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26 Ways to Calm a Fussy Newborn

Trying to calm a fussy, or inconsolable, or screaming newborn can be a very stressful time for parents. Throughout the pregnancy, the focus is most likely on the growth of the baby, preparations for birth, and setting up the nursery. Being up in the night with a fussy and inconsolable baby is probably not something a new parent thinks to plan for…but it should be.

With our first born, Ruby, we were blindsided by her fussiness and felt like we didn’t have enough tricks up our sleeves to calm her down.

I remember one night, after she had been screaming and inconsolable for hours and hours, we called 9-1-1 (after trying the pediatrician first). When the firefighters came stomping up our three flights of stairs and barged into our little condo, Ruby was instantly mesmerized and of course stopped crying. I saw the firefighter chuckle to themselves and heard them make some comments to each other about new parents. It’s funny now, but I was sleep deprived and terrified then that something might be dreadfully wrong.

After Ruby, we learned many more ways to calm fussy babies besides going for long walks or drives, but it wasn’t until after baby number five that I’ve finally feel like I have a full arsenal of ways to calm fussy babies at my fingertips.

One of the most important pieces of advice I have is to be proactive. Many of the tips and tricks I’ll share have to do with preventing fussiness and the rest will give you a bag of tricks to pull from if and when your baby is fussy.

1. Avoid Coffee

I’ve never completely eliminated coffee while breastfeeding until Jack, and let me tell you it has made a WORLD of difference. When I learned that the half life of caffeine elimination in a newborn was 97.5 hours, I was finally convinced to give up the java. With every other baby, I just expected that being up in the night was a normal part of caring for a new baby. Jack is almost two months old now, and I haven’t been up in the night even once with him. If you’re looking for a good coffee substitute, I recommend teeccino.

2. Chiropractic Care

The other reason why I think Jack is so calm is because we took him to a chiropractor shortly after he was born. I was having trouble nursing him on the left side, and apparently it was due to a misalignment in his neck. (During birth he was posterior, turned into the correct position right as I was about to push, and was born very quickly – all of which probably contributed to the misalignment.)

For the procedure, the chiropractor laid him on his back for the adjustment (which was basically like a massage), and he was very calm and happy during the whole thing. Afterwards, he nursed like a champ on both sides. When looking for a chiropractor, I advise looking for a holistic one who specializes in working with infants.

Check out this amazing video of an infant getting immediate relief after chiropractic care.

3. CranioSacral Therapy

CranioSacral therapy (CST) is a gentle, noninvasive form of bodywork that addresses the bones of the head, spinal column, and sacrum with the goal of releasing compression in those areas to alleviate pain. It is especially helpful for babies who seem unwilling or unable to nurse properly. When Julian was a newborn, we took him to a CranioSacral practitioner to help him with his tongue tie. It didn’t really help with the tongue tie, but we noticed a huge difference in how calm he was afterwards.

Going through the birth canal or being delivered by cesarean can misalign a baby’s delicate structure and cranial sacral therapy helps to realign everything.

4. Honor the 4th Trimester

After spending nine months in the womb, the outside world must be a real shock for a new baby. By making the outside environment as “womb-like” as possible, it will help to prevent fussiness and create a smooth transition.

  • Skin to Skin: I love doing skin to skin as much as possible after birth until my babies are adjusted. It helps with nursing, bonding, and maintains the same comforts as the womb.
  • Feeding on Demand: There is no need to worry about a feeding schedule, just nurse whenever your baby is hungry. Newborns generally need to nurse about every two hours, but may cluster feed at certain times and sleep longer and not eat for longer times.
  • Baby Wearing: Using a baby sling or carrier is a great way to keep your baby close so he or she can be close to your skin, beating heart, the sound of your voice, and the gentle swaying of your motions. My favorite carriers are the Moby Wrap, a ring sling, and an Ergo Carrier with an infant insert.
  • Co-Sleeping: Feeding on demand is made much easier by co-sleeping. In most parts of the world (except the United States), co-sleeping is the norm. New research shows how it’s actually safer than putting a baby in a separate room and bed.

I find it fascinating that in other more primitive cultures, fussy and crying babies are a rarity. This is because babies in these cultures are treated like an attachment to the mother and aren’t “trained” in any way. (Source)

5. Check Basic Needs

Whenever my babies get fussy, the first thing I do is cycle through the basics. Does he need a diaper change? Does he need to burp? What about nursing? Maybe he’s tired? As a mom, my sixth sense sometimes just knows what my babies need, but this amazing woman, Priscilla Dunstan, figured out how to decipher the meaning of a baby’s cries.

The five sounds in the Dunstan Baby Language are:

• “Neh” – meaning, “I’m hungry”
• “Owh” – meaning, “I’m tired”
• “Heh” – meaning, “I’m uncomfortable”
• “Eairh” – meaning, “I have lower gas”
• “Eh” – meaning, “I need to burp”

6. Warm Bath

Being naked in a warm bath with you is as close to a womb experience as you can create. Within the first few hours after birth, I always like taking a nice healing herbal bath with my newborns. This is a great time for us to relax and bond after birth, and my little ones always enjoy nursing in the water. When I was having trouble getting Ophelia to latch when she was three days old (I tried a pacifier with her too early, and it created nipple confusion.), we took a bath together it she latched on right away. My babies love it when I hold their heads so they can move their arms and legs freely in the water.

7. Don’t Keep a Baby Awake

When our firstborn, Ruby, was an infant, I had this crazy idea that if I kept her awake more during the day, she would sleep better at night. But then she would get overtired, and getting an overtired baby to go to sleep is not an easy task.

