After spending the last 9 months thinking about what to eat (or let’s face it...what not to eat), many new breastfeeding mamas aren’t aware of their nutritional needs once baby is born. I mean, we all know that we need to eat after the baby is born but what we eat is just as important after the baby arrives as it was before. While pregnant, you were eating to nourish your developing baby and to give yourself enough energy to lug that ever growing baby bump around. Once the baby has made its triumphant debut, a new mama’s nutrition is equally important not only to nourish herself but, if breastfeeding, that of her baby.
Unfortunately, our nutrition and eating habits can take a bit of a back seat when caring for a newborn. The reality is that looking after a newborn is exhausting. Your priority is the baby and your needs are often forgotten. For those new mamas out there, here are a few key things to try to remember to keep yourself as energized and fueled as possible.
Remember to Eat!
If you are exclusively breastfeeding, you require an extra 500 calories per day. That’s the same amount of extra calories needed as in the third trimester of pregnancy. It takes a lot of energy to make the milk that grows your baby and that supports your energy needs at the same time. So until your baby starts solids and you are the sole food provider, you’ll need to keep up with that extra energy intake. And remember, the postpartum period is not the time to cut calories to try to regain your pre-pregnancy figure. If you cut calories, you run the risk of slowing down breast milk production.
How can you ensure you are getting the extra calories you need to support your milk production? First, do not to skip meals. Second, make sure you are supplementing your meals with healthy snacks. Sounds easy enough, right? Right?
Well, the problem in those early days often lies with our energy levels. Taking care of a baby is downright tiring. Who has energy to cook? Or time for that matter? It’s way too easy to forget our own needs when caring for a newborn. You just have keep reminding yourself that your baby needs a well fueled mama who has the ability care for them and to make sufficient and nutritious milk.
Now some of you out there may have thought ahead and stocked your freezer with pre-made meals for when baby arrived. I applaud those of you who had the forethought to do so. If your freezer hasn’t been stockpiled, ask for help with meals (hint - meals make great new baby gifts) or rely on some easy to prepare meals to get you by on those days when your energy is depleted (spaghetti and meat sauce or scrambled eggs for dinner, anyone?). Also be sure to check out local services, such as grocery or meal deliveries, that can make your life easier. These services can be a huge help, especially in those early days.
If you find yourself ravishing between meals or during late night feeds, make sure to have some easy-to-eat snacks around. Even a banana and a glass of milk can make a good, quick snack. Other examples of handy snacks to have around are:
- crackers and cheese
- high fiber granola bars
- unsalted nuts and dried fruit
- hard boiled eggs (you can pre-boil these and have have a few in your fridge for snacking)
- pre-cut veggies and hummus
- peanut butter and apple slices
- Greek yogurt and frozen berries
- dates stuffed with almond butter
- canned tuna or salmon on cucumber slices or whole grain crackers
If needing these extra 500 calories makes you feel overwhelmed, don’t fret too much. Listen to your body’s hunger cues (don’t ignore them!) and eat when you are hungry. The important thing to remember is not to deny yourself of food. This is not the time to restrict your diet or to ignore your body’s request for food. This is the time to nourish yourself and your baby.
Take a Multivitamin
You may have thought that once the baby arrives, you’d be multivitamin free. However, most experts still do recommend continuing to take a prenatal multivitamin while exclusively breastfeeding. Look closely at your prenatal multivitamin, it may very well say postnatal as well. This isn’t just a clever marketing tool to get you to continue to buy vitamins long after your baby bump has disappeared, many vitamins and minerals are actually required at higher levels during lactation. Knowing this, and the fact that our nutrition may take a back seat when taking care of a newborn, a multivitamin can provide your body with a little nutritional boost in case you are missing those extra nutrients in your diet.
We do know that a mother’s vitamin intake does impact the vitamin content of breast milk (that’s why taking a multivitamin is a good thing), however, vitamin D and vitamin K levels are usually at a low concentration in breast milk and not affected by diet as much. Therefore, baby does need an extra boost in these nutrients. This is why baby needs vitamin D drops daily, and a vitamin K shot within the first few hours following birth. We can’t depend on a multivitamin or our diet to pass these vitamins on to our babies.
Even if you are not breastfeeding it may be wise to continue popping a daily multivitamin, as our tendency to neglect our own nutritional needs when baby is teeny tiny is enough to warrant giving ourselves the extra micronutrient boost. You will be tired and energy depleted, independent of whether you are breastfeeding or not. This will affect your ability to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
Around the 6 month mark, as your baby starts to eat solid foods, you can ease off on the prenatal multivite. This could mean stopping it altogether or just switching to a multivitamin formulated for non-pregnant women .
Focus on Iron-Rich Foods
Iron is one of the few nutrients needed at lower levels post-pregnancy. However, iron can still be a nutrient of concern for many new mamas. The Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA, for iron is 9 mg/day for breastfeeding, non-menstruating women and 18 mg/d for those menstruating women, whether breastfeeding or not.
I’m going to be honest here. You’re gonna lose blood after the baby is born. Whether this is from the delivery itself or just from the normal postpartum bleeding, blood and much needed iron will be lost. Considering that many women have low iron stores during pregnancy, postpartum women are at risk for iron deficiency anemia and should be focusing on including iron-rich foods to help support building up hemoglobin levels in their blood.
Iron-rich foods include animal proteins (e.g. meat, fish, poultry, organ meats) which are well absorbed by the body and the less efficiently absorbed plant-sourced iron such as lentils, spinach, dried fruits and soy (hint: to increase absorption of plant-based iron, eat it with vitamin C). For a more complete list of iron rich foods check this resource out.
