How does nutrition affect breast milk for nursing mothers, and is there anything you should or shouldn’t east when nursing? Here’s what the latest research says about breast feeding nutrition and how you can optimize your breast milk for your little one.
Breast milk is often called ‘the perfect food’, and for good reason. It provides all the nutrition infants need for the first 6 months of life, as well as other benefits, such as antibodies to protect against disease and infection, immune cells, and good bacteria. Research even shows that a mother’s milk will change to meet a growing infant’s needs, and can respond to illness in the infant. Providing life, nourishment, and protection to a tiny human for months? Take a moment to let it sink in how amazing mothers’ bodies are. However, research is severely lacking in the nutrient composition of breast milk and how a mother’s diet can change the nutrients found in her milk.
Why Does The Mother’s Nutrition Matter?
While some people will say that diet has nothing to do with breast milk (after all, people living in impoverished countries rely on breast milk to nourish their babies), diet does, in fact play an important role in making breast milk as nutrient-rich as possible. Since infants receive all of their nutrition from breast milk, the milk needs to contain all of the essential nutrients they need to grow and develop properly. The human brain grows and develops the most rapidly during the first 1000 days of life, from conception to approximately the second year of age, so it’s important that infants receive adequate amounts of essential nutrients during this time, including protein, polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, zinc, copper iodine, choline, folate and vitamins A, B6, and B12. Moms can help by ensuring they’re consuming the proper nutrients. Here’s what the current research says about diet and breast feeding.
Nutrition For Breast Feeding Moms
Take In Enough Food And Water
First things first. Your body needs enough energy to produce milk for that sweet little babe. Breastfeeding mothers need roughly 500 extra calories per day, as well as increased nutrients, so it’s important to take in enough food to support your needs. (That means NOT dieting to try to lose weight!). I’ll get into specific nutrient and food group recommendations later.
You’ll also be super thirsty while breastfeeding because of the obvious – a lot of your fluids are leaving your body in the form of milk to your baby. Breast feeding also increases oxytocin levels, which stimulates thirst. Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration and to optimize milk supply. Drink to satisfy thirst, keep a water bottle or glass of water handy, and eat plenty of hydrating foods, like watermelon, cucumbers, citrus fruit, and soups. You can tell if you’re dehydrated by paying attention to your urine – if it’s dark in color or has a strong smell, you probably need to drink more water.
Eat A Variety Of Nutrient-Dense Foods
On a broad scale, you need a balance of macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat (not only while breast feeding, but all the time). Getting more specifically into micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) there are two classes of nutrients, Group 1 and Group 2.
Group 1 nutrients found in breast milk are dependent on the mother’s intake, so if mom is deficient, her breast milk will be too, making baby more at risk of a deficiency. This means mom must get enough of these nutrients in her diet for her milk to supply adequate nutrition to baby. Not only are many of these nutrients critical for baby’s brain development, they’re also important for mom, for maintaining energy (which you’ll need a lot of!) and proper functioning. Group 1 nutrients are:
- B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, B6, and B12): Found largely in animal foods such as meat, dairy, and seafood, as well as nuts and fortified breads and cereals.
- Choline: Also found mostly in animal foods, mainly in eggs, beef, and chicken, also in some plant foods like mushrooms, beans, and peanuts
- Vitamin A: Found in orange-colored foods like sweet potatoes and carrots, leafy greens, and eggs.
- Vitamin D: Found in fatty fish, mushrooms, and fortified milk and orange juice
- Selenium: found in seafood, whole wheat, nuts and seeds
- Iodine: found in seafood, milk, and table salt
Group 2 nutrients will be supplied to breast milk regardless of mom’s intake. However, if the mother’s intake is low, the body will take what it needs from her body stores (in her bones and tissues) to supply enough in the milk, which can leave mom deficient and lead to health problems. Group 2 nutrients are:
- Folate: Found in beans, leafy greens, and avocado
- Calcium: Found in dairy products and leafy greens
- Iron: found in red meat, seafood, beans, whole grains, and leafy greens
- Copper: Found in shellfish, grains, nuts, and beans
- Zinc: found in animal foods, beans, and nuts
As you can see, it’s important to consume a variety of food to get the nutrients you and baby need into breast milk and to keep your own stores maintained. Focus on nutrient-dense foods like meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fruit and vegetables. As a safety net, I personally continue to take a prenatal or postnatal multivitamin while breast feeding. (I love this one by New Chapter).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
An area of research that has been a major focus is the importance of the omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in the development of baby’s brain, central nervous system, and vision. These fatty acids are found mostly in seafood, so it’s recommended that both pregnant and breast feeding mothers eat 2 servings of fish per week to get enough. Be sure to choose low-mercury sources of seafood, such as salmon, shrimp, cod, sardines, pollock, crab, scallops, and low mercury canned tuna, such as skipjack. If you’re vegan or don’t like seafood, you should consider a supplement that contains about 300 mg of DHA per day, such as fish oil (and you’ll probably need other supplements, too).
Even though vitamin D is provided in breastmilk from the diet, it’s rarely enough to meet infants’ needs, especially if mom isn’t exposed to much sunlight. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends all breastfed babies receive a supplement of 400IU of vitamin D (in the form of drops) daily.
Caffeine and Alcohol
Let’s be honest, coffee and wine get a lot of moms through the day. But are they safe? Caffeine does make it’s way into breast milk, but at a much lower rate than the amount you consume. A moderate amount of caffeine daily is safe (about 300mg), but if you notice that your baby gets cranky or fussy after you’ve had caffeine, you might experiment with reducing the amount you drink.
Alcohol in breast milk will match the amount in the mother’s blood. As a general rule, it takes 1-2 hours for mom’s body (and therefore, milk) to clear one standard alcoholic drink. So if you choose to drink, you should wait at least 2 hours for each alcoholic drink consumed before you breastfeed your babe. It’s not necessary to ‘pump and dump’ unless you’re feeling uncomfortable, engorged, or are at risk for clogged ducts/mastitis.
Hopefully this has helped clear some confusion on diet and breast feeding for you if you’re a nursing (or soon to be nursing) mother. While I don’t ever want to stress you out more about feeding your little one, diet does make a difference. The bottom line? A varied and nutrient-dense diet will optimize your milk supply for baby and keep you healthy and energized, too, so make sure you’re fueling your body and honoring your hunger, mama!