New mothers are swarmed with myths and advice on what they can and cannot eat while breastfeeding in order to maintain milk production and stimulate their babies’ development. In true Rachel’s Remedy fashion, we were curious about what is truly the best advice for breastfeeding moms, and we decided to research what our most trusted sources advise.
Rule of thumb: What goes in comes back out. The higher the nutritional quality of your diet, the higher the nutritional quality of milk for your baby. In reality, there are very few foods that are actually off-limits. There are, however, certain foods you can eat to keep you and baby healthy and happy. The wonder of breast milk is that it will usually meet your baby’s nutritional needs unless you have a vitamin deficiency or your diet is too low in calories.
And don't forget, you may need an additional 300-500 calories per day while breastfeeding to keep up your energy. Eating a variety of foods will change the flavor of your breast milk and may help your baby more easily accept solid foods later on.
Here we’ve broken down some of the most important nutritional recommendations for optimal health.
Breastfeeding women can lose three to five percent of bone mass because your bodies use calcium stores (located mostly in the bones) in order to meet the baby’s needs. It’s important to continue to get the recommended amount of calcium in a normal diet – 1,000 mg daily for all women 18-50, and 1,300 for younger mothers – in order to ensure bones remain strong after weaning. While bone mass does return usually within six months of stopping breastfeeding, maintaining the proper dietary amount of calcium will keep you and baby healthy, as well as decreasing future risk of osteoporosis.
In order to get enough calcium each day, you should aim to consume three servings of dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, etc.) per day. If you are allergic to dairy products or prefer not to eat them, try calcium-fortified juice, tofu, dark leafy greens, broccoli or dried beans. If you are breastfeeding and cannot find a way to routinely consume 1,000 mg of calcium in your diet, talk to your doctor about a dietary supplement. It’s a myth that you need to drink milk to make milk, but you do still need calcium to keep yours and their babies’ bones strong.
Vitamin D is also important for bone strength, because it is essential for absorbin dietary calcium from the intestinal tract. Not getting enough Vitamin D during pregnancy could undermine the strength of yours and your baby’s bones because it’s necessary for absorbing calcium as well as phosphorous.
Experts debate the amount of Vitamin D needed daily. Most agree around 400 IU, but some cite numbers up to 1,000 IU a day. While good old sunshine is the most effective way to get Vitamin D, sun exposure can be an unsafe way for you and your baby to receive your vitamins.
Look instead to get Vitamin D from foods such as salmon, mackerel, fortified milk or orange juice and yogurt. Some ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are fortified with both calcium and Vitamin D. Make sure to consult with your doctor if you choose to take Vitamin D supplements, as too much Vitamin D is also harmful and can result in a buildup of calcium in the blood.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in breast milk, and contributes to the growth and development of your infant’s brain and eyes. DHA content of breast milk tends to decline with breastfeeding, but it can be replenished through diet. A mother’s diet should include an average daily intake of 200-300 mg of certain fatty acids, in order to guarantee a sufficient concentration of DHA in the milk.
You can get that much DHA by eating 1 to 2 portions of fish such as herring, canned light tuna, and salmon per week. If you’re concerned about excessive mercury intake, you can minimize the chances by avoiding predatory fish, such as pike, marlin, mackerel, tilefish and swordfish. It’s worth noting however that various experts believe the risk of excessive mercury is unlikely and more than offset by the neurobehavioral and developmental benefits of adequate DHA intake for your infant.
If you are vegan, vegetarian or do not eat fish, it is worth asking your doctor about a DHA supplement, because you may not have an optimal DHA level in your milk. DHA is included in fish oil supplements, and are sometimes recommended to breastfeeding and pregnant mothers. DHA is particularly important for very premature infants, as they may be deficient in DHA from missing out on part of the third trimester, which is when the fatty acid accumulates in tissues.
According to the Mayo Clinic, protein-rich foods such as lean meat, eggs, dairy, beans, lentils and seafood low in mercury help fuel milk production.
