Many new moms have questions about breastfeeding nutrition. What is the best diet for a nursing mom? Do I really burn extra calories while breastfeeding? Do I need to give my baby vitamin D drops or can she get all the vitamin D she needs from my breastmilk? We answer these questions and more in this new mom’s guide to breastfeeding nutrition.
What is the best diet for a nursing mom?
Breastfeeding nutrition starts with eating a healthful, balanced diet. When you are hungry and sleep deprived, it is easy to eat whatever is most convenient. The combination of sleeplessness and hunger often means scarfing down whatever is easiest. But remember, what you are feeding yourself is what you are feeding your new baby.
It is important to make good nutrition choices while breastfeeding. Try to eat healthful meals and snacks, rich in healthy fats, lean protein, and whole grains.
Katie Serbinski, Registered Dietitian and mom of three, shares her favorite healthy snacks on her Mom to Mom Nutrition blog. As explained in this article, eating foods rich in protein (lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes) and healthful fats (nuts and seeds, nut butters, avocado, olive oil, fatty fish) will help keep you fueled for those long hours of nursing.
Focus on eating lots of nutrient-dense, colorful vegetables, and fruits, along with some whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, 100% whole grain bread, whole grain pasta) each day. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber that you and your growing baby need.
Also, eat a variety of different foods and flavors while nursing. You do not need to limit yourself to bland foods. As explained by Cindy and Jana, Registered Nurses and Lactation Consultants, there are no foods that nursing moms need to avoid.
Unless you determine that something you eat is negatively affecting your baby, include various cuisines, herbs, and spices in your diet. Eating a variety of flavors exposes your baby to different and tastes through your breastmilk. This early exposure to different flavors may help your child accept a variety of solid foods when it is time to introduce them.
Do I really burn extra calories while breastfeeding?
Many breastfeeding moms report feeling extra hungry throughout their days of breastfeeding. This hunger is for an excellent reason. Your body is working very hard to produce its “liquid gold” – breastmilk. The rumors you heard are correct: you burn an additional 500 calories a day while breastfeeding.
While breastfeeding, it is essential to eat enough calories to fuel both you and your baby. It is not the time to try the latest diet or weight loss fad. In fact, you should not go on any specific “diets” Unless your baby has special dietary needs.
I am so thirsty! How can I make sure I’m drinking enough water?
Most breastfeeding moms will agree that nursing your little one makes you very thirsty. You may feel thirsty much of the time during those initial months of breastfeeding. So, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day (and at night when you are up nursing).
There is no official recommendation for the amount of water a breastfeeding mom should drink. A standard suggestion is to drink at least a glass of water or other beverage every time you breastfeed your baby.
The goal is to drink enough to quench your thirst and stay well hydrated. So how do you know if you are drinking enough? When you are well hydrated, your urine will be pale yellow to clear. Dark yellow urine means that you are not adequately hydrated, and you need to drink more water.
Avoid sugary juices and soda most of the time. The extra sugar and calories can contribute to weight gain or sabotage your efforts to lose weight.
Try flavor infusing your water for some variety. Add lemon, lime, or orange slices, or for something a little different, try one of the recipes featured in this Shape magazine article. One of our favorites is the cucumber, strawberry, and basil infused water. There are lots of refreshing combinations that are sure to please.
Do I need to take postnatal vitamins to help with breastfeeding nutrition?
Nutrient needs during breastfeeding are different than they are during pregnancy or any other time in a woman’s life. Taking a postnatal vitamin/lactation supplement formulated for nursing moms, along with a balanced diet, will provide the essential vitamins and minerals needed for both you and your baby.
As a new mom, you may have been advised to continue taking your prenatal while breastfeeding. However, prenatal vitamins are formulated specifically to meet your nutrient needs while you are pregnant, not while you are breastfeeding. After you have your baby and begin breastfeeding, you need more of certain nutrients and less of others, compared to when you were pregnant.
One example is folate/folic acid. You need less folate than you did at the beginning of pregnancy when it is essential in forming your baby’s neural tube.
Another example is the mineral iron. You need less iron than you did during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy when you have higher iron requirements. Unless you are anemic after giving birth, your iron needs are lower while breastfeeding.
The reduced requirement for iron is because you will not have a monthly menstrual cycle while exclusively breastfeeding. For some women, it takes many months before having regular periods again. Because you do not have monthly blood (and iron) loss, you need less iron.
What are the most essential nutrients to look for in my postnatal vitamins?
1. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for your baby’s overall growth and development. Breast milk is generally too low in vitamin D to meet your baby’s vitamin D requirements. Most women do not get enough vitamin D from food and are not exposed to adequate sunlight daily. As a result, their breast milk doesn’t contain the amount of vitamin D recommended for their baby.
Sunscreen blocks the skin’s ability to make vitamin D. Therefore, if you are slathering on sunscreen, you’re not making much vitamin D. We are not advising you to quit wearing sunscreen. You want to protect your skin and, of course, your baby’s newborn skin.