The best rule of thumb to remember with babies and sleep is that the more they sleep, the better they’ll sleep. Trying to get a newborn on any type of schedule or predictable routine is just not going to work. The best thing to do is to just go with the flow and let our little ones sleep whenever they’d like and for as long as they’d like.

8. Red Light at Night

As for lighting, red lights are the best because they keep the pupils from dilating which allows your baby to remain in a sleepy state while allowing you to see during late night nursing sessions. Something like this salt lamp or this tree lamp (we unscrew the other bulbs so only the reddish lights are on) would be perfect. The soft glow of a fireplace in the winter is great too!

9. Not Too Hot or Cold

Newborns don’t have a lot of body fat to keep them warm and struggle to maintain their body temperature if the environment is too cold. That is why it’s best to dress babies in one more layer than we do to keep warm. So if you’re hanging out in a t-shirt, your baby will probably want to put your baby in a footed sleeper with long sleeves. I typically like to keep my babies a little under-dressed, however, so that I can wrap them up in one of my homemade silky blankets! But beware of overdoing it as well. A little bit of sweat is normal, but if your baby is in pools of sweat, he or she is too hot! Babies dressed in too many layers are at a greater risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).

10. Swaddle

Swaddling helps to recreate the tight environment of the womb. Some of our babies have totally loved this and others didn’t much care for it. These aden + anais cloths are great for swaddling and so are these summer swaddlers, but really any receiving blanket will do. Just make sure that you are following the guidelines for the new swaddle that keep the legs more free so that your baby doesn’t get hip dysplasia. Watch this video to see the proper way to swaddle.

11. Sucking

Sucking releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) in both the mother and the baby, which is nature’s way of rewarding them both for breastfeeding. 🙂 In between feedings, newborns might also enjoy sucking on your pinkie (nail side down).

I would avoid using a pacifier for the first few weeks because it can create nipple confusion and make breastfeeding more difficult, but once breastfeeding is established, pacifiers are just fine. There is no evidence that pacifiers affect baby teeth and they have actually been proven to reduce SIDS. Just look for some that are BPA free.

12. Get the Boogers Out

Babies can get really fussy if they can’t breathe because boogers are blocking their nasal passages. When they are first born, babies have this white sticky boogers that you’ll need to pull out. I like to take a kleenex and twist a piece of it into a little swirl. Then I spin it into the nostril and spin it out. This usually catches the booger and drags it out.

If there’s any congestion or lots of boogers, I like using saline and a Nose Frida. My babies always HATE this, so I have to hold them snugly, give a quick squirt up each nostril, and gently use the Nose Frida to suck out the boogers. I also keep a kleenex close by to wipe the nose and then I use it to catch the boogers as I blow them out from the Nose Frida.

13. Nose Rub

Every single one of my babies (and even toddlers) love the nose rub. When they are tired, but not wanting to go sleep, I gently run my fingers down the bridge of their nose in a way that also lets my fingers shadow their eyes. Every time my fingers go over their eyes, they close for a bit, then close for a bit longer, and then finally shut. If I stop and they open their eyes, I keep going. Sometimes I’ll also rub their head and cheeks.

I love this video that shows a little baby falling asleep as a light cloth is repeatedly swiped over its face.

14. Shushing

A harsh shushing sound mimics the sound of the mother’s blood flow that babies hear in the womb. This is why using a box fan for white noise is so great, but if you need to take things to the next level, this shushing technique is really effective. Basically, you get really close to the baby’s ear and make a shushing sound as loud as you can and for as long as you can.

In his book and videoThe Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Harvey Karp explains how the best way to calm your newborn and get him or her to sleep is by re-creating the noises, movement, and snug environment of the womb.

15. Calm Music

Calming music can also provide a very soothing type of white noise. With every baby, I’ve enjoyed listening to something new. Sometimes I’ll get into Enya on Pandora, other times I like Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions with the itunes visualizer turned on, and right now, I’m really liking this lullaby mix on YouTube that has some great visuals which are mesmerizing for me as well as Jack.

16. Mother’s Voice

Starting at 23 weeks gestation, babies can hear sounds in the outside world – including the sounds of voices. During the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, research has proven that babies can actually distinguish the sound of their mother’s voice. At birth, babies recognize and prefer the sound of their mother’s voice.

I love talking to my babies, singing to them, and whispering in their ears telling them how much I love them. Jack is 7 weeks old now and we’re enjoying the best conversations with each other while I hold him close and gaze into his eyes. He is completely transfixed. If someone else is holding him and he hears my voice, he’ll quickly turn his head to see me. If he gets a little fussy, I’ll sing him a little song and all of the troubles in the world melt away.

17. Bounce and Pat

For this maneuver, place the baby in an upright position with its head resting on your shoulder and bounce while gently patting the baby on his or her back or bottom. This position is particularly good if the baby is gassy. While holding the baby, you can bounce on an exercise ball, walk around, dance, or sway back and forth.

18. Rocking

I highly recommend investing in at least one good rocking chair. I currently have three set up and Jack loves the rocking motion while I nurse. First of all, I have an old fashioned wicker rocker (that I got at a garage sale) in our bedroom that Scott and I take turns using while holding Jack (primarily during our bedtime routine with the older kids). This type of rocking chair has a great sweeping up and down rock that is very calming for a fussy baby.

