Congratulations on your new bundle of joy! Have you read our Pregnancy Diet article, and are wondering how your diet should change now that baby is here? If you choose to breastfeed, your nutritional needs are not the same as they were pre-pregnancy.
Some women would like to return to their pre-pregnancy weight as quickly as possible after they deliver. It is wonderful to set healthy lifestyle goals for yourself. Unfortunately, undereating to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight rapidly may negatively impact your milk supply.
By giving your body the nutrition that it needs during lactation, you are doing what’s best for you and your baby. Here are the questions that I’ll answer in this article:
- When it comes to infant feeding, what is best?
- How does the composition of the mother’s diet impact the composition of her breastmilk?
- Which nutrients do you need more of during lactation?
- What is a healthy rate of weight loss during lactation?
- Are there any foods that you should avoid while breastfeeding?
- Is alcohol still off-limits? What’s the deal with “pumping and dumping”?
- Where can you turn if you are having breastfeeding difficulties?
Even if you are not a breastfeeding mother, I encourage you to at least read the next section. I’ve included an important message that all new mothers should take to heart.
Drop the new parent shaming! When it comes to infant feeding, fed is best.
Generations of happy, healthy babies have emerged from a variety of feeding methods. Recent “fed is best” messaging recognizes that mothers should be supported whether they choose formula, breastfeeding, or a combination. Some mothers cannot breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed, and should never be shamed for using formula.
There are certain serious medical reasons why a mother cannot breastfeed her infant. These may include (complete list available from CDC):
- An infant has classic galactosemia
- Mother has certain diseases, including HIV
- A mother abuses certain illegal drugs
- Mother takes certain prescription medications
- Mother has had a bilateral mastectomy
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all babies receive breastmilk or formula for at least the first year. This means that all babies should continue on breastmilk or formula even after they start solids at 4-6 months. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends continued breastfeeding until at least age two.
If you are pregnant and undecided about the feeding method, giving breastfeeding a try is generally recommended. The AAP recognizes “breastfeeding as the optimal form of nutrition for human infants.”
The baby may derive benefits from breastfeeding, such as the decreased risk for ear infections and food allergies. The mother may also benefit from an easier return to pre-pregnancy weight, increased bone remineralization, and savings on formula. There are many other associated health benefits as well, but formula can definitely produce a healthy baby too.
Feeding your baby is a special time for bonding, no matter which method of nourishment that you choose. Don’t let feelings of stress or guilt ruin these important parts of the day. When it comes to nourishing your baby, fed is best, whether with breastmilk or formula.
Your diet does impact the composition of your breastmilk; take care of you to take care of the baby.
In general, a woman will produce breastmilk with adequate calories, protein, and most minerals, regardless of her diet status. If a woman becomes deficient in other dietary components, her breastmilk may be impacted. The following nutrients may be lacking in breastmilk if they lack in the maternal diet:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B12
- Fatty acids
Breastfeeding mothers consuming a diet that contains no animal-based foods (i.e., vegan) should discuss vitamin B12 supplementation with their health practitioner. Vitamin B12 deficiency can stymy red blood cell production in infants. A severe deficiency of this essential nutrient can lead to permanent cognitive impairment in the baby.
Getting a balanced diet of foods from the different food groups can help ensure you get the micronutrients you need. Breastfeeding is not an appropriate time to experiment with diet trends that may supply insufficient vitamins and minerals.
There are some nutrients that you need more of during lactation to be your best.
Even though you are no longer pregnant, your needs for many nutrients remain elevated if you choose to breastfeed. What follows is a list of nutrients that your body needs more of during nursing, compared to pre-pregnancy. The elevated needs for most of these are small enough that there is typically no need for supplementation (information from NIH):
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, B12
- Pantothenic Acid
- Essential fatty acids
If you have concerns that you are not getting the nutrients you need, talk to your physician about taking a multivitamin-mineral. Remember that you should only use supplementation as a backup to a healthy diet. It should not be used to replace a diet of nutrient-rich whole foods.
Staying well-hydrated is very important when you are nursing, so take care to meet your increased fluid needs. Keep some water nearby while you pump or breastfeed so that you can drink when you are thirsty. Setting your environment up to make healthy habits easier helps to set you up for success.
If family finances are limiting you in obtaining a diet of nutrient-rich foods, look into the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). If you are eligible, WIC is an excellent resource for both nutritious foods and breastfeeding support. There’s no reason not to take part in the WIC program if you qualify.
Losing weight at a slow and healthy pace helps to keep your milk flowing.
Breastfeeding creates increased energy requirements for the mother, typically in the range of 450-500 calories higher than pre-pregnancy needs. The exact number of calories that you need will vary depending on your age, activity level, BMI, and whether you supplement with formula.
