When you’re pregnant, there are certain foods you should try to avoid, such as fish that’s high in mercury and anything with caffeine. But do these rules also apply to breastfeeding? We asked experts for some answers, since August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80% of mothers begin breastfeeding their babies at birth. Since breastmilk is known to be one of the healthiest options for your baby, breastfeeding for at least six months (when possible) is highly recommended.
We wondered if all breastmilk is created equal, so we talked to experts to find out how the food you eat can affect your milk.
In general, the types of foods you eat while breastfeeding do matter to an extent. But experts say it’s more important to focus on the amount of food you’re consuming. The National Institutes of Health say breastfeeding women need about 500 additional calories a day to help keep up their milk supply. So if you usually eat about 2,000 calories a day, shoot for 2,500, and never go below 1,500.
According to Catherine Brennan, registered dietitian and certified lactation counselor, not eating well while breastfeeding won’t necessarily change your breastmilk production, but it could affect your energy level, mood, and general sense of well-being. So, according to Brennan, it’s important to eat well—and eat enough—because your overall health depends on it.
When you’re getting enough nutrients, your baby will as well. So here are some examples of foods you should be eating:
1 Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
A 2009 study found that mothers who consume foods rich in these essential fatty acids have breast milk that’s rich in DHA, which is important for brain function.
“While studies are mixed as to whether this results in smarter children or better brain and neurological development, it is still a great idea for mom to get more DHA in her diet while breastfeeding,” Genevieve Howland, bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, told HelloGiggles.
Good sources of omega-3 include fatty fish that’s low in mercury, such as sardines, salmon, and herring. For vegetarians, Howland suggested algae oil as an option. “For moms who hate the taste of fish, a high-quality cod liver oil or fish oil supplement can be helpful,” she said.
2 Foods with plenty of vitamin D
Studies show that many babies are deficient in this important fat-soluble vitamin, Howland said. Vitamin D is important for absorbing calcium and promoting bone growth.
“Instead of relying on fortified dairy products or orange juice, which can contain the wrong form of vitamin D, moms can supplement by taking vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol,” she said. “In studies, breastfeeding moms who take 4,000-6,000 IUs per day enrich their breast milk and prevent vitamin D deficiency in their infants.”
Foods that are rich in vitamin D include fatty fish like salmon and sardines, egg yolks, beef liver, shrimp, and cheese.
According to Howland, the good bacteria in a mom’s gut can make its way to her breastmilk and provide health benefits to the baby. “In fact, breastmilk is teeming with good prebiotic and probiotic properties all intended to grow and develop a thriving gut ecology for baby’s long-term health,” she said.
To keep your gut (and your baby’s) healthy, consume foods that are rich in probiotic bacteria, such as yogurt, kefir, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso.
4 Foods rich in calcium
“Calcium and dairy are important for a breastfeeding mother because a nursing mother can actually experience a decrease in her bone density by 3 to 9%,” Kish said. “Once you’re done nursing, it will go back up.”
Foods rich in calcium include cheese, yogurt, beans and lentils, almonds, and some dark, leafy greens.
Overall, nothing on this list is too surprising. That’s because it’s pretty simple. It’s all about having a well-rounded diet with enough protein, vitamins, and healthy calories. If needed, a good multivitamin can also be beneficial.
Foods to avoid, on the other hand, may or may not be as simple.
“There is actually no reason to restrict any foods from a diet while breastfeeding, unless there is a specific food allergy or sensitivity that has been identified in mom and/or baby,” Crystal Karges, registered dietitian nutritionist and lactation consultant, told HelloGiggles. For instance, some moms who drink cows’ milk will find that their baby often gets an upset stomach. Talking to your pediatrician can help you figure out if the two are related.
You should also try to avoid any stimulants that can pass through the breastmilk and irritate the baby’s digestive system, like caffeine or certain medications. Of course, things like too much sugar, alcohol, and other unhealthy foods should be limited. Again, if you’re unsure if any of the food you’re eating will be harmful to your baby, just be sure to ask your pediatrician.
It’s also important to address the fact that breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. For some, it can be a huge challenge. Since experts say what you eat won’t necessarily affect milk production, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re having a tough time and need support.
According to Sara-Chana Silverstein, board certified lactation consultant and author, all breastmilk is primarily the same when it comes to vitamins and nutrients, and will stay pretty stable as your child grows. So if you don’t make any major unusual changes to your diet as you’re breastfeeding, your baby should be getting the nutrients they need. “Of course a mom should eat as healthy as possible to keep herself strong, but if she has a few ‘off days’ it will not affect her baby in a negative way,” she said.
It’s so easy to get caught up in wanting to do all the right things for your baby, but it’s okay to give yourself a break. Be sure to take care of you. If you can do that by eating and drinking enough to keep yourself energized throughout the day, both you and your baby will reap the benefits.