In our mini living room, I have a gliding rocker (I call this one my throne because I spend the most time here). The gliding motion is mostly back and forth, not up and down, so it’s not as soothing, but it’s very comfortable. Then in our main living room (where Scott and I hang out after the kids go to bed), we have the most luxurious rocking and reclining arm chair (we just found one at a thrift store, but I linked to one that looks really special). This is the kind of chair that I love to criss cross my legs and snuggle into at the end of the day.

With all three I like using this nursing stool and My Breast Friend.

19. Swinging

There are times when I’m just too tired to rock and bounce and dance, and a nice swing has been a life saver. I really like this small portable swing the best. I can easily carry it from room to room, it’s not a battery hog, the swinging is silent, and the motion is subtle and gentle. I also really like this Fisher-Price Cradle ‘n Swing. It takes up a bit of room and has a bit more noise, but it offers many different swinging options and the mobile is very distracting as well. And while not technically a swing, I LOVE putting my little babies to sleep in this vibrating bassinet.

20. Tummy to Chest

Little babies love sleeping on their tummies with their heads nestled near your neck and little legs tucked up on your chest. This is a great way to do skin to skin as well. In this position, the baby is near your heart beat and voice, and you can gently pat his or her back to help get out any gas. I think the pressure of being on their tummies feels good if they have a little gas.

If you’re looking for a way to recreate this with a machine, check out this video of a fussy baby being settled with the Babo Cush. You can buy both the rocker and the cushion at the Babo Cush website here.

21. Tummy Rub

I can tell when Jack has to poop or pass gas because he’ll start grunting and squirming. When I put my hand on his stomach for a gentle massage, it really calms him down. I will rub my hands in a downward motion, rub in a circular pattern, or just leave my hand there to gently apply pressure to his tummy.

I can only imagine what it must be like to have to learn how to poop, and even though babies have an uncontrolled stooling reflex, sometimes the muscles of the anus don’t relax at the proper time so your baby will push hard with the diaphragm and belly muscles while holding the anus tightly closed.

When this happens, you can rub their tummy, pump their legs in a bicycle motions, hold them upright on your shoulder, or lay them down to let nature take it’s course.

22. Colic Calm

Colic is technically defined as a baby who cries for more than 3 hours a day and for more than 3 days a week. Although the cause is unknown, it is believed to be due to some sort of intestinal cramping. Dr. Harvey Karp believes colic is a myth and that newborns really need a 4th trimester to develop with conditions similar to those in the womb. In any case, when my babies have been really fussy and I suspect intestinal troubles, I love using Colic Calm. It is a natural homeopathic oral remedy designed to help with colic, stomach pains, reflux, and gas. It is made with charcoal, so don’t be surprised by the black color (or your baby’s black poop).

23. Water Dropper

I learned this little trick from my midwife, Laurie Zoyiopoulos, who learned it from some of her Amish clients. When the Amish are dealing with a fussy newborn, they simply give him or her a little bit of water, and it calms the baby down right away. Maybe it’s because the colostrum just isn’t satisfying enough, or maybe it helps to soothe an upset tummy, but for whatever reason, this trick really really works! When Julian would get really fussy and nothing else would soothe him, I would give him a little dropper of water, and he would calm right down. My husband really appreciated knowing this trick as well!

24. Hair Tourniquet

In rare occasions, an adult hair can become wrapped around a finger or toe and cut off circulation. (Read more here.) I always like to give my babies a physical once over to see if I can spot something that is causing them pain. Maybe a cookie crumb is lodged in the crook of their neck, maybe a fold of skin has some gunk in it that’s turning into a rash, or perhaps a hair has become wrapped around one of their extremities and is causing pain. It can be quite a guessing game!

25. Tongue or Lip Tie

If a baby is tongue tied or lip tied, it means that there is an extra flap of skin that makes it hard to nurse properly. Julian had a pretty severe tongue tie and as a result he had a hard time latching correctly which made him take in a lot of air. This caused him to be gassy, very fussy, and up in the night every 45 minutes to eat. A lip tie can have the same effect. If you suspect a lip tie or tongue tie, check out my blog here for more information.

26. Thrush

For the mother, thrush can mean sore nipples and painful nursing, for a baby thrush can mean white patches of painful sores in the mouth. If your baby has thrush, it means that you probably had a yeast infection during a vaginal birth. Milk spots in the mouth will go away on their own, but white spots from thrush will remain. If you want to learn more about remedies for thrush, check out my blog here. (And if you’re still pregnant and reading this, check out my blog about curing a yeast infection while you’re pregnant so you can avoid thrush.)

In Conclusion

You are not a bad parent if your newborn cries. Yes, they cry as a way to communicate and it’s our job to figure out what they’re trying to say, but it’s a big adjustment moving to the outside world from the womb and there are going to be a few tears shed. The best things you can do are to: 1) be proactive by taking measures to prevent fussiness in the first place, 2) be prepared with a variety of tricks up your sleeve to use when your baby does get fussy, 3) stay calm, and 4) be patient. If you keep rotating through a variety of strategies, you will eventually find something that works. Then, when you know what has been troubling your little guy or girl, you can make a plan so that things will get better in the future.

Time goes by fast, so enjoy these precious moments with your newborn and know that by the time they are 3 months old, they will finally be settled into their new world and things will be a lot easier. You’ve got this!

Why I Won't Drink Coffee While Breastfeeding

Why I Won’t Drink Coffee While Breastfeeding

After being up in the night with my little ones, I used to feel like the only thing that could get me through the next day was coffee. I knew that I shouldn’t consume too much caffeine while breastfeeding, but every resource I read said that it was okay to drink coffee moderately while breastfeeding. So I did.

