Your diet when breastfeeding
To a certain extent there is some truth to the old adage “you are what you eat”, but when you are a breastfeeding mother this quickly becomes “you and your baby are what you eat”.
Yes, what you eat will play a big part in influencing the nutritional make-up and taste of your breast milk. However, this does not mean that you will need to make any major changes to your diet. For the most part, just eat your regular healthy diet and your body will automatically know which nutrients to pass on to your baby: evolution has this covered.
You should also bear in mind that you will need to eat a little more: you will use up around an extra 500 calories a day in producing enough breast milk to feed your baby, so it is important that you take on enough nutrients and calories to ensure that both you and your baby are strong and in good health.
Ensure you eat regular meals
Perhaps it goes without saying, but you should ensure that you eat three regular meals a day and that you also include regular healthy snacks as part of your breastfeeding diet.
Although when you are busy with a baby it can be tempting to skip meals, you shouldn’t; do so can leave you feeling fatigued and may even result in a drop in blood sugar levels.
You don’t need to be too ambitious when meal and snack-planning. If you have plenty of easy-to-prepare and healthy options in your store cupboard, it will make your life much easier.
This starts with breakfast; low sugar and salt cereals and granolas are great to have with fresh fruit and milk or yoghurt. Other options include wholemeal bread, oatcakes, and bagels, all of which can be mixed and matched with cream cheese, cottage cheese, hummus, nut butters, avocado and more. Although these might typically be breakfast foods, they also double up as fantastic snacks that can be had throughout the day, all the way through until the evening. Other brilliant snack ideas for breastfeeding mothers include the following:
- Hummus with oatcakes, whole grain crackers, carrot sticks or other vegetables
- Nuts (for example, walnuts, almonds, cashews or mixed nuts)
- Greek yogurt (can be combined with nuts and fruit)
- Kefir (great for your gut health)
- Boiled eggs (great with toast or in a salad)
- Cheese and bread, cheese and fruit or cheese and crackers
- A glass of milk
- Avocado (on its own with oil and vinegar or with bread or crackers)
- Banana (on its own or on toast or with nut butter
- Apple or pear slices with nut butter
- Celery, cucumber or carrot sticks with nut butter or hummus
- Oven baked vegetable chips or wedges
- Trail mix (i.e. a combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit)
Are there any additional nutrients you need when breastfeeding?
In general, when you are breastfeeding you simply need a regular healthy balanced diet plus an additional 500 calories. This means that you should eat plenty of lean protein – recommended sources include pulses, lentils, chicken, eggs, fish and beef; plenty of healthy fats – recommended sources include olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and oily fish including salmon, sardines and mackerel (although you should not have more than two portions of oily fish a week; and no more than one portion of swordfish, marlin or shark).
You should also ensure that you receive enough vitamin D; not only is this essential for the bone health of you and your baby, it is also very good for early childhood development and may play a role in preventing depression. Most of our vitamin D intake comes from sun exposure, so if you don’t get enough vitamin D from being outdoors, you may wish to take an oral supplement (always speak to a doctor about taking supplements while breastfeeding) .
Calcium is another essential nutrient for breastfeeding mothers as breastfeeding can deplete your reserves. Dairy is the most obvious source, but calcium can also be found in tofu, sesame seeds, nuts and leafy green vegetables.
Lastly, although you are no longer pregnant, you will still need to consider your folic acid intake. Many cereals are fortified with folic acid but you should check to make sure that they do not also contain too much sugar. Other good sources of folic acid include leafy green vegetables, black-eyed peas, asparagus, broccoli and (if you can stomach them) Brussels sprouts!
Are there foods that increase milk supply?
There are many so-called “lactation foods” that proponents claim increase milk supply. These include fenugreek, fennel seeds, oatmeal, oat milk, chicken, garlic and brewer’s yeast. However, there is no solid evidence that any of these actually increase lactation and milk supply. That said, if you include them as part of a well-balanced diet, there is no harm in trying.
Foods to avoid when breastfeeding
In general, there are no particular foods you should avoid when breastfeeding, although you should limit your consumption of fish (see above) and, of course, sugar and processed foods. You should also be aware that cow’s milk allergy (CMA) is very common in young children and can occur as a result of transmission through breastmilk.
According to the NHS symptoms of CMA include:
- A red itchy skin rash
- Swelling around the lips, eyes and face
- Stomach aches and other gastrointestinal complaints
- Blocked or runny nose
Furthermore, some babies may not have CMA but may be lactose intolerant (this means they are unable to digest milk, either temporarily or in the longer term). Symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies include:
- Stomach pain or rumbling
What about alcohol and breastfeeding?
Although you can drink a very limited amount of alcohol when you are breastfeeding, it can and does pass through to your baby via breast milk so you need to consider the question of alcohol consumption carefully.
The NHS says that you must never share a bed or sofa with your baby if you have had any alcohol to drink as this may increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
Furthermore, the NHS says that you should not exceed more than 14 units a week and that if you do drink this upper limit, you should spread your consumption evenly over three or more days.
Read our page on Alcohol and Caffeine When Breastfeeding, written by Dr Isobel Neville, for more information.