Diet for a healthy breastfeeding mom

Many new moms wonder how breastfeeding will affect their diet. You probably don’t need to make any major changes to what you eat or drink when you’re nursing, though there are a few important considerations to keep in mind:

Eat a well-balanced diet for your health

One of the wonders of breast milk is that it can meet your baby’s nutritional needs even when you’re not eating perfectly. (However, if your diet is too low in calories or relies on one food group at the exclusion of others, this could affect the quality and quantity of your milk.)

Just because your baby won’t be harmed by your occasional dietary lapses doesn’t mean that you won’t suffer. When you don’t get the nutrients you need from your diet, your body draws on its reserves, which can eventually become depleted. Also, you need strength and stamina to meet the physical demands of caring for a new baby.

Many breastfeeding moms feel extra hungry, which makes sense: Your body is working around the clock to make breast milk for your baby. Eating small meals with healthy snacks in between – the way you may have done during pregnancy – is a good way to keep your hunger in check and your energy level high.

Don’t count calories

There’s no single answer to how many calories a nursing mom needs. But in general, most women who are breastfeeding need about 500 calories more than moms who aren’t – that’s a total of 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day.

Instead of counting calories, follow your hunger as a guide to how much you need to eat.

The exact amount depends on a number of individual factors, such as your weight, how much exercise you get, how your metabolism works, and how frequently you’re breastfeeding.

If you’re concerned about putting on excess pounds, talk to your healthcare provider about your body mass index and what you can do to maintain a healthy weight.

Learn about the different types of breast pumps, the basics of how they work, and the right way to use a breast pump.

Aim for slow and steady weight loss

Some new moms find the weight just seems to fall off, while others don’t lose much. It all depends on your body, your food choices, your activity level, and your metabolism.

The best plan: Lose your pregnancy weight gradually. Plan to take up to a year to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight.

Don’t try to lose weight by dieting until at least two months after your baby is born. A reduced-calorie diet in the first couple of months could sap your energy and diminish your milk supply.

If you’re overweight or obese, you may be able to start trying to shed pounds earlier but first ask your doctor for advice. And be sure to stay hydrated – sometimes dieters cut back on water when they eat less food.

Most women can safely lose 1 pound each week by combining a healthy diet with moderate exercise.

A sudden, large drop in your calorie intake can affect your milk supply, so don’t go on a crash diet to lose weight quickly. If you’re losing more than 1 pound a week after the first six weeks, that’s a sign you need to take in more calories.

Include a variety of healthy foods

Variety and balance are key to a healthy diet. Eating a mix of carbohydrates protein, and fat at meals keeps you feeling full longer and supplies the nutrients your body needs.

Complex carbs like whole grains and cereals and fresh fruits and vegetables not only provide more nutrition than processed starches and sugars, they provide longer-lasting energy. And choosing from all food groups is important so you can get the vitamins you and your baby need over time. So mix it up – try to eat something today that you didn’t eat yesterday.

Choose good fats

When it comes to fat, think mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Sources of these “healthy fats” include canola oil, olive oil, and fatty fish (like salmon) as well as avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds.

Limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats, both of which are considered unhealthy. Saturated fats show up in high-fat meats, whole milk, tropical oils (such as palm kernel and coconut), butter, and lard. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats. Saturated fats and trans fats are both listed on a product’s nutrition label.

In addition to being bad for your diet, getting too much of these unhealthy fats can alter the fat composition of your breast milk, which isn’t good for your baby’s health.

While we don’t know the long-term effects of unhealthy fats on infant cardiovascular health, we do know that in adults these fats negatively affect heart health by raising LDL (bad cholesterol), lowering HDL (good cholesterol), and increasing signs of inflammation. Unhealthy fats also boost the risk of heart attack and death from heart disease.

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Take extra steps to avoid contaminants

It’s a good idea to try to minimize your exposure to contaminants in your food (and your environment) while you’re nursing. Pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals that you ingest can make their way into your breast milk.