While breastfeeding my first two children (Ruby and Elliot), I drank coffee in the morning, but then after Ophelia, I quit upon the recommendation of my midwife. When Ophelia’s fussiness completely stopped and she began sleeping through the night, I learned then and there that the cause of so many sleepless nights and so many fussy evenings were the result of me drinking coffee.

Now, after the birth of my fifth baby, I did some eye opening research that has made it easy for me to completely give up coffee and to be vigilant about avoiding all products containing caffeine including black tea kombucha and chocolate. It may seem like a lot to give up, but Jack is almost two months old, and I have never once been up in the night with him. He also naps wonderfully and has the best temperament of any baby I’ve ever had.

How Coffee Works

When you understand how coffee works, it’s easy to see why new mothers would be tempted by this delicious beverage. There are three tiers to how caffeine gives you more energy.

  1. Caffeine prevents you from feeling tired. The caffeine molecule is very similar to the adenosine molecule in the brain. Adenosine plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle. When it binds to enough receptors, it signals to the brain that it is time for rest or sleep. When caffeine is present, it binds to the adenosine receptors in the brain cells and blocks them from binding to other cells. So basically, caffeine prevents you from feeling tired. Also, when the caffeine is gone, you will feel a big crash as all of the adenosine receptors bind at once signaling the need to rest or sleep.
  2. Caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline. Elevated levels of adenosine in the blood cause the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. The release of adrenaline will further add to the feelings of alertness and energy.
  3. Caffeine makes you feel good. When adenosine is blocked by caffeine, the dopamine system works more efficiently. Dopamine is the feel good transmitter of the brain, and so it makes us very euphoric when we drink coffee. This is also what makes it addictive and so very hard to quit (Source).

Half Life of Caffeine in Adults

Half life is a term used to explain the time when half of the atoms in a certain element have been eliminated.

The half life of caffeine from drinking one 8 oz. cup of coffee for an adult is about 4-6 hours. This means that if an 8 oz. cup of coffee contained 100 mg of caffeine at 8 a.m., 50 mg would still remain by about 2:00 p.m. and the remainder should be metabolized by about 8:00 p.m.

There are many different factors that affect how people metabolize caffeine. Some people can drink coffee right before going to bed and not feel restless at all and others can feel jittery from eating a piece of chocolate. How sensitive to caffeine you are depends on several genetic factors which is different from a person’s caffeine tolerance that is built up over time.

Half Life of Caffeine in Babies

Yes, caffeine passes into breast milk, and even though the nursing baby only gets 1.5% of the caffeine the mom gets, a baby cannot metabolize it the same way as the mother. Adults metabolize caffeine primarily in the liver, but a child’s liver isn’t fully formed until they are two, so they are very inefficient at metabolizing caffeine.

  • Newborn: The half life of caffeine in a newborn is 97.5 hours. So that means if you have one cup of coffee, it will take about 8 days for the caffeine in that coffee to be out of your baby’s system.
  • 3-5 Months: When a baby is between 3-5 months of age, the half life of caffeine is 14 hours. So that means if you have one cup of coffee, it will take about 28 hours for the caffeine in that coffee to be eliminated from the baby’s system.
  • 6+ Months: Babies older than 6 months old have a half like of 2.6 hours for caffeine, so it will take 5.2 hours for one cup of coffee that you had to be out of your baby’s system (Source).

Once I learned that it would take my newborn 8 days to metabolize one cup of coffee, I knew it wouldn’t be worth it for me to even have one cup. Now, once a baby is over 6 months old, a cup of coffee in the morning shouldn’t be a problem. But seriously, what mom only has one cup of coffee in the morning???

Caffeine Accumulates

Because babies are inefficient at metabolizing caffeine, a small amount can have a huge effect. On the La Leche League website, they explain how caffeine accumulates in infants. So, if it takes an infant 8 days to metabolize one cup of coffee, imagine what kind of caffeine build up your new baby has after you’ve been drinking coffee every day for two weeks straight. No wonder why so many babies are up in the night!

Signs Your Baby is Getting Too Much Caffeiene

Just like when you drink too much coffee and get jittery, so can your baby. Babies can be fussy for a number of reasons (hungry, need a diaper change, too hot or cold, tired, etc.), and so it may be hard to say for certain that a baby is reacting to the caffeine, but these are some of the signs I have noticed with my own babies when I drank too much coffee.

  • Flailing arms
  • Scratching face
  • Won’t nap during the day
  • Awake for long periods in the night
  • Overtired but can’t fall asleep
  • Falls asleep in your arms but wakes up when laid down
  • Has a “witching hour” where he or she is inconsolable at the same time every night

Making the Decision to Quit

I think it’s best to never start drinking coffee after your little one is born, but if it’s too late for that and you’re looking to quit now, here are some things to keep in mind. If you quit cold turkey, you are going to feel the barrage of withdrawl side effects all at once. The headaches, brain fog, tiredness, and worst of all – the depression over having to give up one more thing are not easy to deal with. It may be best to quit gradually, and as you do, remember to drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest.

If your baby is less than 3 months old, keep in mind that it could take over a week for him or her to eliminate the caffeine and for you to notice a difference in behavior and sleep.

Remember that this will not only benefit your baby but you will stop a vicious cycle that is forcing you to feel awake when you’re really tired.

