Breastfeeding and herbal medicines

Herbal medicines are generally not recommended when you are breastfeeding as there is a lack of information on whether they pass into breast milk and how safe they are if they do.

Some complementary and alternative medicines have very good information about their safety and effectiveness while breastfeeding, but others have not had enough research done on them to know how safe and effective they are when you're breastfeeding.

What are herbal medicines?

Herbal medicines are produced from plants and are based on traditional knowledge. They are examples of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM). CAM also include therapies such as acupuncture, dietary supplements, massage, aromatherapy, homeopathy and relaxation therapy. Read more about complementary and alternative medicines (CAM).

Herbal and traditional medicines are generally bought from pharmacies, supermarkets and health food stores, or may be recommended by a naturopath, a Chinese doctor or another kind of healthcare provider. While most complementary medicines are used for to relieve the symptoms of minor ailments, many are used for maintaining health and wellbeing.

What are the concerns about taking herbal medicines while breastfeeding?

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. 

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. If you or your healthcare provider are not sure that a product is safe to take while breastfeeding, do not take that product.

  • All herbal and traditional medicines have the potential to pass into breast milk and affect your baby.
  • For many herbal and traditional medicines, there is not enough information to to be sure of their safety during 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

The following are examples of common herbal and traditional medicines that have been used during breastfeeding.

Herbal medicine Description
Aloe vera
  • Aloe vera gel is sometimes 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 by mouth (swallowed) in both the dried and liquid form. Avoid taking aloe vera latex as it has a strong laxative effect and causes runny poos (diarrhoea).
Cranberry
  • Cranberry is sometimes used to prevent urinary tract infections in breastfeeding mothers.
  • There is no information on the safety and efficacy of the medicine in breastfeeding, but it is considered safe to use at the recommended doses.
Echinacea
  • Echinacea is sometimes 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.
  • Read more about echinacea
Fenugreek
  • 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, tummy discomfort and runny poos have been reported in babies.
  • Also, there is the potential for fenugreek to interact with other medicines.
Garlic
  • 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
  • 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.
Milk thistle
  • Avoid using milk thistle because there is no information on the safety of this traditional medicine when used by breastfeeding mothers.
Raspberry leaf
  • When used as a tea, raspberry leaf is considered 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 effect 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.
  • Read more about St John's Wort.

References

  1. Herbal medicines & breastfeeding The Royal Women's Hospital, Australia
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 05 Sep 2020