The foods you eat while breastfeeding are important for your health and your baby’s health. Salmon, chia seeds, and butternut squash are a few nutritious foods you can try as you breastfeed.

You’ve probably heard that breastfeeding is super healthy for your baby, but did you know that breastfeeding has benefits for your health as well?

Breastfeeding may help reduce your risk of developing certain medical conditions later in life, including heart disease and diabetes. It may also relieve stress and help you feel more connected to your new baby.

Plus, breast milk is chock-full of nutrients and protective compounds that are essential for your baby’s development.

Nutrient-dense foods help support your breast milk production. Eating healthy foods postpartum may also help you feel better both mentally and physically — and who doesn’t want that? Sign us up.

In addition to promoting your overall health, a healthy diet is essential for ensuring that your baby is getting all the nutrients they need to thrive.

With the exception of vitamin D, breast milk contains everything your baby needs for proper development during the first 6 months.

But if your overall diet does not provide enough nutrients, it can affect both the quality of your breast milk and your health.

Breast milk consists of 87% water, 7% carbohydrate, 3.8% fat, and 1% protein and provides 65–75 calories per 100-milliliter portion.

Unlike baby formula, breast milk varies in calorie content and composition. Your breast milk changes during each feeding and throughout your lactation period to meet your baby’s needs.

At the beginning of a feeding, the milk is more watery and usually quenches your baby’s thirst. The milk that comes later (hindmilk) is thicker, higher in fat, and more nutritious.

In fact, according to an older 2005 study, this milk may contain 2–3 times as much fat as milk from the beginning of a feeding and 7–11 more calories per ounce.

Therefore, to get to the most nutritious milk, it’s important that your baby empties one breast before switching to the other.

There’s a reason your hunger levels may be at an all-time high when you’re breastfeeding. Creating breast milk is demanding on your body and requires extra overall calories and larger amounts of specific nutrients.

In fact, health experts estimate that your energy needs during breastfeeding increase by about 500 calories per day.

Your needs for the following nutrients also increase:

This is why eating a variety of nutrient-dense, whole foods is so important for your health and your baby’s health. Choosing foods rich in the above nutrients can help ensure that you get all the macro- and micronutrients you and your little one need.

Here are some nutritious and delicious food choices you can aim to prioritize when breastfeeding:

  • Fish and seafood: salmon, seaweed, shellfish, sardines
  • Meat and poultry: chicken, beef, lamb, pork, organ meats (such as liver)
  • Fruits and vegetables: berries, tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, kale, garlic, broccoli
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed
  • Healthy fats: avocados, olive oil, coconut, eggs, full-fat yogurt
  • Fiber-rich starches: potatoes, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, oats, quinoa, buckwheat
  • Other foods: tofu, dark chocolate, kimchi, sauerkraut

But you’re not limited to these foods.

Also, while enjoying your fave foods on occasion is healthy, it’s best to reduce your intake of highly processed foods such as fast food and sugary breakfast cereals as much as possible.

For example, if you’re used to starting your day with a big bowl of brightly colored breakfast cereal, you can try swapping it with a bowl of oatmeal topped with berries, unsweetened coconut, and a dollop of nut butter for a filling and healthy fuel source.

The nutrients in breast milk can be categorized into two groups, depending on the extent to which they are secreted into your milk.

If you’re low on any group 1 nutrients, they won’t secrete into your breast milk as readily. Supplementing with these nutrients can give a little boost to their concentration in your breast milk and enhance your baby’s health as a result.

(Got questions on vitamin supplements during pregnancy? Check in with your doctor and see the section below.)

On the other hand, the concentration of group 2 nutrients in breast milk does not depend on how much you take in, so supplementing won’t increase your breast milk’s nutrient concentration. Even so, these nutrients can improve your health by replenishing your nutrient stores.

If all of that sounds a little confusing, no worries. Here’s the bottom line: Getting enough group 1 nutrients is important for both you and your baby, and getting enough group 2 nutrients is mostly just important for you.