Do I love coffee? YES! I love, love, LOVE coffee and even drank it during my pregnancies (which in hindsight was probably not a good idea seeing as how it can lead to low birth weight babies). Giving up coffee after I had already been drinking it was REALLY hard at first, but after awhile I didn’t even miss it at all. Instead of drinking coffee, I have really enjoyed drinking teeccino as a substitute. Mixed with hazelnut cream, I can hardly tell the difference. It also gives me an energy lift and contains chicory root that is a prebiotic that feeds probiotics in the gut.

My Stories

When Ruby and Elliot were born, I was working full time and coffee was a regular part of my morning. Looking back at it now, I can see that Ruby’s witching hour (where every night for four hours she was inconsolable, wouldn’t sleep, got overtired, and was very very upset) and Elliot’s constant flailing arms and fussiness were very much the result of my coffee drinking.

When Ophelia was born, I was staying at home and not drinking as much coffee, but still some. When I learned from our midwife about the half life of coffee. I quit drinking it and noticed a dramatic difference. But still, I had a hard time giving it up for good, and a cup here and there eventually turned into regular coffee drinking. When Julian was born, I cautiously had some once he was older, but after doing this research before Jack was born, I have been convinced to completely eliminate it.

I have never ONCE been up in the night with Jack (he’s almost 2 months old), and I attribute this to my complete elimination of caffeine.

Something happened recently that even further convinced me of the negative effects of caffeine on babies. Even though Jack has consistently slept during the night (I still get up to nurse him frequently, but he always stays asleep.)

It started out gradually, the flailing arms, the lack of naps during the day, the more wakings during the night, etc., and I thought to myself, “He’s displaying all of the signs of caffeine consumption…but I’m not drinking coffee…where else could I – Oh….” Then I suddenly remembered that when making my kombucha tea, I had been brewing my red raspberry leaves with the leftover black tea from Scott’s tea. I had assumed that what little caffeine was there was being broken down by the kombucha scoby, but apparently not.

On the FIRST day that I stopped drinking kombucha, I noticed a difference. He started napping during the day for long stretches of time again, he stayed asleep longer when he fell asleep, and he stopped flailing his arms.

In Conclusion

Knowing what I know now about the half life of caffeine in babies, I have no problem completely eliminating caffeine for the first 3 months especially. I mean, if it takes a newborn 8 days to metabolize one cup of coffee, I am quite shocked that the majority of resources on the internet say that drinking coffee moderately is no problem. Drinking coffee moderately when your baby is over 6 months old seems fairly safe, but to be honest, I feel like it just creates a vicious cycle of false awakeness that would best be remedied from taking a quick nap, going to bed earlier, drinking more water, etc.

I know that there will be a time when I can drink coffee freely again, and in the meantime I have a sweet little bundle that is only going to need me like this for a very short period of time. What initially seemed like a sacrifice is now just part of what I call being a mom, and it is a greater reward than anything that could be found in a cup.

The Dangers of Phytic Acid and What to Do About It

When you eat a bran muffin, brown rice, or whole wheat bread, you think you’re making a healthy choice, right? Well, because of the phytic acid present in these foods, that is not the case. If you are not going to properly prepare your foods that contain phytic acid, it is actually a better option to eat a blueberry muffin made with white flour, white rice, and white bread.

Phytic acid is present in all seeds (which by definition includes nuts, beans, grain, oats, rice, corn, tubers, etc.), and is an anti-nutrient that protects plants, but is harmful to us if we eat it in its raw state. In order to unlock the phytic acid so that we can get the phosphorus within and prevent it from leeching additional nutrients from us, we need to unlock the phytase within the seed (or add it if enough isn’t there). We can do this by using proper preparation techniques such as soaking, sprouting, and sour leavening.

What is an Anti-Nutrient?

There are many different types of anti-nutrients such as protease inhibitors, lipase inhibitors, amylase inhibitors, oxalic acid and oxalates, glucosinolates, trypsin inhibitors, lectins, flavonoids, and saponins, and they are all good for plants, but bad for us. Basically, they are the protection system of plants. They are found most often in the hull or husk of a seed and acts as a protective coating that can be “taken off” when the conditions (for growing) are just right.

child's coat

This Coat is Like the Anti-Nutrients in a Plant

child's coat open

Taking the Anti-Nutrient “Coat” Off

Phytic Acid is an Anti-Nutrient

Phytic acid is the specific anti-nutrient that I want to focus on here because it is prevalent in so many of our foods, and by properly preparing foods to unlock the phytic acid, we will also be unlocking the mechanisms of some of the other anti-nutrients as well.

Phytic Acid is an Anti-Nutrient

Phytic Acid is an Anti-Nutrient (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Harbinary, 2009)

Good for Plants: When a seed is in conditions that are just right for growing (the right acidity or soil pH, enough moisture, and nutrients are present), phytase will be released that will unlock the phytic acid and release the phosphorus that it needs to grow. Because of phytic acid, seeds can stay dormant as they pass through the digestive tract of an animal and are in locations or conditions where the growing conditions are not ideal. Soil has a specific pH that when combined with water and nutrients unlocks the phytic acid so the seed can germinate and grow.

date seed sprouting

A Seed is Protected by Phytic Acid Until it Sprouts (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Amada44, 2010)

Bad for Us: We have enzymes to break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, but we do not have an enzyme that allows us to break down phytic acid. So when we eat foods with phytic acid, we are not getting access to the valuable phosphorus inside. Phosphorus isn’t as widely recognized as calcium, but it is just as important. Phosphorus is a mineral found within every single cell in the body. It works with calcium to make our bones strong. Too little phosphorus in the diet can lead to osteoporosis. (*Too much, mainly from soft drinks, can lead to calcium loss as well as cravings for sugar and alcohol.)

