Using Medicinal Herbs While Breastfeeding

Did you know?

Plant chemicals are called phytochemicals.  Phytochemicals from food and herbs as well as chemicals from prescription, over-the-counter and recreational drugs can be transferred to baby via the breastmilk.

However…Breastmilk transfer of chemicals is very different than placental transfer during pregnancy.

In general, most chemicals do pass into mother’s milk but the dose is very small, usually about 1-2% of the maternal dose.

Some medications like bulk-forming laxatives and insulin are not transferred at all.

Furthermore, chemicals that enter the breastmilk may not have an effect on the baby.

According to world-renown researcher Thomas Hale, “Some drugs [including phytochemicals] may be broken down in the baby’s stomach acid before they can be absorbed, or they may be poorly absorbed into the baby’s bloodstream.  If the drug is absorbed by the infant’s body, it may be broken down by the baby’s liver and not cause an effect.”

Factors to consider are:  age and size of the baby; smaller babies are less able to eliminate chemicals from the system, exclusively breastfed infants receive higher doses of chemicals than those also eating solids, chemicals (drug or herbal) that are known to be safe for babies are also the safest choice for the breastfeeding mom; long-acting drugs/herbs are not as safe as short-acting chemicals.

The bottom line: You should be considerably more cautious about using herbs while you are breastfeeding a tiny, exclusively breast-fed infant, but you do not need to be nearly as cautious when breastfeeding a a fourteen month old who eats lots of solids and only nurses once or twice a day.

Safety of Medicinal Herbs while Lactating

It is my opinion, that reasonable amounts of almost all common medicinal herbs taken by the mother pose little risk to the breastfeeding infant.  In general, many of the herbs contraindicated in pregnancy are quite safe for the lactating mom.  Highly cathartic/purgative, strongly cardio-active and psychotropic herbs and herbs with known toxicity should be avoided.    No responsible and educated practitioner would recommend such herbs to a lactating mother. Common sense dictates that self-medication with herbs of known toxicity should not attempted.

The postpartum period is a time for rest, recuperation, deep nourishment and building.  The postpartum period is not a time for rapid, intentional weight loss or intense cleansing, detox type  regimens with diet or herbs.   Sleep well, eat well, drink plenty of healthful beverages and use tonic type herbs or use judicious amounts of well-chosen medicinal herbs only when needed.

In general, there is a severe paucity of scientific data on herbs and even less on herbs and lactation.   Much of research that is done on toxicity of medicinal herbs is riddled with problems. (This is a very hot topic in medicial herbalism).  Dr. Thomas Hale’s website on Lactation Pharmacology ( does contain some information, mainly along the lines of “we don’t have any data on x, y, or z, herb, but if it’s non-toxic for mom, it poses little risk to the baby.”

Sources for this handout include  La Leche League International’s Breastfeeding Answer Book (Third edition) and A  Medication Guide for Breastfeeding Moms, by Thomas Hale.


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