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by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon

Women who are breastfeeding are cautioned about taking certain drugs that might affect their infants. Questions then arise as to whether some herbs are also of concern in relation to breastfeeding. There is virtually no information describing the extent to which herbal active constituents are transferred to breast milk, nor about effects of maternal herb consumption on breastfeeding infants. Therefore, one has to consider what is known about drugs and breastfeeding and what is known about herbal active constituents to estimate the potential for risks associated with maternal herb consumption during breastfeeding.

The main source of information regarding maternal drug use during breastfeeding is the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). One can obtain relatively recent information on this and other subjects related to breastfeeding by visiting their web site ( Other organizations, particularly those interested in promoting the practice of breastfeeding (as opposed to the common practice of bottle feeding of infant formulas) also provide such information, though it is from the same source materials as relied upon by the AAP. La Leche League, one of the foremost proponent organizations for breastfeeding, posted an article on herbs and breastfeeding on their website ( Most of the article dealt with general herb subjects, but the information regarding breastfeeding was presented this way:

Current thinking about the risks of chemical substances in human milk, whether they be medications, plant chemicals, or even chemical contaminants, takes into account the significant benefits of continued breastfeeding to the baby and the mother. In balancing the risks and benefits in a given situation, a medication is not considered absolutely contraindicated unless it is logical to assume harm, or evidence of harm has been documented. The analysis of risk and benefits also takes into account the varied nature of lactation: newborns face different risks than older babies or toddlers because of immaturity; infants consume varying amounts of human milk; mothers may be looking forward to years of lactation yet need or desire the benefits of medicinals. Although health care practitioners may wish otherwise, some mothers may refuse prescription drugs and insist on using herbal alternatives for a number of reasons. While these mothers may perceive herbs as "safer," there are both risks and benefits. As with medications mothers need knowledgeable individual assessment of their unique situation.

Unfortunately, such knowledgeable assessment in relation to herb use is quite difficult. Since the potential risks of using herbs are virtually unknown, determining a risk to benefit ratio involves considerable guesswork.


A typical summary comment to be found about drugs and breastfeeding is: "Most medications are safe to take during breastfeeding, but there are a few that can be dangerous for the baby." Examples of commonly consumed substances that can pass through the milk are alcohol and caffeine. These can affect the nervous system of the infant (in the same manner as it can affect adults, with caffeine causing stimulation and alcohol causing sedation), so consumption of beverages containing these substances should be limited (but need not be completely avoided). Food substances that can produce allergic reactions may also affect the infant, potentially causing a rash or other histamine-type response. For drugs, there are lists of substances that are currently considered safe and one or more other lists of substances that are potentially harmful (see Appendix 1). The drugs listed as safe include: the common pain-relievers and anti-inflammatories acetaminophen and ibuprofen; many antibiotics; most antiepileptics; most antihistamines; most antihypertensives; and miscellaneous drugs with specific mention of codeine, decongestants, insulin, quinine, and thyroid medications.

Drugs that are of concern include:

Clearly, the list of drugs of concern involves substances that are not similar to those found in commonly prescribed herbs. Rather, these are powerful agents that have significant effects on the nervous system or immune system, mainly suppressive actions.

Although there is little data from human studies on the use of drugs during breastfeeding, it has been shown that small amounts of most of the tested drugs reach the breastfed infant. However, the AAP has found that most of the drugs are acceptable for infant exposure at those levels, including the powerful alkaloid codeine and nervous system inhibiting antihypertensives and antiepileptics.

As an example of a careful evaluation for a drug of concern, citalopram (an antidepressant) was given to a mother at 40 milligrams per day. The concentration of the drug in the breast milk was found to reach about 0.2 micrograms/ml (a microgram is one-thousandth of a milligram). A feeding of 6-7 fluid ounces (about 200 ml) provides the infant with 0.04 milligram of the drug, or about 1/1000 of the mother's daily drug dose in one feeding. The infant's blood serum was tested and found to contain about 0.013 micrograms/ml of the drug as a result of regular feeding; this compares with the maternal serum drug level of about 0.10 micrograms/ml, so that the infant's blood serum drug concentration was 1/8 that of its mother's serum drug concentration. This drug level in the infant was associated with "uneasy sleep," a condition that was then alleviated by reducing the infant's exposure to the drug.