In addition, the phosphate arms of the phytic acid molecule attach to valuable minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium, making it impossible for us to absorb them during digestion. (It binds with these minerals regardless of when they were consumed, meaning that by eating phytic acid, we could actually be getting negative nutrients from the food we’re eating.) Phytic acid also inhibits the enzymes amylase, pepsin, and trypsin that help us to digest carbohydrates and proteins.

Osteoporosis

Over Time, Phytic Acid Can Cause Osteoporosis (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, BruceBlaus, 2013)

When growing children are deprived of these minerals, their growth is stunted and the results can be severe such as poor bone growth, short stature, rickets, narrow jaws, and tooth decay. As adults, we can go for years and years consuming a diet high in phytic acid and not notice any immediate damage until we get something like osteoporosis in our later years when it is too late to do anything about it.

Seeds That Have Phytic Acid

The following list of “seeds” contain phytic acid and are listed from the highest phytic acid content to the lowest. When we eat these foods, some of them easily come to mind as seeds and with others, you’ll be like, oh yeah, I guess those are seeds! (Just know that for the duration of this article, I’ll be referring to the following as seeds.)

  • Seeds (like sesame and pumpkin)
  • Nuts (like pecan, walnut, and peanut)
  • Grains (like wheat, rye, barley, rice, and corn)
  • Beans (like kidney, soy, and chickpeas)
  • Tubers (like yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes)

Phytic Acid is Located in the Hull of the Seed

wheat seed labeled

Phytic Acid is in the Hull (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Laghi.l, 2007)

Phytic acid is mostly found in the bran, hull, or the hard outer layers of the seed. You would think that we would just be able to remove it and problem solved, but when we separate the bran, we are also separate the embryo, and these two places are where all of the nutrients are located.

What Will Neutralize the Phytic Acid?

Phytase is an enzyme that resides within plants alongside phytic acid that neutralizes it and unlocks the organic form of phosphorus by acting as a catalyst to the hydrolosis of phytic acid. In nature, this occurs during germination.

Where Do We Get Phytase?

Ruminant animals such as deer, cows, and sheep, produce phytase that helps them to unlock the nutrients in the phytic acid. They also have four stomachs, regurgitate their food so they can chew it again, and have longer intestines. They are made to eat food like this.

Abomasum

Ruminant Have Four Stomachs that can Break Down Phytic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pearson Scott Foresman, 2008)

We are not. We produce such a small amount of phytase that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Some people do have really good gut flora with probiotic lactobacilli and other good bacteria that actually produce phytase. They are able to handle low to moderate amounts of phytic acid.

But here’s the good news: By soaking, sprouting, and sour leavening, we can mimic the conditions that stimulate germination which will release the phytase and break down the phytic acid thereby releasing the phosphorus mineral and unlocking any other minerals (calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron) that are bound up as well.

Organic Chemistry

This might be a section that you gloss over, and that’s fine. Just know that I have spent weeks upon weeks and hours upon hours reading hundreds of pages of studies and scientific explanations in order to understand this very complicated, yet beautifully simple, process. Here is what I learned about phytic acid and how it is affected by the three things that seeds need to germinate.

  1. The Right Moisture: The first thing seeds need to germinate is water, or H2O.
  2. The Right Acidity: When the pH reaches the optimal level of 5.1-5.5, which is slightly acidic, the phosphates in the phytic acid (where the phosphorus is being stored) convert to dihydrogen triphosphate ions (H2PO4). This is when the phytase that is in the seed catalyzes (or starts a reaction with) the hydrolysis of phytic acid. Hydrolysis is a reaction involving the breaking of a bond in a molecule using water. So basically, when the conditions are slightly acidic, the phytic acid is able to be broken apart with the help of the phytase enzyme. 
  3. The Right Nutrients: Now that the phosphates have been released from their phytic acid bond, the seed can access the phosphorous which it uses to sprout and grow. When the seedling sprouts, the phytase levels are at their highest and they phytic acid levels are at their lowest.

Kitchen Chemistry: Soaking, Sprouting, and Sour Leavening

Once we understand the organic chemistry behind germination, we can understand the chemistry that needs to take place in our kitchen. In order to break down the phytic acid and unlock the nutrients that are trapped within, we need to mimic the process of germination.

  1. Soaking in an Acidic Medium: Soaking is what prepares the seed for germination. By adding an acidic medium such as whey, buttermilk, yogurt, or clabbered milk, which creates an optimal pH level of about 5-5.5 where the phytic acid will be able to be broken down. Apple cider vinegar has a slightly lower pH of 3 and lemon juice is the most acidic of all with a pH of 2. By adding a few tablespoons of either of these to a large pot or glass container of filtered water (never plastic), it should be diluted enough to create a slightly acidic medium. Soaking works best when it’s warm (about 90 degrees) and when it lasts for at least 24 hours.

    barley soaking in an acidic medium to break down phytic acid

    Soaking Barley in an Acidic Medium

  2. Sprouting: Seeds that are soaked in filtered water and then sprouted for 4 to 5 days will have the time to neutralize a good amount of the phytic acid. Sprouting also increases the vitamin C content tremendously! I personally find the sprouting process too time consuming, but give it a try if it sounds like fun to you or you can buy some sprouted grain flour here!
    sprouting mung beans in a jar

