What do vitamin D, iodine, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and choline all have in common? They’re all important nutrients for breastfeeding. They’re considered the elite few – an exclusive club of indispensable lactation nutrients.
But they’re not the only important nutrients. Folate, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium all deserve an honorable mention. Learn about why these nutrients should have a place in your diet and how they can keep you and your baby well-nourished as you breastfeed.
Folate is well-known for its role in neural tube development during early pregnancy, but the importance of this nutrient carries over into breastfeeding. Folate plays a role in protein, DNA, and RNA synthesis and is vital for the growth and development of your little one.
You need at least 500 mcg of dietary folate equivalents (DFE) while breastfeeding. Folate is expressed in DFE because your body absorbs folate from food and supplements differently. Luckily, converting folate from food to DFE is easy – one mcg of food folate equals one mcg DFE. So, choose plenty of folate-rich foods, such as dark, leafy vegetables, oranges, nuts, beans, and peas.
Some dietary supplements, multivitamins, and fortified foods, like ready-to-eat cereals and enriched grains, contain folic acid. This form is more bioavailable than folate from food, which means that your body is better able to absorb and utilize it. Unlike folate from food, it only takes 0.6 mcg of folic acid to equal one mcg DFE. This doesn’t mean you should ditch folate-rich foods and rely solely on folic acid, but dietary supplements and fortified foods can help bridge any gaps and make sure that you meet your daily folate needs.
There’s one more form of folate to keep on your radar: methylated folate. Methylated folate is the active form of folate sometimes found in dietary supplements, multivitamins, or prenatal vitamins. Some women have a genetic variation that makes absorbing folic acid difficult, so this form can help make sure they get enough folate each day. Due to its increased bioavailability, just 0.6 mcg of methylated folate equals one mcg DFE.
You may have heard that carrots give you super-sight or night vision. While it’s not quite true, it’s on the right track. Carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body. This vitamin helps support healthy vision, as well as healthy growth and development.
Your vitamin A needs increase significantly from 770 mcg retinol activity equivalents (RAE) during pregnancy to 1300 mcg RAE while breastfeeding.
To make sure you stay on your A-game, add bright yellow, orange, and green fruits and vegetables, like carrots, sweet potato, mango, cantaloupe, and spinach, to your diet for a boost of beta-carotene. Cheese, low-mercury fatty fish, milk, and yogurt are also great sources of vitamin A.
Iron needs increase significantly during pregnancy to help produce more blood to deliver oxygen to your baby. Compared to pregnancy, your iron needs during breastfeeding are much lower to compensate for the lack of a menstrual cycle. Most mothers only need about 9 mg of iron while breastfeeding until their menstrual cycle returns – then iron needs increase to about 18 mg per day. Some women may require more iron after birth, so make sure you discuss your individual iron needs with your healthcare provider.
Even though your iron needs decrease, iron is still an important nutrient, especially for breastfed infants.
Babies need iron to help support healthy growth and neurological development. Breast milk is naturally low in iron, and you can’t increase the iron content of your breast milk by supplementing with additional iron. But you don’t need to – the iron present in your breast milk is more bioavailable than supplemental iron found in infant formula. Rest assured, breastfeeding is still the gold standard for infant nutrition. Most healthy babies are also born with enough iron stored in their bodies to last the first six months of their life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving exclusively breastfed infants liquid iron drops at four months of age until iron-containing solid foods are introduced, but not all experts agree with this. As your baby advances to solids and begins to widen the variety of their diet, iron-rich and fortified foods can also help them get enough iron. Make sure you discuss your baby’s iron needs with their pediatrician to find out what’s right for your little one.
Your body can’t make vitamin C, so it’s important to get enough through your diet. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant in your body – a powerful guardian that protects your cells and keeps them healthy. This nutrient also helps support a healthy immune system.
Your vitamin C needs are higher during breastfeeding than at any other time in your life. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin C while breastfeeding is 120 mg per day. The list of vitamin C-rich foods is seemingly endless, so you’ve got a lot of options to help you meet your needs. Foods like citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, kiwi, grapefruit, strawberries, and tomatoes are all great sources of vitamin C.
Pro tip: Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron. Try to eat vitamin C-rich foods with iron foods.
Breastfeeding places extra demands on a woman’s body, and although calcium requirements don’t increase while breastfeeding, it’s still important to get enough each day to support bone health.
Most adults need about 1000 mg of calcium each day, including breastfeeding women. Foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt, are excellent sources of calcium, but you don’t have to eat dairy to meet your calcium needs. Include other plant-based calcium foods like broccoli, kale, beans, and Bok choy. Some foods are also fortified with calcium, like plant-based milk, orange juice, and some varieties of tofu.
These five nutrients now join the ranks with vitamin D, iodine, DHA, and choline – they’re all important for breastfeeding and your growing baby. A healthy, varied diet can help you get these nutrients (and more) to nourish your baby and keep yourself healthy as you breastfeed. But, if you’re concerned about any nutrients slipping through the cracks, consider adding a high-quality lactation supplement to your daily routine to fill in any gaps.
And remember, you’re not alone in your breastfeeding journey. Check out “Breastfeeding Help: Tips, Resources, and Supplements for New Moms” to help you overcome any obstacles in your path and thrive in your new role as a breastfeeding mother.