Although research is ongoing, we know that environmental chemicals could affect your baby’s long-term health. Here are some tips for limiting your exposure:

  • Eat a variety of foods. If you eat large quantities of one food that happens to be high in pesticides, your intake of pesticides will be higher than if that food is just one of many that you eat.
  • Know which fruits and vegetables are highest in pesticides, and choose organic options if possible. Always wash fruits and veggies well. Or better yet, peel them.

    As of 2011 the “dirty dozen” that tested highest for pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, were apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines and grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, and kale and collard greens.

    The fruits and vegetables that had the lowest amount of pesticide residue were onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and mushrooms.

  • Choose produce that’s in season in your area, and buy local when you can. Produce that travels long distances often have more pesticides.
  • Choose lean meats, and remove the skin and extra fat before cooking. Chemicals are stored in fat.
  • Consider drinking filtered water while breastfeeding. The EPA requires that all tap water meet certain standards, but small amounts of many chemicals are found in tap water.

Eat fish – but be picky

When you’re nursing, it’s important to get protein from a variety of sources – including fish. The American Heart Association recommends fish for a heart-healthy diet.

Some fish (especially cold water fish) also contain DHA and EPA, omega-3 fats that play an important role in the brain and eye development that continues during your baby’s first year. (Your baby gets these omega-3s from your breast milk.)

Not only does DHA help your baby, but it helps you too. Research suggests that moms who have lower levels of DHA, as well as lower seafood consumption, are more likely to develop postpartum depression.

Eat up to 12 ounces of most types of fish and seafood per week, including salmon, shrimp, canned light tuna, lake trout, tilapia, catfish, crab, pollack, and scallops.

If you don’t like seafood, try an omega-3 supplement. Just be sure to talk to your healthcare provider first to find out how much to take.

Also, be aware that some types of fish contain contaminants that can be harmful to pregnant and nursing women and children. The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture advise not eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.

Solid white or albacore tuna tends to be higher in mercury than other types of canned tuna. If you eat solid white or albacore tuna, limit your intake to 6 ounces per week.

Other experts and advocacy groups are even more cautious, expanding the list of fish to avoid. Read more about eating fish when you’re breastfeeding.

Go easy on the alcohol

If you time it right, an occasional drink probably won’t harm your breastfeeding baby, but in general you may want to hold off on drinking alcohol while you’re breastfeeding. Alcohol does enter your breast milk, and having as little as one drink may affect your milk letdown reflex.

Studies show that babies consume less milk in the four hours after you have an alcoholic beverage. And your baby may become drowsy and fall asleep more quickly after you have a drink, but he’ll also sleep for a shorter amount of time. (And, of course, heavy drinking makes you unable to safely care for your baby.)

If you’re going to enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage, keep in mind that it takes two to three hours for your body to eliminate the alcohol in one serving of beer or wine. Specific time frames depend on your size and how much you drink, but the more you drink the longer it takes your body to get rid of it. So you might want to time that toast for right after a feeding session.

Alcohol isn’t stored in breast milk – instead, the level increases and decreases just as it does in your bloodstream. If you have an alcoholic drink, wait at least two hours before breastfeeding your baby or you may need to “pump and dump.” If you plan to have a drink with alcohol, either breastfeed your baby or express your milk first and store it for later.

If you’re a breastfeeding mom who supplements late-night feedings with formula, another option is to wait until your baby goes down for the night before you drink alcohol.

Also, drink water with your alcoholic drink, and eat before (or while) you drink to help lower the amount of alcohol in your blood and your milk.

Drink plenty of water and limit caffeine

When you’re breastfeeding, your body needs plenty of fluid, but there’s no need to keep a record of how much you drink. A good guideline to follow is drink to satisfy thirst – that is, drink whenever you feel the need. If your urine is clear or light yellow, it’s a good sign that you’re well hydrated.

Speaking of fluids, it’s okay to have your morning cup of coffee while breastfeeding if you like, but don’t overdo it. A small amount of caffeine winds up in your breast milk, and it can accumulate in your baby’s system because she can’t easily break it down and excrete it.

