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Breastfeeding Diet: What You Should Eat (and Avoid) While Nursing

Did you know your breastfeeding diet can directly affect your milk composition? Here’s a rundown of what to eat (and what to avoid) while breastfeeding.

Did you know your breastfeeding diet can directly affect your milk composition? Here's a rundown of what to eat (and what to avoid) while breastfeeding.

No deli meat! Beware of tuna! Stay away from sprouts! As mamas, we’re often drilled by our doctors or midwives about what we can (and can’t) eat while pregnant, but what about after we give birth? Turns out, as a nursing mama, there are certain foods and nutrients that are extra important—and some that are better avoided altogether. In this post, we’ll break down everything you need to know about a great breastfeeding diet, including:

  • The best foods to eat while breastfeeding
  • Foods to avoid while breastfeeding
  • How many calories is the best breastfeeding diet?
  • Plus, is it safe to lose weight while breastfeeding?

Why the Right Breastfeeding Diet Is So Important

During pregnancy, baby takes everything it needs from its mother via the placenta—even if mom doesn’t have enough to begin with! Bottom line being: Pregnancy is tough on the body and can leave many pregnant women and new moms nutritionally depleted and drained. In fact, one doctor out of Australia believes it takes 10 years for a mom to recover!

Breastfeeding Diet: Foods to Eat While Breastfeeding

So it’s vital that a mom replenishes and restores her nutrient levels for the sake of herself and her baby. Here are some things to focus on when looking at your breastfeeding diet:

Focus on superfoods

Go for foods with a big bang for you buck! Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include:

  • Liver (I know, not the easiest to choke down. Try this liver lasagna that masks the taste.)
    • High in all B vitamins, iron, and zinc. These are critical nutrients that can be depleted during pregnancy and childbirth
  • Salmon
    • High in omega 3’s, protein and antioxidants
  • Eggs (be sure to include the yolk!)
    • High in choline for baby’s brain, DHA, vitamin A
  • Leafy greens like spinach and kale
    • High in magnesium, which is depleted during stress, and other trace minerals. Think of what cows eat… greens! And they are huge milk producers!
  • Berries like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
    • High in antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber
  • Quinoa, millet and oats
    • Great non-gluten grains that are high in magnesium, phosphorus, and folate. Good for breast milk production too!
  • Seaweed like kelp
    • One of the best sources of micro-minerals like iodine
  • Root vegetables like carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, yams
    • High in antioxidants, beta carotene, and healthy carbs

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Important Nutrients that Reach Your Baby

Science is still uncovering the incredible benefits of breast milk, but we do know from studies that the following components reach your breast milk, and therefore, your baby. It’s important to flood your diet with a steady stream of these nutrients to nourish you and your little one.

Calcium

Got milk? Calcium is critical for baby’s brain function, muscle contraction, and skeletal development. It is also a soothing mineral and may help sleep. 

Studies show that moms who consume calcium-rich foods, such as dairy, produce milk with higher calcium content. Unfortunately, some babies react to dairy proteins in breast milk and develop gas, reflux, and/or other digestive issues, which disappear once dairy is eliminated from the mom’s diet. Always start with dairy in your diet and watch for any reactions. You can try goat or sheep dairy, as these tend to be less allergenic. Only eliminate dairy if baby experiences issues. (Most moms can go back to dairy when baby is 6 months of age and their digestive system is more robust.)

What to eat: Fermented products like yogurt and kefir are great dairy options that are easier to digest. Non-dairy choices could include almonds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, beans, and lentils.

Iron

Breast milk is notoriously low in iron and this is why delayed cord clamping is so important! But the iron found in breast milk is easily absorbed and assimilated by baby. Having said that, if a mom suffered from anemia while pregnant, or has a history of anemia, she’ll want to first boost her intake of iron-rich foods, or possibly supplement. Babies need iron for red blood cell formation, oxygen dispersement and proper brain development.

