Herbal medicines & breastfeeding
Some complementary and alternative medicines have very good information about their safety and effectiveness while breastfeeding, others have very little because not enough research has been done on them.
Herbal medicines are produced from plants and are based on traditional knowledge. They fall under the umbrella of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). CAM also include such therapies as acupuncture, dietary supplements, massage, aromatherapy, homeopathy and relaxation therapy.
Herbal and traditional medicines are generally bought from shops such as pharmacies, supermarkets and health food stores. They may have been prescribed by a naturopath, a Chinese doctor or another kind of health provider. While most complementary medicines are used for the relief of symptoms of minor and self-limiting conditions, many are used for maintaining health and wellbeing.
Like conventional medicines, certain herbal and traditional medicines, can transfer into your breast milk. Some herbal and traditional medicines may be harmful to your baby, while others can affect your breast milk production. Unless you or your practitioner are very sure about a product's effect on breastfeeding, it is important that you do not take that product.
Breast milk is the best nutrient for your baby and has many health benefits for both you and your baby. You should be very careful about what herbal and traditional medicines you use while breastfeeding, especially when your baby is a newborn, or if your baby was born prematurely.
Things to consider
There are concerns around the unregulated use of herbal and traditional medicines in breastfeeding.
All herbal and traditional medicines have the potential to pass into breast milk and affect your baby.
With most herbal and traditional medicines, there is not enough documented information to determine their safety in breastfeeding.
Some herbal and traditional medicines have not been scientifically proven to be effective.
Some herbal and traditional medicine products have not been regulated to ensure they are of good quality.
Common herbal and traditional medicines
Aloe vera gel is used to help heal cracked nipples. Remove aloe gel from the nipple areas before feeding your baby because the bitter taste of the aloe vera gel can affect feeding.
Aloe vera latex is a yellow-coloured liquid that comes from the inner skin of the aloe leaf. It is taken orally in both the dried and liquid form. Avoid taking aloe vera latex as it has a strong laxative effect.
Cranberry may be used to prevent urinary tract infections in breastfeeding mothers. There is no information on the safety and efficacy of the medicine in breastfeeding, but is considered safe to use at the recommended doses.
Echinacea has been commonly used to treat or prevent upper respiratory tract infections. There is no information about the safety and efficacy of echinacea in breastfeeding. If you take echinacea while breastfeeding, watch for possible side effects in your baby, such as diarrhoea or constipation, poor feeding and skin rashes.
Traditionally, fenugreek is used to increase milk supply. The transfer of fenugreek into breast milk is unknown and unusual side effects such as allergy, colic, abdominal discomfort and diarrhoea have been reported in babies. Also, there is the potential for fenugreek to interact with other medicines.
Garlic appears to be safe in amounts usually used in food preparation. Garlic may change the smell of breast milk and affect your baby’s feeding. There is no information on the safety of garlic supplements in breastfeeding.
Ginger appears to be safe in amounts usually used in food preparation. Avoid using large amounts as there is not enough information available about the safety of ginger while breastfeeding.
Avoid using milk thistle because there is no information on the safety of this traditional medicine when used by breastfeeding mothers.
When used as a tea, raspberry leaf is safe to use while breastfeeding. Raspberry leaf supplements should be avoided because there is limited safety information.
St John’s Wort
There is very little information available about the safety and efficacy of St John’s Wort in breastfeeding women. It is recommended that an alternative medicine be considered. See your doctor or pharmacist for advice before starting St John’s Wort.
McGuire T, Walters J, Dean A, et al. Review of the Quality of Complementary Medicines Information Resources: Summary Report. In: Service NP, ed. Sydney; 2009.
The regulation of complementary medicines in Australia – an overview. 2012. (Accessed 29/06/12, 2012, at http://www.tga.gov.au/industry/cm-basics-regulation-overview.htm)
Loke Y, ed. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding Medicines Guide. 1st ed. Melbourne: The Royal Women’s Hospital, Pharmacy Department; 2010.
Hale TW. Medications and mothers’ milk. 14th ed ed. Texas: Hale Publishing; 2010.
Lactmed. In: Lactmed; 2012.
Australian Pharmaceutical Formulary and Handbook. 22 ed. Canberra: Pharmaceutical Society of Australia; 2012.
Braun L, Cohen M. Herbs and Natural Supplements. 3 ed; 2010.
Francois CA, Connor SL, Bolewicz LC, Connor WE. Supplementing lactating women with flaxseed oil does not increase docosahexaenoic acid in their milk. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;77:226–33.
Swiss Ultiboost Spirulina. 2012. (Accessed June 2012, at http://www.swisse.com/products/superfoods/ultiboost-spirulina)
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