Most experts suggest that nursing moms limit their consumption of caffeine (including coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate, and coffee ice cream) to no more than 300 mg per day. That’s about as much as you’d get in three 5-ounce cups of coffee. You may want to drink even less if you’re nursing a newborn or preterm baby. Check out our caffeine chart to see how much caffeine is in popular beverages and foods.

Consider the flavors of what you eat and drink

Most nursing moms can eat a wide variety of foods while nursing – including spicy foods – without any objection from their baby. In fact, some experts believe that babies enjoy a variety of flavors in their breast milk. Eating your favorite foods while you’re nursing gives your baby a “taste” of your diet and may help him accept different foods once he starts eating solids.

But some moms swear that certain foods – like broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, dairy products, chocolate, citrus, garlic, or chili pepper – make their breastfed baby gassy or irritable. If your baby seems consistently uncomfortable after you eat a particular food, then by all means avoid it to see if your baby is happier.

In rare instances, your baby may be allergic to something you’ve eaten. If this is the case, you may notice a reaction on his skin (rash or hives), in his breathing (wheezing or congestion), or in his stools (green or mucousy).

Keep taking your vitamins

It’s a good idea to continue taking your prenatal vitamin while you’re breastfeeding – at least for the first month or so. After that, you can switch to a regular multivitamin and mineral supplement or stay on your prenatal vitamin, depending on your individual needs. (You can discuss this with your healthcare provider at your first postpartum visit.)

A supplement doesn’t take the place of a well-balanced diet, but it can provide some extra insurance on those days when taking care of your new baby keeps you from eating as well as you’d like.

In addition to your prenatal vitamin or multivitamin, consider taking the following supplements:

Calcium: While your prenatal vitamin or multivitamin may have small amounts of calcium, but you’ll need supplemental calcium if you’re not eating at least three daily servings of calcium-rich foods (like milk and other dairy products, canned fish, or calcium-fortified foods like cereals, juices, soy and rice beverages, and breads).

The recommended dose for women before, during, and after pregnancy is 1,000 milligrams (mg) daily. (Teenage mothers need 1,300 mg daily.)

Don’t get more than 2,500 mg daily from all sources. Exceeding this safe upper limit can lead to kidney stones, hypercalcemia, and renal insufficiency syndrome. It can also interfere with your body’s absorption of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.

If you’re going to take calcium, also be sure to supplement with vitamin D.

Vitamin D: This vitamin is important for bone growth and overall health. Vitamin D also helps your body absorb calcium, and research suggests it may lower the risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes, and several autoimmune diseases.

Sun exposure helps your body produce vitamin D, but many women don’t get enough sun (especially in the winter and with the use of sunscreen) to make an adequate amount, and experts think the small amount found in food might not be enough. The best way to know whether you’re getting enough vitamin D is to have your blood tested.

The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines and Institute of Medicine both recommend that all women get 600 IU (15 micrograms) of vitamin D daily, but no more than 4,000 IU. Very large amounts of vitamin D – more than 10,000 IU daily – may cause kidney and tissue damage.

By the way, breast milk doesn’t supply your baby with enough vitamin D. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies who are exclusively breastfed or who drink less than 32 ounces of formula daily receive a supplement of 400 IU (10 micrograms) of vitamin D each day too. Talk to your baby’s doctor about a vitamin D supplement.

Vitamin D is important for bone development and the prevention of rickets in children. Experts think that getting enough vitamin D in childhood may also help prevent certain conditions, like osteoarthritis, from developing later in life.

DHA: The DHA content of your breast milk depends on your diet, particularly on whether you eat fish. So if your diet doesn’t contain a few servings of cold water fish or other food containing DHA (like fortified eggs) every week, you might consider a supplement.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding moms get 200 to 300 mg of DHA a day.

Daily food and meal plans for breastfeeding moms

Chart of daily food group servings for breastfeeding moms.

Sample meal plans for breastfeeding moms.

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