For better or worse, the careful attention a pregnant woman must pay to her diet does not necessarily end after she delivers her baby, particularly if she is planning to breastfeed. While the typical breastfeeding diet isn’t quite as restrictive as the one most pregnant women stick to, it’s still something you have to be knowledgeable about and mindful of.
There are a lot of reasons why: you have to ensure your baby gets all of the nutrients they need to grow strong and healthy, while continuing to meet your own nutritional needs, and avoiding passing on any harmful substances or chemicals to your newborn via breastmilk.
It may sound like a lot of things to think about, but once you have the hang of it, it is not too challenging. So read on to learn everything you need to know about the best diet for breastfeeding and building a breastfeeding diet plan.
Breast Milk Basics
Let’s start with the basics: breast milk 101. According to UNICEF, 81% of UK mums breastfeed their babies, which represents an increase of 5% from 2005. Perhaps the main reason breastfeeding is becoming more popular is that women are increasingly educated about the benefits of breastfeeding, which, according to the NHS, include:
- Reducing the baby’s risk of infections, SIDS, obesity, and cardiovascular disease in adulthood
- Reducing the mother’s risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and obesity
- Building an emotional bond between mother and child
- Meeting all the baby’s nutritional needs for the first six months of life
And that is not even to mention non-health benefits like increased convenience and reduced cost. There is only one catch (or so): in order to provide all of these great benefits and pass on every key nutrient to your baby, you have to eat a healthy diet yourself. If you do so, your breast milk will actually change in composition, calorie content, and even thickness in order to meet your baby’s exact needs.
For example, at the start of a feeding, your breast milk will be more watery in order to hydrate your newborn, while the milk that comes in later on, called hindmilk, has more calories and fat. This is why people always say it’s so important to drain an entire breast before switching to the second.
How Many Calories Do You Need When Breastfeeding?
Just like pregnancy, you need to get more calories while breastfeeding because you are effectively still eating for two. Your body will burn approximately 300 to 500 extra calories a day while you are breastfeeding.
If you are worried about eating enough calories to meet your baby’s needs, don’t be. It is actually not that much more than you would typically eat, and just one or two extra servings at a couple of your meals will be plenty to get you there.
Conversely, if you are ultra-excited about this opportunity to pig out and eat whatever you want, you may have to pump the brakes a little. 300 to 500 calories is not actually that much, and even just one blueberry muffin can take you over that number.
How to Adjust Your Diet
While breastfeeding, be sure to get the following key nutrients into your diet:
Vitamins B1, B2, B6, and B12
While all of these are important nutrients for both you and your baby, the last five on the list (folate, calcium, iron, copper, and zinc) are more important for your health. This is because your body will naturally take them from your bone and tissue stores to pass them into your breastmilk, meaning your baby will never be low on them, but you might. In contrast, you do have to consume the rest of the nutrients for them to make it to your baby.
Great Breastfeeding Foods
The above may seem like a long list of nutrients that will be hard to pay attention to getting into your diet, but it is actually not so tricky. Most of these nutrients are plentiful in a lot of common (and delicious) foods that you probably already eat. Here are some of the best foods to eat while breastfeeding.
- Fruit: Apples, bananas, blueberries, oranges, strawberries, tomato, avocado, apricot
- Vegetables: Kale, spinach, onions, garlic, carrot, cucumber, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, chia seeds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, coconut, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, flaxseed, brazil nuts
- Grains: Brown rice, oats, quinoa
- Healthy fats: Coconut oil, olive oil, cod liver oil, avocado oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds
- Animal products: Eggs, lean meat, oily fish, milk, yoghurt, cheese, liver, shellfish, crab, shrimp, oysters
And here’s a pro tip: the more adventurous you are in eating while breastfeeding, the less picky of an eater your child may turn out to be! So get in that dietary variety.
Role of Supplements and Multivitamins
While it is true that you can absolutely get all of the necessary nutrients that you and your baby need while breastfeeding through your diet, there are some that are tougher to get than others, especially if you eat a plant-based vegetarian or vegan diet. In particular, B-12, vitamin D, and omega-3s are incredibly important for you and your baby’s health but can be challenging to get enough of from your food. For that reason, it may be a good idea to supplement with these particular dietary supplements by taking a multivitamin.