A weight loss goal of one pound per week is considered safe, and should not negatively impact milk production. Nursing mothers should consume at least 1,800 calories per day. Cutting your calories too low deprives your body of the energy it needs to make breastmilk.
If you are having trouble losing weight or losing too slowly, cut back on saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars. If you are losing weight too fast, add more energy-dense snacks to your day. Whole milk dairy, avocados, nuts, and seeds are energy-dense snack choices that are also nutrient-rich.
Focusing on some foods while limiting others aids in keeping mom nourished.
The mainstay foods of a breastfeeding diet are the same foods I’d recommend as part of any healthy diet. Fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, dairy or calcium-fortified milk alternatives, and whole grains should be daily staples. If a breastfeeding mother is on a medically prescribed nutrition therapy, those diet recommendations must be the priority.
A high intake of caffeine during pregnancy can make the infant have poor sleeping patterns, irritability, and fussiness. Many women can tolerate up to 300 mg of caffeine per day (2-3 cups of coffee) when breastfeeding. Remember that you can find caffeine in sports drinks, teas, chocolate, and soda, not just coffee.
The food safety advice for lactating women is the same as the food safety advice for the general population. The benefits of eating seafood continue to outweigh the concerns, just as in pregnancy. Like in pregnancy, breastfeeding women are advised to consume 8-12 ounces of low-mercury seafood per week.
Certain supplements, such as fenugreek, are popular during lactation due to the belief that they may increase milk supply. According to the NCCIH, some studies suggest that fenugreek may increase milk production, though this is not considered proof. Additionally, there is currently little information on the risks of taking fenugreek while breastfeeding.
Fenugreek “may affect uterine contractions,” so you should not take it while pregnant. It is a good idea to consult with your physician before beginning any supplementation. Being cautious with supplements is particularly important during pregnancy and lactation.
Two indicators of an adequate milk supply are the baby’s growth and the number of wet diapers that the baby produces. Any concerns about the baby’s growth or feeding should be brought up with the pediatrician. Many times, the mother may not feel like she is producing much milk, but everything is fine.
You may have some alcohol while nursing, but forget “pumping and dumping.”
Women should wait at least 2-3 hours after the standard drink before they breastfeed again. Nurse your baby beforehand if you know that you are going to be consuming alcohol.
The following count as one standard drink. Keep in mind that many drinks commonly served to contain more alcohol than this (information from health.gov):
- 12 fl. oz. regular beer (5% alcohol)
- 5 fl. oz. wine (12% alcohol)
- 1.5 fl. oz. of 80 proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)
Alcohol is highest in breastmilk for 30-60 minutes after consumption. It takes about 2-3 hours for the mother’s body to clear one drink, and 4-5 hours to clear two. The exact amount of time depends on things like the mother’s weight, individual metabolism, and whether the alcohol was consumed with food.
High alcohol consumption can negatively impact milk production and the ability to breastfeed. Alcohol can also impair the baby’s development and sleep patterns.
“Pumping and dumping,” or expressing and throwing out breastmilk after drinking, does not clear alcohol from the system more quickly. The mother’s blood alcohol level is a close match to breastmilk alcohol levels. Only the passage of time will bring the amount of alcohol in the breastmilk down.
A woman may choose to pump milk due to discomfort within two hours of enjoying a standard-sized drink. This milk should be discarded and not fed to the infant.
Knowing who to call when you have breastfeeding troubles makes life easier.
It is not uncommon for breastfeeding mothers to have difficulties such as soreness or concerns about latch or milk supply. Hospitals typically provide a lactation consultant who is a fantastic resource that you should take advantage of. They can help get you and your baby on the road to a successful breastfeeding relationship.
Once you are back at home, look into La Leche League to find ongoing breastfeeding support in your area. La Leche League groups provide members with information and encouragement. You’ll also meet mothers who have babies that are the same age as your baby.
Getting connected with other parents going through the same “ages and stages” can be extremely helpful. In addition, you’ll have a built-in playgroup in place as your baby reaches the toddler years. Having access to the wisdom from experienced parents of older children is also great when you have questions.
No matter the method of feeding that you choose, finding a supportive parenting community early is a wise idea. Becoming a new parent can feel like you have sailed away to a foreign land. Having others to lean on can make this new chapter of your life feel a little less lonely.
Final thoughts on Best Diet for Breastfeeding
You know your baby best. Relax in confidence that you have what it takes to give your baby the best start in life. Parents have been raising happy, healthy children long before there were articles available on optimal nutrition.
There will be days when you feel that you are on top of the world and have this parenting thing down. Other times you may feel less secure, and that is where your parenting network can give you a boost. We are all human, and not being perfect is part of this journey.
If you could use more help with your nutrition during breastfeeding, don’t forget to check out the recipe pages. We have plenty of health-promoting meal ideas that will keep you well-nourished during this important time. You’ve got this!
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.