Bring on the Flavor!

by Lo Kawulok, Midwife, CLC

Positive aspects of a varied diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding

One of the best ways we can expose our children to a variety of healthy foods is by eating them during pregnancy as well as while breastfeeding. Julie Mennella, a biopsychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philidellphia, has been one of the leading researchers investigating the effect of early exposures on the development of taste. Since 1991, she has published a range of studies from the affects of maternal garlic intake on breast milk flavor to prenatal and postnatal exposures of a flavor enhancing an infants’ enjoyment of that flavor in solid foods later on.  

Her work has confirmed what many of us have intuitively known for generations: If we expose our little ones to a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and complex flavors during pregnancy and breastfeeding, they are more likely to have a taste for these foods later on. And, because we know that a balanced diet is one of the best ways to lower our risks of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cancer, the benefits of introducing these flavors to our children while in the womb and during breastfeeding are immense.

It’s really an impressive design: during pregnancy, what you eat is broken down and enters your bloodstream as molecules of protein, carbohydrate, fat, as well as volatiles, which contain the scents from your food. These scents directly affect the taste of food. Amniotic fluid is exclusively influenced by what is in your blood, thus, the flavor of foods you eat are transmitted through the amniotic fluid, which the baby is swallowing throughout pregnancy. The same is true while breastfeeding; the flavors you eat while nursing enter breast milk through the blood vessels that supply the mammary glands that produce milk. Consequently, the more variety in your diet both while growing your baby on the inside and out, the more likely your baby will have a varied palate as they grow.

I love reminding pregnant and nursing folks of this connection because it helps ease one’s mind when trying to figure out what the ideal diet is for both pregnancy and nursing. Because babies are acculturated to flavors in the womb, one can rest assured that they don’t need to limit their diet (unless there is a serious allergy) once they are nursing. I encourage breastfeeding parents to eat the foods that are part of their food culture, be it spicy or highly aromatic, as babies will most likely enjoy these interesting and familiar flavors. Dr. Menella says it well: “A diet of the healthy foods a mother enjoys is modeling at its best. The baby only learns if the mother eats the foods.”

Wishing you all healthful and inspired meals throughout pregnancy, breastfeeding, and family dinnertime!