Based on the potential for some drugs to have an effect on nursing infants, certain herbs that might have a strong effect should be used minimally or avoided. In particular, one should be cautious about using high doses of herbs that contain alkaloids, particularly those that affect the nervous system. Examples of Chinese herbs that would fit this category include coptis and phellodendron (berberine alkaloids), sophora root (contains oxymatrine), ma-huang (contains ephedrine), and evodia (contains rutecarpine). One should be cautious also about herbs that have a potent hormonal effect, such as fennel and anise, at least if they are used in large amounts over an extended period of time. Such herbs are most often used in small quantities as digestive aids or tonics, which is not of concern; they are sometimes used in large amounts to stimulate milk production over a period of several months (licorice has been listed as an herb to avoid for the same reasons). Herbs that contain pyrolizidine alkaloids, which can accumulate in the liver if taken daily, are also to be avoided (e.g., comfrey and coltsfoot), as are strong purgatives (e.g., aloe, senna, rhubarb root) that might cause colic or diarrhea in the infant Powerful immunosupressive herbs, such as tripterygium, are not used by Western practitioners. A list of herbs that have appeared in the literature as being of concern in relation to nursing appear in Appendix 2.


Mothers can watch for possible infant reactions to drugs, herbs, foods, and beverages. Although reactions are rare overall, the most common reactions are related to nervous system effects (e.g., irritability, insomnia, somnolence), digestive system reactions (e.g., colic, diarrhea), or allergic skin reactions (e.g., rash). Since all of these possible reactions are also consistent with normal infant experiences, it is not always possible to make a direct correlation between drug (or herb) ingestion and infant responses.

The level of drug or herb ingredients increase in the milk as the blood concentrations rise, but also leave the unexpressed breast milk as the mother's blood concentrations of the drug decline. It is common for drug concentrations in the serum to peak about 45-90 minutes after ingestion and to peak in the breast milk about 15 minutes later. Therefore, in order to minimize infant exposure to maternal drugs via breastfeeding, it is recommended that women take the drugs immediately after breastfeeding so that the drug concentration peak is passed by the time the next feeding session begins. During early infancy, some babies may feed every hour or so, in which case, this advice is not relevant. Once the feeding frequency declines to an interval greater than 2 hours, this suggestion makes sense.

Women who are taking drugs and breastfeeding are advised to use the lowest dose of the drug that can provide the desired results. In this way, infant exposure is kept at the lowest possible level without interfering with the maternal drug benefits. Many times, standard drug dosing is slightly higher than is essential because there is a range of acceptable dosage and one has to recommend a level that will be effective for most users. Some users can get by with less. The same consideration applies to herb dosing.

For those who wish to be especially careful, there are information sources that take a highly conservative viewpoint and recommend that certain herbs be avoided simply because not enough is known. Many times, if there is a potential for any kind of harm or reaction in an adult, it is assumed that the herb should be avoided by nursing mothers. As an example, in the journal U.S. Pharmacist, there was an article titled "Herbals and breastfeeding" (September, 2000), which suggests avoiding tang-kuei (because it can stimulate the nervous system and make the skin more sensitive to light), ginseng (because of estrogenic effects and platelet changes), eleuthero (because little is known), and ginkgo leaf (because it is known to be a platelet inhibitor). This article can be accessed through the U.S. Pharmacist web site (

In sum, as with drugs, most herbs are acceptable for use during breastfeeding, but one should be cautious about herbs that contain alkaloids with strong nervous system effects or herbs that have strong hormonal effects. One can minimize infant exposure to herbs by consuming them around the time of breastfeeding and by using the lowest effective dosage.