    Seeds Sprouting (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Alex Ex, 2007)

  3. Sour Leavening: Sourdough creates the perfect pH of 4.5-5.0. This is the BEST way to get rid of ALL the phytic acid. Not only that, but the naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria that convert lactose and other sugars into the lactic acid that gives it its perfect pH, are also the good bacteria that you want in your gut to crowd out things like candida. When making sourdough, it is important to work with freshly ground grain so that the phytase is readily available. Check out some of my sourdough recipes if you are ready to get started.

    sourdough starter using fresh ground wheat

    Sourdough Starter

Some Seeds Don’t Have Phytase

In order for the phytic acid to be broken down, there MUST be phytase within the seed. If there isn’t, no amount of soaking, sprouting, or fermenting will break down the phytic acid. Rye, wheat, and barely, for example, have high amounts of phytase. Oats, rice, and corn, however, have hardly any phytase at all. Here’s a simple trick you can do for seeds that don’t have enough phytase.

  1. Grind some fresh grain that is high in phytase. (Rye is the best, wheat works too.)
  2. Add one or two tablespoons during the soaking process to seeds that are low in phytase.
  3. *The grain MUST be ground fresh (which is why I would recommend buying a little coffee grinder to keep on your kitchen counter) and cannot be frozen or stored for a long time (the phytase will no longer be active.)
  4. The added phytase will break down the phytic acid and your precious nutrients will be unlocked.

Preparation Tips and Tricks

If you’re ready to start getting rid of phytic acid, here are some tips and tricks to use with seeds that have a lot of phytase (like rye, wheat, and barely), seeds that have very little phytase (like oats, rice, and corn), and seeds that are in kind of a grey area (like tubers, beans, nuts, and seeds).

Seeds with Plenty of Phytase

Rye, wheat, and barley are high in phytase. This means that when properly prepared, they can break down their own phytic acid.

Making Flour: I love grinding my own grain to make bread or any other recipies. Freshly ground flour has all of the active phytase and all of the vitamins and minerals intact. The heat of industrial grinding destroys the phytase along with many of the nutrients. Combine that with a long shelf life and buying whole wheat flour is just an empty gesture. Even grinding grain fresh and keeping it in the freezer destroys the phytase.

The best thing to do is to freshly grind what you are going to use. That is why I like keeping my WonderMill within easy reach in the kitchen. I know the price tag seems like a lot, so if you don’t have one yet, maybe you’ll want to try a hand grinder for a lot less to see if you like it first. For grinding small batches of grain to add to my sourdough and other recipes, I like using this little coffee grinder. *Post update (January 2016):  After I grind my wheat, I just leave it in its container and keep it on the countertop to use as needed. 

I have found that sourdough is the best way to eliminate pretty much all of the phytic acid. Soaking grains before grinding them to make flour just doesn’t make sense to me, and sprouting is a LOT of work and won’t get rid of all they phytic acid, but it’s an option if you’re interested. You can soak your flour in an acidic medium after it’s freshly ground and it should do a pretty good job of getting rid of the phytic acid as well.

  • Rye – Rye grains have the most phytase of any seed. They have 14 times more phytase than wheat grains. This is the recommended grain for making bread because of its high phytase content, but I have tried using it to make my sourdough and it didn’t rise very well. It tastes great, but it’s a very dense grain. I prefer keeping some on hand to grind fresh to add to other seeds that don’t have as much phytase.

    rye grains

    Rye Grains (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Agronom, 2013)

  • Wheat – Wheat grains don’t have as much phytase as rye, but they have enough to do the job. I find that the lighter grains like Organic Prairie gold wheat berries are the best for making sourdough bread. You can also use something similar like this Soft Winter Wheat or some ancient Einkorn grains. It may seem like a lot to buy 50 lbs at a time, but it is the most cost effective way to get your grains if you have the place to store them. I just keep them in a cupboard in the bag it comes in and roll it down when I’m not using it, but you can get some 5 gallon buckets from the hardware store that would work great too. If you don’t feel like grinding your own grain, here’s a good alternative. Sifting your freshly ground flour to take out the big chunks of bran can help too.

    wheat grains

    Wheat Grains: High in Phytase

  • Barley – Barley is more of a superfood than you think. It has an impressive nutritional profile with 23 g of protein per serving (way more than beans or rice) with more vitamins and minerals than just about any other grain. Barley grains have the same amount of phytase as rye grains, so before I use them in my soups, I soak them for 24 hours in an acidic medium. I also order them in bulk from CLNF, but you can also buy them here. I like to get the hulled kind, but if you don’t want to soak them and you don’t care about the nutrient profile, then you can get the pearl kind.

    barley grains

    Barley Grains: High in Phytase

Seeds with Very Little Phytase

Oats, rice, and corn have very little phytase, so they will need a little help to break down the phytic acid. By adding a few scoops of freshly ground phytase rich rye flour (or wheat) to an acidic soaking medium, and soak for a full 24 hours, a good amount of the phytic acid should be broken down.