Protein builds, repairs and maintains body tissues. While nursing, mothers need 6 to 6 ½ ounces per day. The good news is that you can actually combine your DHA and protein intake by getting both from fish, in particular fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, which are ideal for getting both protein and DHA to your infant.
If you want alternatives to fish, you can also supply your daily intake of protein by eating two or three servings of lean meat, poultry, or fish daily. About 3 ounces (around the size of a deck of cards) makes up a serving. You can make up 1-ounce equivalents as alternates to meat by eating 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, nuts (12 almonds or 24 pistachios, for example), or dried beans (1/4 cup cooked).
Vegan and vegetarian moms - talk to your doctor to make sure you are getting enough vitamin B-12. Your doctor may recommend that you add in supplements or fortified foods.
[Do be careful to monitor your child’s response to your eating foods that contain peanuts, especially if you have a family history of food allergies.]
Iron helps maintain your energy level. Lean meats and dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale are good sources of iron, as well as fish, iron-fortified cereals and the dark meat in poultry. If you usually have a low level of iron – which you might know from trying to donate blood, for example – or are a vegetarian, consider asking your doctor about a supplement or making sure to get a multivitamin with iron.
Keep in mind that other foods can limit or supplement your iron intake. Tea, for example, may interfere with iron absorption. Foods that are rich in Vitamin C can enhance it – so consider pairing your ground beef with spinach, or take your multivitamin or iron supplement with a glass of orange juice.
It is particularly important to monitor your levels of iron if you are vegetarian or vegan, as you are more at risk for anemia or iron-deficiency. In this case, talk to your doctor to make sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet.
You should get at least 400 mg of folate, or folic acid, daily to encourage your baby’s development. Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body make healthy new cells, and has other benefits as well. You can get folate through spinach and other green vegetables, citrus fruits or juices, many kinds of beans, and meat or poultry liver. Some breads, cereals and grains are enriched with folate. Many women do not get the folic acid that they need through diet alone and your doctor may recommend a supplement or multivitamin.
Other Nutritional Considerations
If you’re currently breastfeeding, be sure to stay well hydrated. Drink a lot of water (always have water next to you while you are nursing!), and try to stay away from sugary drinks. The EPA recommends nursing mothers drink clean, filtered water to avoid potential contaminates that can make their way into breast milk. Caffeine is ok, just not too much. Most experts say 1-2 cups of coffee or tea per day should be the limit.
As for alcohol, it passes through your milk to your baby, so it's best to avoid it while breastfeeding. Alcohol can change the taste of your milk and may decrease the amount of milk your baby drinks. If you choose to drink, it's best to do it right after nursing or pumping because it takes 2-3 hours for 1 drink to leave your system and not be present in breast milk. Moderation is key. There are numerous concerns and dangers with long-term, repeated exposure of infants to alcohol through breast milk, including the reduction of your breast milk. So, ladies, if you are drinking, pump and dump!
It’s important for you keep track of how your diet is affecting your baby. It’s pretty rare for a baby to be allergic to something in the mother’s breast milk (2 in 100 are found to have a breast milk related allergy). Be sure to keep an eye on changes to your baby’s skin, bowel movements and weight gain, as any changes could be related to what you’re eating.
Above all, enjoy your food and don’t worry too much! Moms who eat a well-rounded diet should keep these recommendations in mind, but don’t obsess over them. Chances are, if you’re eating healthy, so is your baby and you’ll both be off to a good start together!
We hope you find our our healthy diet tips for breastfeeding moms useful. Rachel's Remedy is committed to helping nursing moms breastfeed comfortably. For more information about how Rachel’s Remedy helps breastfeeding moms, click here.
This is by no means meant to stand in place of advice from your doctor or IBCLC. If you are having a problem or have a concern, it is always best to speak to your doctor.
aap.org: New Mother's Guide to Breastfeeding, 2nd Edition (Copyright 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics 2015)