With careful attention to diet, women with celiac can conceive and deliver happy, healthy babies. But how does celiac affect breastfeeding?
Can gluten be passed through breastmilk? If you don’t have celiac but you don’t want your baby to develop it, should you not eat gluten while you breastfeed? And what about formula feeding?
We’ve prepared a handy guide with all the facts you need to know, including common misconceptions and recent research findings.
A common misconception about celiac disease is that it only affects the gastrointestinal system. The reality is that celiac is an autoimmune disease, making it a multi-system and multi-symptom disease, affecting many other areas of the body.
As a mother with celiac, I am far too familiar with the nervousness and uncertainty surrounding pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding as it relates to the disease. I know there are so many more of you out there, and wanted to share what I’ve learned regarding breastfeeding.
Having Celiac Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Breastfeed!
While on a strict gluten-free diet, celiac disease should in no way interfere with a healthy breastfeeding experience for you and your child. While it is always important to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet, it is even more crucial when breastfeeding your baby.
Regular guidelines for increased proteins, fluids and calories hold true, and the extra energy it takes to breastfeed makes it super important to be vigilant about gluten.
Generally, breastfeeding mothers need around 200-500 extra calories per baby when lactating. Since it’s more difficult to grab a ready-made snack when eating gluten-free, I made sure to always have healthy, gluten-free snacks ready to go for when I was breastfeeding but needed to munch (mixed nuts, gluten-free granola bars, crackers and cheese, yogurt, and mugs of hearty soups during winter are all great).
Not only can you breastfeed if you have celiac disease, it may just be the best thing you can do to help decrease your baby’s odds of developing celiac later on in life.
Breastfeeding May Decrease the Odds of Babies Developing Celiac Disease:
Research regarding when the best time is to introduce gluten to your baby are mixed. While some have suggested an optimal time window of between 4-7 months, others have negated this and found that when you introduce gluten will not affect your child’s risk for developing celiac disease. New research is showing more to this picture, however, suggesting that the crucial factor is whether or not your baby is breastfed or formula fed during the time when gluten is first introduced.
A meta-analysis performed by celiac researchers in England found that children who were still breastfeeding during the time that they were introduced to gluten had a 52% reduced risk in developing celiac. These findings conclude that breastfeeding at the time when gluten is introduced to the diet may play a role in helping to prevent the later development of celiac disease.
A frequently cited Swedish study also demonstrated that babies who were breastfed at the time when gluten was introduced were less likely to later develop celiac when compared to babies who were formula fed. This benefit gets even stronger if the mother continues to breastfeed after the initial introduction of gluten. Many doctors and health organizations have come to the conclusion that breastfeeding provides a baby with protective factors that (among many other benefits) decrease their risk of developing celiac disease later in life.
All of that said, it is still very clear to researchers that genetic predisposition is the strongest determining factor regarding whether or not a baby will later develop celiac.
What If My Baby Has Celiac?
For celiac disease to develop, an adequate amount of gluten must be introduced to the diet. This means that while your baby is still exclusively breast or formula-fed, it is not possible for them to develop celiac. This also means that once your baby is introduced to solids and gluten is introduced to their diet, they may possibly develop celiac disease.
There is no need for a woman to stop breastfeeding if her child has been diagnosed with celiac disease. Research shows that breast milk (even from a mother who eats gluten) will not contain enough gluten to have any sort of effect on your baby. Anecdotal evidence often paints a different picture, however, and we have heard many stories of women eliminating gluten from their diet and it resulting in babies who cried less, slept better and had healthier digestive systems. We are still waiting for more research on this issue!
If you suspect that your infant has celiac disease, it is important to refrain from removing gluten from their diet until appropriate testing has been done. Their doctor will likely perform a blood test and possibly a simple biopsy procedure to test for celiac.
Is Infant Formula Gluten-Free?
Almost all infant formulas are gluten-free. It is still important, as always, to check labels and ingredient lists to confirm. What are not gluten-free, however, are many of the first-food finger snacks, biscuits, cookies and crackers that are so frequently given to babies. Gluten-free versions of these treats exist, but we recommend skipping the sugary treats and going for much healthier options, like baked sweet potato sticks, yogurt, or cut up fruit!