  • Oats – Oats have more nutrients than just about any other grain. Organic rolled oats are the best because part of the bran (where the phytic acid is) is removed during the rolling process. Just stay away from instant rolled oats because they have been subjected industrial processing with such high heat that nearly all of the nutrients have been destroyed. I used to like steel cut oats, but they have an extremely high phytic acid content. If you prepare them properly, you might be able to get rid of about half of the phytic acid.

    steel cut oats

    Steel Cut Oats: Very Little Phytase

  • Rice – Brown rice isn’t as healthy as you would think. It only has 5 g of protein per serving in comparison to barley’s 23 g and more impressive nutrient profile. I much prefer using barley in my soups over rice. In addition, studies have shown there to be concerning amounts of arsenic in rice, especially in brown rice. In our family, we enjoy organic jasmine or basmati rice from time to time as a vehicle for other healthier foods like salmon and stir fry.

    white rice

    White Rice: Very Little Phytase

  • Corn – Are you surprised to see that corn is a grain instead of a vegetable as it’s often peddled? Well, because corn is such a genetically modified food, we try to stay away from it anyways unless it’s in season and we can buy it fresh from a local farmer. Otherwise, we might enjoy some organic corn chips as a vehicle for other more healthy foods like my homemade tacos on occasion. You can get these sprouted organic corn tortillas in bulk here, and here’s a recipe for some fermented corn bread that sounds pretty good if you’d like to still include corn in your diet in a safe way.

    white popcorn kernals

    White Popcorn Kernals: Very Little Phytase

Kind of a Grey Area

All of the seeds in this category are kind of hard to define, but the one thing they have in common is that they should NOT comprise the majority of the calories in your diet. Many people will turn to things like nut flours (including coconut) if they trying to go grain free, but here’s a look into why that’s not such a good idea.

  • Nuts – Nuts have phytic acid amounts equal to or greater than that of grains, but unfortunately we know very little about how to reduce phytic acid in nuts. If you soak them, you might be able to get rid of some of the phytic acid, but not much. A handful of nuts here and there should really be of no concern, but watch out for things like almond milk, nut flours, and peanut butter. You can buy nut butters that have been soaked, and that is a better option.
an assortment of nuts

Mixed Nuts: Very Little Phytase

  • Seeds – Seeds are extremely high in phytic acid. Some of the phytic acid may be removed by soaking, sprouting, and/or roasting, but it’s debatable. It is best to keep seeds to a minimum and to avoid snacking on raw seeds. If you want to buy some that are okay for occasionally snacking on, you might want to check out these organic sprouted pumpkin seeds.
sesame seeds

Seeds: Extremely High in Phytic Acid (Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons, Jitujetster, 2009)

  • Cacao Seeds – Oh, and here’s some bad news: cacao is a seed, and it is extremely high in phytic acid. Do you know what that means? That’s right, chocolate is made from cacao seeds and is therefore high in phytic acid. Boo! The best thing to do is look for raw cocoa and cocoa powder that is fermented. Maybe I’ll have to give some of these a try.

    where chocolate comes from

    Cacao Seeds (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Fæ, 2013)

  • Beans – Do you ever get gas after eating beans? That’s probably because they weren’t prepared correctly. If you soak beans for 24-36 hours in an acidic medium with some added phytase from some freshly ground rye flour, change the water at least once, rinse the beans, add fresh water, cook at a low boil for 4-12 hours, and skim the foam that comes to the top (those are the phytates and other anti-nutrients), you can get rid of about 50% of they phytic acid. If you want to get rid of ALL the phytic acid, you’ll have to soak for 12 hours, germinate for 3-4 days, and then ferment them.

    Dark Red Kidney Bean

    Beans: High in Phytic Acid (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, BetacommandBot, 2007)

  • Coffee Beans – Ready for some bad news? Coffee beans are BEANS! Therefore, they contain phytic acid too. According to research, espresso is the best way to get your caffeine kick while minimizing the phytic acid content. Here are some good espresso beans to get you started.

    espresso beans

    These Espresso Beans are the Best Way to Get Caffeine (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ailura, 2015)

  • Tubers – Sweet potatoes and potatoes contain very little phytic acid, but yams and other starchy staples do contain enough to be a concern. Cooking does not significantly remove phytic acid in potatoes or other tubers, but consumption of potatoes with plenty of butter or other animal fat in the context of a nutrient dense diet should be enough to mitigate their effects.

    different kinds of potatoes

    Potatoes: Very Little Phytic Acid

Benefits of Phytic Acid

There are some health benefits to phytic acid, however, that is worth taking a look at. It can be beneficial for detoxification because even though it is binding with needed minerals such as zinc and iron, it is also binding with unwanted toxic metals such as cadmium and lead and ushering them out of the body. And when phytic acid binds to excess iron (which never comes from animal products by the way, only plants) that can oxidize and form a rusting in the body, it is serving as antioxidants against cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases such Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS. But instead of buying inositol hexaphosphate or IP6 (the scientific names of phytic acid) as a supplement, just know that if you’re looking to detoxify your body because of illness or some other ailment, you can just eat a bowl of plain old brown rice to help flush out your body.

In Conclusion

There is a big misconception in a lot of health circles that if it comes from nature and it’s minimally processed, that it is the best and healthiest option.

Phytic acid is just one the many anti-nutrients out there, and its negative effects such as trapping phosphorus, leaching important minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, and inhibiting the enzymes amylase, pepsin, and trypsin that help us to digest carbohydrates and proteins, should be enough to make us think twice about the seeds (grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and tubers) that we eat.

It therefore stands to reason that the “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” axiom by Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) isn’t the simple solution we should be looking for. If we are to keep these foods in our diets, however, it is important that we take the steps to prepare them properly in order to degrade these anti-nutrients as much as possible. By learning (or re-learning) the ancient arts of soaking, sprouting, and sour leavening, we can take steps to ensure the best nutrition not only for us, but for our children, and for our future.

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