APPENDIX 1: Lists of Drugs in Relation to Safety for Breast Feeding.

Table 1: Common medications that are said to be safe to use while breastfeeding. The safety of the following medications is established for short-term use only. Vitamins and minerals taken in the normal dosage range are also considered safe.

acetaminophen asthma medications*** laxatives
acyclovir barium muscle relaxants
anesthetics local (e.g., dental work) chloroquine (antimalarial) pinworm medications
antacids cortisone propranolol
antibiotics (tetracycline* and sulfa**) decongestants propylthiouracil
anticoagulants digitalis quinine
anticonvulsants diuretics thyroid medications
antihistamines ibuprofen vaccines
antihypertensives insulin  
* Avoid taking tetracycline for longer than ten days
** Avoid in newborn period
***cromolyn; inhalant bronchodilators

Table 2: Drugs that require careful monitoring by a physician when taken while breastfeeding. Whether these drugs and medications are safe to take while breastfeeding depends on many factors: the dosage, age of infant, duration of therapy, and timing of dosage and breastfeeding. Alcohol use is also to be monitored.

Antidepressants Indomethacin oral contraceptives
Aspirin Isoniazid Paxil
Codeine lithium** phenobarbitol
Demerol metoclopramide Prozac
Ergots Metronidazole (flagyl)*** Valium
General anesthetics* morphine Zoloft
* It is safe to breastfeed six to twelve hours after most general anesthetics.
** Some authorities consider lithium absolutely contraindicated while breastfeeding; others believe lithium can be used cautiously,
as long as blood lithium concentration in the baby is monitored.
*** Authorities recommend giving the mother a single two-gram dose and having her discontinue breastfeeding for only 12 to 24 hours.

Table 3: Drugs that should not be used while breastfeeding. In addition to the drugs listed here, all illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, PCP, halucinogens, etc., must be avoided.

amphetamines lindane nicotine
anti-cancer drugs methotrexate parlodel
Cyclosporine mysoline radioactive drugs*
* May need to stop breastfeeding temporarily when using radioactive agents for diagnostic purposes. Consult a nuclear medicine specialist.

APPENDIX 2: Herbs Mentioned in the Literature as of Concern

Various herbal resources taken together suggest avoiding the following herbs during lactation; most often, the original source of the information is obscure and there is little or no data to support the concern. Indeed, other sources, similarly obscure, claim that some of the same herbs are known to be safe to use during breastfeeding or are not known to be associated with any adverse effects. Most of these are "Western herbs," but a few appear in Chinese medicine, including aloe, coltsfoot (tussilago), ephedra, garlic, licorice, and rhubarb. Some herbs are suggested to be avoided because they "dry up milk:" sage and parsley are examples. Garlic can flavor the milk and cause some infants to consume less than they normally would. In most cases, the concern is related to using large doses regularly rather than avoiding any exposure.

Common Name

Botanical Name(s)


Aloe ferox, Aloe perryi, Aloe vera

Black snakeroot

Cimicifuga racemosa


Fucus vesiculosus


Borago officinalis


Rhamnus catharticus, Rhamnus frangula


Lycopus americanus, L. europaceus, L. virginicus

Cascara sagrada

Rhamnus purshiana


Tussilago farfara


Symphytum officinale


Inula helenium


Ephedra spp.


Foeniculum vulgare


Trigonella foenum-graecum


Allium sativum

Kava kava

Piper methysticum


Glycyrrhiza glabra, Glycyrrhiza uralensis

Male Fern

Dryopteris filix-mas

Gravel root

Eupatorium purpureum


Pertoselinum crispum


Rauwolfia serpentina

Rhubarb (root)

Rheum officinale, R. palmatum, R. tanguticum


Salvia officinalis


Senna alexandrina, Senna obtusifolia, Senna tora


Stillingia sylvatica


Artemisia absinthium

August 2001