Understanding the Basics of Breastfeeding Nutrition

Renée Naturally Qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist & Western Medical Herbalist

Producing milk to sustain life is a miraculous thing indeed. It can also be incredibly draining if you’re not looking after yourself properly and eating a well-balanced diet. While you should attempt to eat a healthy diet while you are nursing, it’s important to remember that your diet doesn’t have to be perfect to support breastfeeding. It’s important to take all the help you can get and if that means eating Nanna’s cheesy lasagne three nights in a row or tucking into coffee group cake once a week, relax…it’s what you do the majority of the time that counts towards having a healthy diet and healthy milk. Besides, it is very healthy indeed to find little ways to spoil yourself as a new Mum!

Here are some of the basic guidelines for eating and drinking while breastfeeding:

Additional Calories
Breastfeeding is not the time to be counting calories, and you should always listen to your body’s cues for hunger and respond accordingly. Mama needs to be fed well to feed her baby well! However, when it comes to counting calories, it’s important to note that to keep up your energy levels while breastfeeding, an additional 400 to 500 calories should be eaten daily. Rather than reaching for a quick chocolate bar to clock up those calories, instead opt for nutrient-rich choices such as yoghurt, vegetables and hummus, smoothies or eggs where possible.

Foods to Focus On
Focus on having healthy choices on hand to help fuel your milk production. Breastfeeding takes time, especially in those early days and it’s tempting to grab convenience foods, which are often not the healthiest options. Stock the pantry and fridge full of protein-rich foods, such as lean meat, free range eggs, beans, lentils and fresh seafood. Whole grain oats can help encourage healthy milk production, so perhaps get loved ones to make you some delicious and wholesome oat cookies for a quick treat! Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, and always ensure to wash them to reduce your exposure to pesticides (or even better, buy organic if your budget allows!). Ensure you eat a wide variety of different foods and flavours while you’re breastfeeding too. The foods you eat change the flavour of your breast milk, meaning baby is exposed to a variety of tastes…this is said to mean that they’re more inclined to try new things as solids are introduced.

Fluid Intake
It’s imperative that breastfeeding Mums keep up their fluid intake to ensure they’re adequately hydrated while their body does the arduous task of creating milk. Have a BPA free water bottle on hand and sip from it regularly, especially while you’re feeding the baby. If your urine is quite a dark yellow in colour or you’re constipated, it’s usually a sign you should drink more water. Aim to drink 8 glasses daily. Although the temptation for sugary drinks is great when we’re sleep deprived, try to avoid juice or sugary drinks which can disrupt your blood sugar levels.

Vegetarian Considerations
Nursing while eating a vegetarian diet is safe and healthy for both Mum and baby, as long as the range of vegetarian foods chosen gives you the nutrients you need. As a guideline;

Choose foods rich in protein, iron and calcium: Good sources of iron include lentils, whole-grain enriched cereals, tofu, quinoa, brown rice, peas, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit. To help with the absorption of vegetarian sources of iron, eat iron-rich foods vitamin C-rich foods such as oranges, tomatoes and peppers.

Good sources of protein include; free range eggs and dairy products or plant sources, such as coconut products, legumes, lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Good sources of calcium include; tofu, dairy products, almonds and dark green vegetables.

Consider supplements: In addition to a multi-vitamin breastfeeding supplement, you should discuss with your midwife or GP about potentially going on a daily vitamin B-12 supplement also. Vitamin B-12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, so it’s difficult to get enough in vegetarian, or more specifically, vegan diets. Infants healthy brain development requires adequate amounts of Vitamin B-12.

Foods to avoid
The good news is, you have a lot more freedom with what you can eat than during pregnancy!

Alcohol: No amount of alcohol in breast milk is considered safe for a baby. If you drink, avoid breast-feeding until the alcohol has completely cleared your breast milk (usually two to three hours, depending on your body weight and the amount and type of alcohol consumed). Speak to your midwife for more specific advice.

Caffeine: Avoid drinking more than 2 cups of coffee or tea a day. Caffeine in your breast milk can make your baby unsettled and interfere with your baby’s sleep. High caffeine intake has been linked to colic and acid reflux in some babies.

Some fish: Seafood is a good source of vital protein and omega-3 fatty acids. However, some fish have higher levels of mercury than others. Exposure to high levels of mercury through breast milk can pose a risk to a baby’s developing nervous system. To limit your baby’s exposure, avoid shark, swordfish and king mackerel.

Processed foods: As a general rule, check labels and try to avoid processed foods that contain long lists of additives.

Intolerances and Allergies
If you find your baby is particularly gassy or fussy, it’s a good idea to look to see if some of the foods you are eating may be the common culprit. It takes 2-6 hours from when you eat food until it affects the flavour and smell of your breast milk. Foods to watch out for include; onions, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and spicy foods. It might pay to keep a food diary of what you ate and when and record when baby is particularly gassy, colicky or unsettled to see if there may be some correlation. It pays to to keep in mind that what seems like a reaction (fussiness, gassiness) can often just be newborns being newborns, so it is always recommended to speak to your midwife, your GP or a nutritionist for some expert advice.

A  mother’s milk is a near perfect food. However, it is often low in iron, vitamin C and D and so while a nursing mother should maintain a balanced diet and their baby’s good health, it is also beneficial to take a specifically tailored breastfeeding nutritional supplement to cover  all bases for healthy nursing.

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