Foods to Boost Milk Supply
If you have any difficulty producing enough milk, which many mothers do, you may be happy to hear that there are foods you can eat to help boost lactation. These are called galactagogues and contain phytoestrogens that stimulate lactation. And on top of helping to boost milk production, they also have lots of important nutrients. These foods include oats, fennel, dark leafy greens, garlic, flaxseed, almonds, and sesame seeds.
There are lots of different recipes you can make that include these ingredients that are a delicious way to get in your galactagogues. From blueberry muffins and overnight oats to, soups and salads, you can fit some of these foods good for breastfeeding into every meal.
If you prefer to drink your nutrients, you can also try lactation smoothies and herbal lactation teas, which are usually made with herbs like fenugreek, thistle, fennel, stinging nettle, goat’s rue, and moringa. These can be found in natural foods stores or online, or you can even make them yourself. Just to be on the safe side, it is recommended that you check in with your doctor before including these in your diet. You can also try a lactation-boosting tea like the Lola&Lykke Nursing Tea.
Importance of Hydration
Speaking of beverages, here’s one crucial part of your breastfeeding diet that isn’t a food at all: water, as breastfeeding can often leave you feeling quite thirsty. To stay sufficiently hydrated, one general guideline is to aim to consume 3.75 liters of water in a day. Of course, your particular water needs are going to be unique to you, based on your activity level, where you live, and other factors, so try to keep track of how you feel.
If you feel fatigued, headache-y, faint, or - of course - thirsty, use that as a cue to drink some water. It is also a good idea to monitor your urine. If it is a medium or dark yellow, that is a definite sign that you are dehydrated. To help remind yourself to hydrate, consider drinking a glass of water along with each breastfeeding session.
Food and Drinks to Avoid When Breastfeeding
Just like during pregnancy, there are some foods to avoid while breastfeeding, though the good news is that the breastfeeding diet isn’t as restrictive as the pregnancy diet, so a lot of your old favourites - like sushi, cold cuts, and soft cheeses - will be back on the menu. So what are the important breastfeeding foods to avoid?
- Excessive caffeine. Because one per cent of the caffeine you consume is passed on to your baby, you’ll want to limit caffeine intake to two to three cups of coffee a day.
- Alcohol too close to breastfeeding sessions. The recommendation is to wait at least two hours after drinking before breastfeeding. And, of course, you want to avoid binge drinking.
- Highly processed, unhealthy foods. While you can indulge in some ice cream here and there, it’s a good idea to try to stick to organic, whole foods in order not to consume dangerous pesticides and harmful chemicals.
- High-mercury fish. Tuna, shark, swordfish, mackerel, and tilefish are all high enough in mercury to potentially be dangerous, so it is recommended that you avoid them.
While we’re talking about foods to avoid, it’s worth discussing spicy food and breastfeeding. A lot of people believe that nursing mums should stay away from spicy foods, but this is just a myth.
It is believed that these spicy foods are among other foods to avoid during breastfeeding to prevent colic, gas, diarrhoea, and rashes in the baby. However, there is no evidence that spicy or strong-flavored foods have this effect. Like we mentioned above, it may even be good for your baby when you eat a variety of flavors, helping them grow up to be a less picky eater.
Allergies in Breastfed Babies
One final point to consider is the fact that some newborn babies have allergies to foods in their mum’s diet that can affect them through breastmilk. The most common allergen for newborn babies is cow’s milk. Other foods that your infant may be allergic to also include soy, peanuts, eggs, wheat, and other nuts.
If your newborn does have an allergy to something you are consuming, you may observe a variety of symptoms in your baby, including:
Lack of weight gain
A stuffy nose
If you notice one or more of these symptoms and suspect your baby may have an allergy, it is important to speak to your doctor. They may diagnose an allergy and ask you to avoid a particular food, in which case it is critical that you do so.
As a new mother, there are a lot of things you are expected to be mindful of for the good of yourself and your baby, your diet being one of them. As your body produces a magical nutriment that can sustain a life all on its own (it’s quite extraordinary, really), you’ll need to help it out by taking in enough calories and nutrients.
That means that, while breastfeeding, eating a variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods is more important than ever, for mother and baby alike. Additionally, you will want to stay hydrated, avoid certain substances like caffeine, and consider supplementation as a way to ensure you and your baby are getting everything you need. You can even use some delicious recipes as a way to help boost lactation.
And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back. Not everybody can keep a baby alive and thriving just with their body and some food. You’re doing great, mama.