Group 1 nutrients

Here are the group 1 nutrients and some common food sources of each one:

  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine): fish, pork, seeds, nuts, beans
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin): cheese, almonds, nuts, red meat, oily fish, eggs
  • Vitamin B6: chickpeas, nuts, fish, poultry, potatoes, bananas, dried fruit
  • Vitamin B12: shellfish, liver, yogurt, oily fish, nutritional yeast, eggs, crab, shrimp
  • Choline: eggs, beef liver, chicken liver, fish, peanuts
  • Vitamin A: sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, organ meats, eggs
  • Vitamin D: cod liver oil, oily fish, some mushrooms, fortified foods
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, turkey, whole wheat, seeds
  • Iodine: dried seaweed, cod, milk, iodized salt

Group 2 nutrients

Here are the group 2 nutrients and some common food sources:

  • Folate: beans, lentils, leafy greens, asparagus, avocados
  • Calcium: milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, legumes
  • Iron: red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, green vegetables, dried fruit
  • Copper: shellfish, whole grains, nuts, beans, organ meats, potatoes
  • Zinc: oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, dairy

The concentration of group 2 nutrients in your breast milk is relatively unaffected by your dietary intake and your body’s stores of those nutrients.

So, if your intake is low, your body will take these nutrients from your bone and tissue stores to secrete them into your breast milk.

Your baby will always get the right amount, but your body’s stores will deplete if you don’t consume enough. To avoid deficiencies, you need to get enough of these nutrients from your diet or supplements.

Although a healthy diet is the most important factor in nutrition during breastfeeding, there’s no question that taking supplements can help replenish your stores of certain vitamins and minerals.

There are a number of reasons you might be low in certain nutrients during the postpartum period. You might not be eating enough of the foods that contain those nutrients or meeting the increased energy demands of breast milk production. Plus, your diet may have changed since you’re busy looking after your baby.

Taking supplements can help boost your intake of essential nutrients. But it’s important to be wary when choosing supplements since many contain herbs and other additives that aren’t safe for breastfeeding parents.

We’ve rounded up a list of supplements that are important for breastfeeding parents and for promoting postpartum recovery in general. Always be sure to purchase products from reputable brands that undergo testing by third-party organizations such as NSF and USP.

Multivitamins

A multivitamin can be a great way to increase your intake of important vitamins and minerals.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common after delivery, and research shows that deficiencies affect birthing people in both high income and low income settings.

For this reason, it may be a good idea to take a daily multivitamin, especially if you don’t think you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals through your diet alone.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a super important water-soluble vitamin that’s essential for your baby’s health and your own health during breastfeeding.

Plus, many people — especially those who follow mostly plant-based diets, have had gastric bypass surgery, or take certain medications (such as acid reflux drugs) — are already at an increased risk of having low B12 levels.

If you fit into one of these categories, or if you feel that you don’t eat enough B12-rich foods (such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and fortified foods), then taking a B-complex or B12 supplement is a good idea.

Remember that most high quality multivitamins and prenatal vitamins contain enough B12 to cover your needs.

Omega-3 DHA

Omega-3 fatty acids are all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. These fats, naturally found in fatty fish and algae, play essential roles in both your and your baby’s health.

For example, the omega-3 fat docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is critical for developing your baby’s nervous system, skin, and eyes. And the concentration of this important fat in breast milk largely depends on your intake levels.

What’s more, research shows that babies who consume breast milk with high levels of DHA have better vision and neurodevelopment outcomes.

Because the concentrations of omega-3s in your breast milk reflect your intake of these important fats, it’s essential that you get enough. We recommend that breastfeeding parents take 250–375 milligrams per day of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), another important omega-3 fat.

Although eating 8–12 ounces of fish — especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines — can help you reach the recommended intake levels, taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement is a convenient way to cover your daily needs.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is found in only a few foods, such as fatty fish, fish liver oils, and fortified products. Your body can also produce it with sunlight exposure, though your vitamin D production depends on many factors, such as your skin color and where you live.

This vitamin plays many important roles in your body and is essential for immune function and bone health.

Vitamin D is usually present in only small amounts in breast milk, especially when sun exposure is limited.

Supplementing with 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day is recommended for breastfed babies and babies consuming less than 1 liter of formula per day, starting in the first few days of life and continuing until 12 months of age.

According to a 2015 study, supplementing with 6,400 IU per day can help supply your baby with adequate amounts of vitamin D through breast milk alone. Interestingly, this amount is much higher than the current recommended vitamin D intake of 600 IU for breastfeeding parents.

Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common among people who are breastfeeding. Deficiency can lead to negative health outcomes, including an increased risk of postpartum depression. That’s why supplementing with this vitamin is recommended.

Ask your healthcare professional for specific dosing recommendations based on your current vitamin D levels.

In addition to being hungrier than usual while breastfeeding, you may feel thirstier.

When your baby latches onto your breast, your oxytocin levels increase, causing your milk to start flowing. This also stimulates thirst and helps ensure that you stay hydrated while feeding your baby.

Your hydration needs will vary depending on factors such as your activity levels and dietary intake. There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation for how much fluid you need during breastfeeding.

