You’ve decided to breastfeed your newborn, to give them the best start in life with all the benefits and nutrients that breastmilk affords, and you want to ensure your breastmilk is the best it can be – that’s fantastic!
As well all of the nutrients your baby needs for the first six months of their life, breast milk contains naturally occurring compounds that scientists have dubbed “anti-infective factors” which help protect your baby against infections that affect the tummy, airways and ears.
I speak to lots of new mums who are eager to ensure their supply is not only plentiful but nutritious for their baby, and my absolute top advice is this: Eat well for yourself and you’ll be eating well for your baby.
To break it down further, here are some of the questions I hear most often from breastfeeding mums:
Do I need extra calories if I’m breastfeeding?
When you breastfeed, your body uses more calories than normal. If you feed your baby exclusively with breast milk, it’s estimated your body will use 300-500 extra calories per day. If you mix breast and formula, then there will be a smaller increase in the number of extra calories you need each day. In both instances, the extra calories needed are provided by the fat stores laid down during pregnancy, so you shouldn’t need to eat more than normal.
If you do feel hungrier than usual, try to prioritise healthy snacks over sugary foods to help support your energy levels and mood. Now, this can be hard when most of the day you’re carrying a baby in one arm! It’s easier to reach for the biscuit tin than prepare a healthy snack, but planning in advance can be a real help here. Wash and chop carrots or fruit and keep in a tub in the fridge. Have healthy snacks like bananas, oatcakes, dried fruit, nuts, bagels, wholegrain crackers, hummus and cream cheese on hand, so when hunger strikes you can make healthy choices.
Should I lose weight while I’m breastfeeding?
It’s normal to lose some weight whilst breastfeeding as your body converts the fat stored during pregnancy into energy for breast milk. However, we don’t recommend actively trying to lose weight in the first two months after giving birth. This is because your body is recovering, and trying to do too much or restricting what you eat may slow your recovery. Your 6-week postnatal checkup is the first time to start thinking about weight loss if you’d like to.
If you notice that you’re losing weight rapidly (more than 1kg or ~ 2lb per week), it’s likely you need to eat more – chat with your G.P. or midwife if you’re concerned.
What about drinks?
If you’re already breastfeeding, you’ll know that you can feel an overwhelming thirst the moment your baby starts to nurse. Make sure to keep a filled bottle of water or a jug near where you breastfeed that you can easily open with one hand. Breastfeeding does use extra fluid so it’s extra important to stay hydrated. While dehydration won’t affect your milk supply, it can make you feel fatigued and contribute to constipation. Be sure to drink lots of water and avoid too many sugary beverages. If you don’t like plain water, try adding some mint leaves or cucumber slices. Or try adding a small amount of sugar-free squash.
Do I need to take any vitamin supplements when I’m breastfeeding?
It’s recommended that all breastfeeding mothers continue taking a vitamin D supplement, which provides 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day. This is because it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from food.
Unless your doctor recommends it, no other supplements are needed.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables daily is a great way to ensure you’re getting your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals.
Try to aim for 5 portions or handfuls – and remember that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables count too. Frozen peas, corn, and fruits are great staples for your freezer. Frozen veggies can be thrown into soups, casseroles or into pasta, and frozen fruit is ideal for throwing in a blender with a banana and some yoghurt for a quick nutritious smoothie.
So there is no special breastfeeding diet?
No. Just eat well. What this means is to include some starchy foods with every meal (rice, potatoes, pasta, etc.) and where possible, ensure those come from wholegrain sources as these contain more fibre, which helps prevent constipation, balances energy levels and feeds the bacteria in your gut.
Aim to include some protein-rich foods (fish, lean meat, eggs, poultry, nuts and pulses) with each of your meals, and, if you eat a plant-based diet take extra care to ensure you eat enough protein from foods like tofu and pulses. Pulses like beans, lentils and chickpeas are a great source of protein and fibre. If you buy them canned, they don’t always need cooking and can be easily added to salads or soups.
Something to take extra care with is calcium. When breastfeeding, you need around 40 per cent more calcium than normal. Although your body becomes more efficient at absorbing calcium to help meet these needs, it’s still important to eat plenty of calcium-rich foods.
Try to have three good sized servings of calcium-rich foods per day – a glass of milk, a pot of low-fat yoghurt and a piece of cheese. If you follow a dairy-free diet then be sure to choose an alternative drink which is fortified with added calcium (like calcium added soya milk), and include other calcium-rich foods like fish with edible bones, figs, tahini and leafy green veggies.
What foods should I avoid when breastfeeding?
No foods are entirely off-limits as they are during pregnancy, but it is recommended that you limit swordfish, marlin and shark as they are higher in mercury.
Stick to a maximum of 2 portions of oily fish per week, as similarly, they contain higher levels of pollutants. Examples of oily fish are salmon, trout, herring, sardines, pilchards and mackerel.
Can I have caffeine while breastfeeding?
Caffeine can pass through breast milk, and high levels of caffeine may adversely affect your baby’s sleep, and you don’t want that! Some mums find that drinking too much caffeine makes their baby restless. For this reason, it’s helpful to stick to a maximum of 200mg of caffeine a day (which equals one mug of regular strength filter coffee).
Decaffeinated tea and coffee are fine to have.
What’s the lowdown on alcohol when breastfeeding?
Alcohol does pass through breast milk in small amounts. So while it is safer not to drink when breastfeeding, especially in the first three months, a small alcoholic drink once or twice a week after the first three months is unlikely to cause any harm. If you wish to drink, try leaving two to three hours between drinking and breastfeeding.
What about spicy foods?
You can eat all the spicy foods you like, the spice won’t pass into the milk and to your baby.
Does anything affect the taste of my breastmilk?
It’s true that there can be subtle variations in the flavour of a mother’s breast milk depending on what she eats. This is one of the reasons it’s believed that breastfed babies enjoy a greater variety of food and flavours when they begin weaning than formula-fed babies.
If you are pumping and storing breastmilk this can also affect the taste. This is because breast milk contains lipase, a beneficial enzyme in human milk, and the longer breast milk is kept at room or fridge temperature the more lipase activity there will be. This may mean a slightly soapy or sour taste, but it doesn’t affect the quality of the milk. Most babies won’t mind this, but if you feel yours does, try and freeze it as soon as possible after pumping and defrost it just before you’re ready to prepare a bottle.
Is there anything I can eat to increase my breast milk supply?
Although there are some claims that certain foods (such as oatmeal, fenugreek and flaxseed) can increase breast milk supply, very little scientific evidence exists to suggest this is true.
Although there’s generally nothing wrong with consuming these foods, it’s important to consult with a lactation specialist if you’re concerned about your milk supply, as they will be able to quickly identify if there is a problem – and give you evidence-based advice that really helps.
So don’t forget: follow a healthy, varied and balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and calcium-rich foods, stay hydrated, limit alcohol and caffeine, and you’re well on your way to giving your baby the best start in life.
Article by Biamother’s Nutritionist and Dietitian, Laura Tilt.
Biamother is the world’s first app that cares for new mums, and during the current global pandemic, we’re especially focused on ensuring that pregnant and postnatal women isolating at home can still access expert health guidance. We are a team of maternal health experts, all women, mostly mothers, offering guidance and recommendations to help you eat, move and sleep better, as well as personalized workouts you can do at home that adapt to suit your changing needs, body type and concerns.
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