amniotic fluid, along with these same volatiles. Even after the baby is born, volatiles can still be shared if the baby drinks breastmilk, since the mammary glands are interspersed with many blood vessels. Many doctors think that this access to variety of flavors will make it easier for babies to adjust to a diverse assortment of healthy solid foods later on, instead of being picky and difficult to manage.
“The fact that the flavor is passed to the milk is known,” said Dr. Nicolas Stettler, research consultant for nutrition and former assistant professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Parents should be mindful so they can expose the baby to a variety of foods. You know how it’s always a struggle with young children to eat new foods.”
Lucy Cooke, senior research associate at University College in London and licensed psychologist with a focus in children’s nutrition, has supported these claims independently with her own research on vegetable acceptance in infants.
“Breastfed 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. 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,” Cooke said.
The ease with which parents can influence food acceptance through breastmilk was beautifully illustrated in a 2001 study using carrot juice. Breastfeeding mothers were asked to drink carrot juice every day. Once their children were weaned, researchers had the mothers offer the babies two types of cereals- one made with water, and one made with carrot juice. The results were overwhelmingly positive- the infants previously exposed to the carrot flavor of breastmilk enjoyed the carrot flavor of the cereal more than the plain version. Parents wanting their children to “naturally” take to less sweet foods such as vegetables should introduce them into their babies’ diets as early as possible. Eating a varied diet while breastfeeding is perhaps the easiest way to achieve this goal.
What if My Child has a Food Sensitivity?
While some babies cannot handle certain foods and need mom to stick to a gentler, less adventurous diet, this should be a rare occurrence. New mothers should take cues from their babies to figure out which foods, if any, they need to cut out while breastfeeding. Colicky babies are particularly affected by cow’s milk and caffeine, so nursing mothers should avoid these, but try their best to include plenty of other calcium-rich and healthy foods so as not to lose out on these additional breastfeeding benefits.