As a general rule, you should always drink when you’re thirsty and until you’ve quenched your thirst.

But if you feel very tired or faint or think your milk production is decreasing, you may need to drink more water. The best way to tell whether you’re drinking enough water is to pay attention to the color and smell of your urine.

If it’s dark yellow and has a strong smell, that’s a sign that you’re dehydrated and need to drink more water.

Although you may have heard otherwise, it’s safe to eat just about any food while breastfeeding unless you have an allergy to a specific food.

And while some flavors from food, spices, or beverages may change the taste of your breast milk, research shows that those changes are unlikely to affect your baby’s feeding time or make them fussy.

Another common misconception is that “gassy” foods such as cauliflower and cabbage will cause gassiness in your baby too. Although these foods may make you gassy, the gas-promoting compounds do not transfer to breast milk, according to a 2017 research review.

In summary, most foods and drinks are safe during breastfeeding, but there are a few that are best to limit or avoid. If you think something may be negatively affecting your baby, ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Caffeine

About 1% of the caffeine you consume is transferred to breast milk, and babies take much longer to metabolize caffeine than adults do. Drinking caffeinated beverages such as coffee has not been shown to cause harm but may affect your baby’s sleep.

Therefore, health experts recommend limiting your coffee intake to 2–3 cups per day while you’re breastfeeding. It’s a bummer, we know, but at least some coffee is allowed, right?

Alcohol

Alcohol can also make its way into breast milk. The concentration resembles the amount found in the breastfeeding parent’s blood. But babies metabolize alcohol at only half the rate that adults do.

Nursing after drinking just 1–2 drinks can decrease your baby’s milk intake by up to 23% and cause agitation and poor sleep.

Because drinking alcohol too close to breastfeeding can negatively affect your baby’s health, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting your alcohol intake while you’re breastfeeding.

The AAP suggests consuming no more than 0.5 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. For a 60-kilogram (132-pound) person, that equals 2 ounces of liquor, 8 ounces of wine, or 2 beers.

While it’s perfectly fine to enjoy an alcoholic beverage as a breastfeeding parent, it’s best to wait at least 2 hours after drinking to breastfeed your baby.

Cow’s milk

Although it’s uncommon, some babies are allergic to cow’s milk. If your baby has a cow’s milk allergy, it’s important that you exclude all dairy products from your diet.

Up to 1% of breastfed infants have an allergy to cow’s milk protein from the breastfeeding parent’s diet and may develop rashes, eczema, diarrhea, bloody stools, vomiting, or colic.

Your healthcare professional can advise you on how long to exclude dairy from your diet and when it’s safe to reintroduce dairy.

You might be tempted to lose weight quickly after delivery, but weight loss takes time, and it’s important to be kind to your body during this transition.

As a result of the many hormonal changes that take place during breastfeeding and the calorie demands of making breast milk, you may have a bigger appetite during breastfeeding.

Restricting your calorie intake too much, especially during the first few months of breastfeeding, may decrease your milk supply and much-needed energy levels.

Breastfeeding alone has been shown to promote weight loss, especially when continued for 6 months or longer. But weight loss during breastfeeding doesn’t happen for everyone.

Losing about 1.1 pounds (0.5 kilograms) per week through a combination of a healthy diet and exercise should not affect your milk supply or milk composition, assuming that you’re not undernourished to begin with.

All breastfeeding parents, no matter their weight, should consume enough calories. But if your body weight is low, it’s likely that you’ll be more sensitive to calorie restriction.

For this reason, if you have a low body weight, it’s essential consume more calories to avoid a reduction in milk supply.

All in all, remember that losing weight after delivery is a marathon, not a sprint. It took months to put on the weight for a healthy pregnancy for both you and your baby, and it may take you months to lose it — and that’s OK.

The most important thing to remember when trying to lose pregnancy weight is that restrictive diets are not good for overall health and don’t work for long-term weight loss.

Following a nutritious diet, adding exercise into your daily routine, and getting enough sleep are the best ways to promote healthy weight loss.

Breastfeeding is hard work! Your body needs more calories and nutrients to keep you and your baby nourished and healthy.

Eating too few calories or too few nutrient-rich foods can negatively affect the quality of your breast milk and be detrimental to your health.

While you’re breastfeeding, it’s more important than ever to eat a variety of healthy, nutritious foods and limit your intake of highly processed foods. Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol consumption and stick to the recommended intakes to keep your baby healthy.

Talk with your healthcare professional to find out whether you may benefit from taking supplements such as vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. And finally, be patient with your body. Take it one day at a time and remind yourself daily how awesome you are.

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