Yesterday, Mr Taiwanxifu took baby for a check-up at hospital. Taiwanxifu Baby is not only gaining weight, he is packing it on. A total of 650g in eight days in fact. Could it be that Chinese postpartum confinement food (坐月子餐, zuo yuezi can) is helping to boost my milk supply?
Taiwanxifu Toddler was born over two months’ early and had to stay in hospital for five weeks. I knew that breast milk is one of the best things for premature babies, but try as much as I had such a low supply that I felt embarrassed submitting my meagre offerings to hospital to feed him. Mr Taiwanxifu used to do regular ‘milk runs’ to the hospital in between our twice daily visits, but even so what I produced always fell short. Such guilt at feeling like being an inadequate mother! Still, I persevered with a routine of pumping around the clock and taking medication to stimulate lactation. It took several months, and a lot of pain and perseverance, but eventually it all came together.
But with my second baby, I am producing so much milk that I have begun to freeze excess. (I guess I have the hoarder instinct in me.) And having such a bountiful supply is fortunate because Taiwanxifu Baby is a big boy with a huge appetite to match. Thankfully, with all the nutritious confinement foods I am able to keep up with his demands.
I was curious to compare the zuo yuezi diet I am consuming at the moment with current Western advice on a good diet for nursing mothers. Certain foods are considered to be galactagogues (also called lactogenic foods), with the potential to enhance the quantity and quality of breastmilk. Never fear for those wanting to share a nursing mother’s meal: certain foods may help increase milk supply, but they are no substitute for regular feeding or expressing milk which is the best way to stimulate milk supply. And of course you need to have the necessary hormonal preconditions.
Some zuo yuezi dishes are considered especially beneficial for producing milk. These include pigs trotters stewed with peanuts, green papaya cooked in milk, chicken soup made with sesame oil, and fresh fish soup. But according to my confinement nanny (yuepo), all foods on the zuo yuezi diet help with lactation in one way or another, and it is often difficult to single out one particular dish over another. Certainly, it would get boring having to eat the same meals over and over (a common complaint that used to be made about confinement food).
The key super galactagogue foods often recommended in Western cultural traditions include:
- Grains. A diet high in complex carbohydrates and whole grains will help to produce milk. Grains that are considered to be especially beneficial include oats, barley, millet and brown rice. A zuo yuezi diet is not so big on oats, which is surprising given recent research that indicates that a bowl of porridge for brekky does wonders for producing milk. Perhaps this is because oats are not a traditional staple in Chinese cooking. But they do feature in some whole-grain rice blends favoured during the postpartum confinement month. Other grains, especially barley and millet are widely used as well, especially in sweet soups. My confinement nanny (yuepo) came back from the local wet market this morning with supplies of special whole grains including whole wheat, millet and uber-healthy rice blends. These are used both in savoury and sweet dishes, to be eaten several times throughout the day.
- Green vegetables. Chinese food emphasises the importance of green, leafy vegetables and unsurprisingly they feature strongly in zuo yuezi can. I ate a lot of green vegetables while I was in hospital, but not so much since. This is not because my confinement nanny has excluded green vegetables, but rather because there are hardly any available in the marketplace since heavy rains fell during a typhoon last week. She has been substituting cabbage, broccoli and green beans instead.
- Root vegetables such as carrot, beet and yam. Zuo yuezi foods includes the ubiquitous carrots (which cuisine doesn’t?), but it also includes certain types of yams and other root vegetables. Rounds of sliced lotus roots also make a special appearance in soups and stir-fries.
- Garlic and ginger. Ginger is a common ingredient in zuo yuezi food, especially from the second week onwards. Ginger is warming, and helps purge the body of excess fluids and recover from childbirth. It also helps with let down and milk flow. Garlic is also included in zuo yuezi foods in moderation, and is believed to help babies latch better and drink more.
- Payaya. Western dieticians have noticed that people in many parts of Southeast Asia eat cooked green papaya to help boost milk supply. I personally haven’t tried this, but it makes sense since green papaya is rich in oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone that comes into play when breastfeeding. Advocates of papaya as a lactogenic food claim that it enhances breast tissue, improves lactation, and helps to instill relaxation thereby assisting with breast milk let-down.
- Salmon. Salmon and other large fish are a rich source of essential fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids. Eating seafood rich in these fatty acids help with the new mother’s overall nutrition, and ar believed to help improve the quality of breast milk. My confinement nanny regularly cooks salmon as one of the dishes served in a meal, along with other seafood such as mackerel steaks, cod, squid and prawns.
- Water. Drinking enough fluids is essential during breastfeeding, when your body is releasing a lot of fluid in breast milk. Western advice is to drink water. But the traditional Chinese view is to avoid ordinary water during zuo yuezi, and to instead drink specially produced Chinese herbal teas and soups which are laced with ingredients designed to nourish the body and encourage breast milk production.
- Fennel. Fennel is widely considered to be a powerful galactagogue, and is effective when used as a spice in cooking or drunk as a herbal tea. In Chinese, fennel is known as 茴香籽 (huíxiāng zǐ). It is sometimes combined in spice blends used for stewing meat, but is also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to warm the body, spread liver energy and improve kidney energy. I have not seen fennel being used as a tea or spice in food, but perhaps it is hidden as one of the ingredients in my Chinese medicine concoctions.
- Fenugreek. Like fennel, fenugreek is a well-known galactagogue, often taken in capsule form. I took supplements for weeks. It worked okay, although one of the side-effects was that my pores emitted a strong honey-musk fragrance that took a while to adjust to. Actually, I thought I stank. In Chinese fenugreek is known as húlúbā (胡芦巴), and is used to warm the kidneys. Like fennel, I did not recognise fenugreek in any of my food but it might be present in the medicine.i>
- Raw nuts. Nuts such as almonds, macadamia and cashews are also believed to help facilitate milk production. At the very least, they are healthy. Oddly, zuo yuezi foods do not seem to contain many nuts, although my confinement nanny often includes pine nuts. Perhaps I should snack on raw almonds.
- Healthy fats. Healthy fats play a vital role in cellular and neural metabolism, and can help to improve the quality of a lactating woman’s milk. In Taiwan, sesame oil is widely used in many zuo yuezi dishes. My confinement nanny also uses some cold-pressed Australian extra virgin olive oil, which is fabulous.
- Herbs and spices. Several herbs and spices, including black pepper, marjoram, basil, anise, dill and caraway. Spices in your kitchen can be used to support milk production. Try adding marjoram and basil to your meals, and anise, dill or caraway. Black pepper, taken in moderation, is helpful.
- Legumes. Like grains, legumes and beans are believed to help promote milk supply. Chinese cooking does not use lentils or chickpeas to the extent that it is used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. But zuo yuezi food does feature red beans (adzuki beans), especially when cooked as a sweet soup. Black beans and kidney beans were also served during my hospital stay. Tofu, made from soy beans, is also a staple in Chinese cooking including during confinement. Interestingly, zuo yuezi food includes peanuts – often stewed as a savoury or sweet soup. Technically a legume not a nut, peanuts are rich in iron and therefore a good food to consume postpartum.
Of course, there are many more reputed lactogenic foods. And different things work best for different people. But I am finding that an overall healthy diet, with fresh vegetables and lots of whole grains, combined with as much rest as possible with a new bub works wonders.
For further information see:
- Australian Breastfeeding Association website.
- The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk, by Diana West (IBCLC) and Lisa Marasco (IBCLC). This was my constant reference guide and companion while I worked to increase my milk supply with my first son.
- Motherhood, a lactogenic diet by Hilary Jacobson.