Instead, it is important for you or your baby to supplement with enough vitamin D each day to meet your baby’s needs.
How much vitamin D is enough?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving breastfed babies 400 IU of infant vitamin D drops each day.
The problem with this recommendation is that for many moms, giving vitamin D drops is difficult. Most babies do not like the taste of the drops and refuse them by mouth. Some babies still do not like that taste even when mixed into a bottle of breast milk.
Also, popular brands of infant drops (such as Enfamil D-Vi-Sol) contain unwanted artificial flavors and colors. Moreover, the drops are not independently tested for content accuracy and purity.
Research has shown that less than 20% of families adhere to the recommendation to give vitamin D drops each day. This low compliance rate increases the risk of vitamin D deficiency in their babies.
A recent study asked breastfeeding moms if they would prefer to take vitamin D themselves rather than give their babies a supplement. As this What to Expect article explains, half of the breastfeeding moms were not giving their babies vitamin D drops.
An overwhelming majority (88%) of women reported they would rather supplement themselves than give their babies vitamin D drops.
How do I make sure my breast milk contains enough vitamin D for my baby?
Dr. Bruce Hollis recently answered this question in a study conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina.
In this study, breastfed infants whose mothers took 6,400 IU of vitamin D3 daily achieved the same vitamin D blood level as infants who were given the recommended 400 IU of vitamin D drops each day. In other words, mothers who took 6,400 IU of vitamin D3 each day provided enough vitamin D to their babies through their breast milk alone.
The implication of this study is important because it gives nursing mothers a safe, simple alternative to drops. For more information about this study, check out Kelly Mom’s interview with Dr. Hollis.
If you are having a hard time giving your baby drops, or you do not want to give your baby drops, consider taking a postnatal vitamin with 6,400 IU of vitamin D. This provides another option for making sure your baby gets enough vitamin D each day.
Choline is a B-vitamin-like nutrient that supports your baby’s growth and brain development. A recent Washington Post article titled “The nutrient you didn’t know you were missing” describes the importance of choline at different stages of life. Although you may have never heard of choline, it is one of the most essential nutrients during breastfeeding.
Your requirement for choline is higher during lactation than at any other time during your life. Despite choline’s importance, few women get enough in their diet. National survey results show that only 6% of women in the U.S. meet the recommended amount of choline each day. Also, choline is often left out of prenatal and multivitamin supplements because it is difficult to put into a tablet or softgel.
Be sure to include more choline-rich foods (liver, egg yolks, lima beans, fish, chicken, beef, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) in your diet. Eggs are one of the richest sources of choline. However, remember, the choline is in the egg yolk, so eat the whole egg to reap the benefits of choline. Two egg yolks contain about 250 mg of choline.
Also, choose a lactation supplement that helps you meet your daily recommended intake while nursing (550 mg).
3. DHA omega-3
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3s are considered essential fats because your body alone cannot make them. You must consume omega-3s through food or supplements.
DHA is vital for breastfeeding nutrition because of its role in infant brain, eye, and nervous system development. Infant formula manufacturers add DHA to their formulas because of its known benefits during the early months of life.
The amount of DHA in your breast milk is directly related to the amount of DHA you get in your diet. Therefore, it is important to get enough while you are breastfeeding. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, trout, and mackerel are rich sources of DHA. Choose wild-caught fatty fish when you can, as they generally contain a higher percentage of omega-3 fats than farm-raised fish.
Most experts recommend that lactating moms consume at least 200 mg of DHA per day. As pointed out in this Very Well article, getting enough DHA during your busy days as a breastfeeding mother may not be realistic for most women. If you aren’t eating fatty fish each week, choose a lactation supplement with 200-300 mg of DHA.
Your body requires iodine for healthy thyroid function. This mineral is also essential for nerve and brain development. You cannot make thyroid hormone without enough iodine. Normal thyroid hormone levels are critical for brain development in children.
Your requirement for iodine is higher during breastfeeding than at any other time during your life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Iodine needs increase significantly during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. However, some women may not get enough iodine through their diet.
Much of our sodium intake is from processed foods, which do not contain iodized salt. Also, many people are replacing iodized salt with kosher or sea salts, which do not contain iodine.
Foods rich in iodine include iodized salt, seafood, and seaweed. The American Thyroid Association recommends that women who are breastfeeding take a supplement with at least 150 mcg of iodine. Choose a lactation supplement that helps you meet the recommended intake during breastfeeding of 290 mcg a day.
Eating a healthful diet, staying well hydrated, and taking a high-quality postnatal vitamin supplement are three excellent nutrition tips for breastfeeding moms.
It is also essential to take care of yourself by sleeping when you can and staying physically active once your doctor gives you the ok to do so. Enjoy this special time with your new baby!
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