What to eat: Red meat and liver from animals like beef, lamb and bison are incredible sources of iron. While there are also a number of plant-based sources of iron, like dark, leafy greens, these aren’t as readily absorbed by the body. To help with absorption, consume with vitamin C-rich foods (citrus or red bell peppers, for example), camu camu powder or plant-based capsules.

If you need supplemental iron due to anemia or avoidance of meat, you can try the Blood Builder supplement. 

Vitamin A

This nutrient plays an important role in vision, immunity, and development of the nervous system and bone structure. And studies show that a mother’s breastfeeding diet directly affects levels of vitamin A in breast milk. 

What to eat: Be sure to eat plenty of egg yolks, liver, and fatty fish like salmon, and a daily dose of cod liver oil. Some people can also convert beta carotene — a plant-based form vitamin A found in carrots and sweet potatoes — into vitamin A, but research shows that the conversion from beta carotene to vitamin A isn’t always predictable so it’s a good idea to consider daily cod liver oil to bridge the gap.

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is essential for proper red blood cell formation, brain function, and DNA synthesis. Studies suggest including vitamin B12 in your breastfeeding diet is crucial to ensure your milk has plenty of this important nutrient. 

What to eat: Red meat, eggs, liver, clams, and sardines are all great ways to ensure you’re getting plenty of vitamin B12. Dairy products and eggs are also good sources. Nutritional yeast flakes are a vegan option.

Vitamin C

In addition to being an excellent antioxidant, vitamin C is essential for proper brain development and function, as well as tissue function. Studies suggest levels of vitamin C in breast milk are directly correlated to a mother’s breastfeeding diet. To get the most benefit, research suggests mothers need at least 500 mg per day. 

What to eat: Great sources of this vitamin include citrus fruits, kiwi, broccoli, and camu camu powder. (Psst! Just one teaspoon of this camu camu powder has a whopping 682 mg of vitamin C!)

Vitamin D

Unlike vitamin C, vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that helps your baby’s gut absorb calcium. Vitamin D also helps boosts  overall immunity.

Because some studies have found that even well-nourished nursing mothers do not pass on enough vitamin D, many pediatricians recommend supplementing nursing babies with 400 IU of vitamin D. (Note: this supplementation is not needed for bottle-fed babies since formula already contains vitamin D.)

The biggest concern is for breastfeeding mothers who live in Northern climates with winter babies; however, according to a study published in Pediatrics, breastfeeding moms can supplement themselves at 6400 IUs daily, and this will reach baby at sufficient levels (i.e. the same as if they give the baby directly 400 IUs). This is how I prefer to “supplement” my child to be sure she’s getting enough of this nutrient.

What to eat: Salmon and sardines (with bones), whole milk, cod liver oil and fortified plant milks contain vitamin D.

DHA

Docosahexaenoic acid is an omega-3 that plays a crucial role in the proper development of brain, skin, and eyes. It’s also key for healthy immune function. In studies, women who supplemented with DHA had much higher concentrations of the polyunsaturated fatty acid than those who didn’t.

Surprisingly, a 2013 study in Nutrients revealed that children supplemented with DHA scored higher in both learning and behavior tests! DHA might also help your babies sleep better!

What to eat: Try adding sardines and wild-caught salmon into your diet a few times each week. If you don’t love seafood, consume DHA-enriched eggs regularly and supplement with cod liver oil. For vegans, you can try algae-based DHA.

Other Important Things To Consider…

Probiotics

Research proves that breastfeeding “profoundly influences the infant gut microbiota.” And further research suggests that maternal probiotic supplementation can help promote proper gut function and a healthy immune system in both you and baby. Certain probiotic strains have been linked to lower incidences of crying, colic and food allergies.

What to eat: Eat plenty of fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt. Or,  take high-quality probiotic supplements.

Magnesium

Magnesium has been linked to proper muscle development and reduced risk of SIDS, but this nutrient can also offer baby digestive support. It is particularly helpful if your baby is constipated. Because our magnesium levels are correlated to stress, many new moms are deficient in this. I had to take 600 mg a day of magnesium to keep my daughter’s bowels regular (i.e. a daily bowel movement!).