Essentially, make sure you are including some of these iron-rich foods every day (or every meal for that matter). Now doing this doesn’t need mean having to eat 6 oz steaks three times a day. It could simply look like this:
- Breakfast: cream of wheat with raisins and almond slivers
- Morning snack: hummus with red bell peppers
- Lunch: spinach omelette with tomato slices
- Afternoon snack: tuna with crackers
- Dinner: spaghetti with ground beef (or tomato-lentil) sauce
If you are wondering if taking that prenatal multivitamin will help out in the iron department, it will. Typical prenatal multivites usually contain 27 mg of iron, which is above the needs of a lactating women. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to try to get eat some iron-rich foods anyway as many of those same foods are also great sources of protein (i.e. meat, lentils, eggs, fish) and you do need extra protein when you are lactating. If you are worried about the possibility of getting too much iron from the prenatal multivite, 27 mg of iron is well below the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), or the highest nutrient intake level that is likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects.
If you were known to have iron deficiency anemia during pregnancy, it’s best to continue monitoring this with your healthcare provider and take any iron supplements as prescribed.
Babies grow at an amazing rate, as evident by the astounding rate they outgrow their clothes, right? This growth needs calories, many of which are needed as calories from fat. While the amount of fat in breast milk won’t change significantly with your dietary choices, the types of fat it contains does. We want to focus on eating healthy fats, including lots of omega-3s. Omega-3 fats, and specifically that of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), are important for infant brain and eye development.
Aim for at least two servings of fatty fish (salmon, trout, herring, sardine, and mackerel) per week. For those of you who can’t fathom having fish twice a week, this could simply mean having barbecued trout for dinner and one sandwich made with canned salmon for lunch each week.
If you are wondering if you still need to be avoid high mercury fish while breastfeeding, you do. For more info on this, check here.
In addition to having fish a couple of times a week (because this is the best source of omega-3s for the body), you can also enjoy some plant sources from of omega-3s from ground flaxseed or flax oil, walnuts and soybeans. Notice that I said “in addition”, as plant-sourced omega-3s contain the precursor to the omega-3s that we really want and our body only has a limited ability to convert them to the form we desire most. However, if you are vegetarian or vegan, these are the omega 3s you want to focus on.
If you just can’t bring yourself to have fish twice weekly, you can take an omega-3 fish oil supplement. Experts recommend fish oil supplement doses to 1 gram of fish oil/day to simulate that of eating two servings of fish per week. If you are going to take a supplement, go with a trusted brand making sure that it is free of mercury and other contaminants.
Calcium and Vitamin D
While the calcium content in your breast milk isn’t influenced by your diet, your body does take calcium from your bones to provide a consistent amount of calcium in your milk. So much so that your bone density during lactation decreases. Don’t worry though, your bone density will be reestablished once you’ve stopped breastfeeding. Taking this into consideration, it is very important that you have some good sources of calcium and vitamin D (which helps with the absorption of calcium) in your diet.
During the breastfeeding period, you need 1000 mg calcium per day. This can be achieved by having about three servings of dairy foods (milk, cheese, yogurt) per day. While dairy is a very good source of calcium, in both its concentration and bioavailability, there are plenty of other non-dairy sources of calcium available such as fortified milk alternatives (soy, rice, almond milk), dark leafy greens, tofu (prepared with calcium sulfate), salmon or sardines (with bones), and almonds. These sources of calcium aren’t as easily absorbed by our body but do provide us with some of this valuable mineral. Check out this resource for more details about calcium-rich foods.
As mentioned above, vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium. During lactation we need about 600 IU (International Units) of vitamin D. While we can get some vitamin D from the sunlight, many people do not get the sun exposure needed to supply their body with enough of this “sunshine vitamin”. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified milk or milk alternatives, egg yolks, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines. If you are taking a multivitamin, it will also likely contain vitamin D (probably about 400 IU) and together with a few of these foods you should be able to provide your body with enough vitamin D.
Fluid and Fiber
Fluid and fiber should be your two favourite “F-words” after baby is born. Why you ask? Constipation is very common during the postpartum period. There's a reason most hospitals send new mamas home with stool softeners (take them!). Whether from the use of epidurals or just from the trauma our undercarriage suffers during childbirth, you very well may suffer from an inability to have a proper bowel movement in those first few days. For some women, the first bowel movement after baby is born can be a frightening experience. This is why you need to have enough fiber and fluids in your diet, along with taking those stool softeners you were sent home with. You certainly want to make your first bathroom visits as easy as possible.
So, how can you ensure you are getting enough fiber? Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts and seeds are the answer. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of what to look for in those foods:
- Bread: choose whole grain bread, the more seeds the better.
- Cold Cereals: one word - bran
- Hot Cereals: oatmeal or oat bran, top with dried fruit and nuts for extra fiber
- Grains: choose brown rice, whole wheat pasta, pot barley, quinoa, or millet.
- Legumes: aim for vegetarian meals using black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and/or lentils a few times per week
- Fruits: aim for at least three servings or pieces of fruit per day
- Vegetables: Include a variety of veggies at both lunch and dinner, aim for ½ your plate
- Nuts and seeds: use as salad toppers, on yogurt or just alone as a snack
While there are no specific recommendations for how much fluid to drink during the breastfeeding period, you will need to keep hydrated. You should be drinking to thirst, which essentially means listening to your body's thirst signals. You’ll likely need at last 1.5 to 2 L of fluid per day, or more. For most breastfeeding women this isn’t at all a challenge, as you will be thirsty, very thirsty at times. And this is good because along with fiber, fluid keeps your bowels moving.
Don't skip meals and don’t ignore hunger.
Emphasize whole foods, including lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains and proteins.
Aim for fatty fish (salmon, trout, sardines, herring, mackerel) twice a week.
Continue taking a multivitamin, at least until baby starts eating solids consistently.
Take care of your bowels with plenty of fiber and fluids.