What to eat: Try magnesium-rich foods like spinach, pumpkin seeds, black beans, and brown rice. You can also try a magnesium supplement. 

Healthy fats

Healthy fats provide sustaining energy for both mama and baby. In fact, this is the best macronutrient for baby’s rapid brain and neurological development in the first year of life. And good news: Studies show that simply changing the fat content in your breastfeeding diet can improve the quality of your milk in just four days. 

What to eat: Try wild-caught fish, nuts/seeds, avocado, whole dairy and cod liver oil.

Healthy carbs

Although low-carb diets (like keto) are in the spotlight right now, healthy carbohydrates are important for nursing mothers. Carbs like whole grains are especially beneficial for breast milk production. In fact, pro-lactation recipes for oat milk or barley water have been passed on for generations!

What to eat: Whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa are wonderful at producing copious amounts of breast milk. I always tell moms to eat like a cow … grains and greens for boosting milk supply!

What About Common Food Allergens?

Surprised to see this on the list of foods you should include in your breastfeeding diet? Though healthcare providers used to recommend pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid highly allergenic foods to prevent food allergies in babies, the advice has done a complete 180. New research says including allergens in a pregnancy diet or breastfeeding diet is actually vital for preventing food allergies in infants and kids. 

What to eat: Rotate highly allergenic foods, like eggs, cow’s milk, wheat, and peanuts. 

A word on dairy: Some babies are so reactive to dairy. If your baby is excessively fussy or spitting up all the time, eliminate dairy to see if that helps. Slowly reintroduce periodically to test baby’s tolerance. If baby simply can’t stomach dairy, an allergy prevention program like Ready, Set, Food! can help ensure they’re exposed to the allergen in a safe, effective way.

Breastfeeding Diet: Foods to Avoid While Breastfeeding

Of course, there are also some foods and beverages you should not include in a breastfeeding diet. The following items should be consumed in moderation (if at all) when on a breastfeeding diet:

  • Hydrogenated oils
  • Junk food
  • Processed sugar
  • White flour
  • Soft drinks
  • Caffeine (in excess)
  • Alcohol (though an occasional drink is probably fine when timed right)

Though not food, cigarettes and drugs should obviously also be avoided while breastfeeding. If you require prescription medication, check this website to see if it’s safe to take while breastfeeding and consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.

There are also some foods and herbs that should be avoided while nursing, because they are thought to decrease milk supply (antigalactagogues). Remember that if your supply dips too low, it could trigger a nursing strike. Foods and herbs to avoid include:

  • black walnut
  • chickweed
  • herb Robert
  • lemon Balm
  • oregano
  • parsley
  • peppermint
  • periwinkle herb
  • sage
  • sorrel
  • spearmint
  • thyme
  • yarrow

Note: Moderate use in recipes or occasional teas probably won’t compromise your supply.

How Many Calories Should a Breastfeeding Mom Eat?

Proper nutrition is vital for moms who plan to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is no joke—in fact, it’s like the equivalent of running an hour every day. Without proper nourishment from real, whole foods, your body simply can’t keep up with the demands, and this can lead to fatigue, as well as supply issues. 

That said, an exclusively breastfeeding mama needs plenty of food—at least 500 extra calories per day if your baby is exclusively breastfeeding.

Listen to your body and the signals it’s giving you. Eat when you’re hungry and hydrate constantly (if you’re thirsty, you’re already falling behind on water consumption).

Is It Safe to Diet While Breastfeeding?

Many women do naturally lose weight while breastfeeding, since breastfeeding requires so many calories. However, actively dieting while breastfeeding is not a good idea. 

Restricting calories (especially during the first six months of your baby’s life) isn’t ideal. A breastfeeding diet that is too restrictive, particularly one under 1,500 calories at the absolute bare minimum, can potentially affect milk supply.

A word of advice

If you’re concerned about losing that pregnancy weight, try to remember that your body just performed one of the greatest miracles. It took more than nine months for baby to grow and it’s perfectly normal for it to take as many as nine more months to find your new normal.

 

Genevieve Howland

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 85,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

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