What to eat while breastfeeding

You know breast milk is the best food for your baby, but what about your own nutrition during breastfeeding? We quizzed a dietitian on what to eat while breastfeeding

Nutrition for mums during breastfeeding
Medela Expert Priya Tew
Priya Tew, UK-based registered dietitian :
An award-winning nutrition professional with a degree in nutritional sciences and a Masters in dietetics, Priya is registered with the British Dietetic Association and the Health and Care Professions Council. A mum of three, she breastfed each of her children until they were around 18 months old.

You don’t need a special diet during breastfeeding, but what you eat does need to be nutritionally balanced. That means plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grains such as oats, brown rice, and cereals and breads labelled ‘wholegrain’, ‘wholemeal’ or ‘wholewheat’. These foods, as well as potatoes, pasta and couscous, are also high in starch, an important source of energy.

You need lean protein too – good sources include chicken, eggs, pulses, lentils, fish and lean beef – and healthy fats, found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. Oily fish is good for your health and your baby’s development, but you shouldn’t have more than two portions – around 140 g (5 oz) – of oily fish (or more than one portion of swordfish, shark or marlin) a week, as these may contain pollutants.1

Do I need to take any breastfeeding vitamins?

Vitamin D is key. It’s essential for healthy bones, for both you and your baby, and we get most of it from sun exposure. If you live somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of sunshine, especially during winter, your body may struggle to make enough vitamin D so supplements are recommended2 – your healthcare professional can advise you.

You should also ensure you’re getting enough calcium, as this is depleted when breastfeeding.3 Aim for four servings a day from dairy foods, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese, or non-dairy sources, including nuts, tofu, sesame seeds and leafy green vegetables. A serving could be half a cup of green veggies or a small 50 g (1.5 oz) piece of cheese.

Are there any foods to avoid while breastfeeding?

The good news is, apart from limiting how much oily fish you eat, there aren’t any specific foods to avoid when breastfeeding your baby. Caffeine and alcohol are also fine, within sensible limits – read on for more advice on this below.

And unless you are allergic to peanuts yourself, there is no reason to avoid peanut-based foods while breastfeeding. In fact, the latest research suggests that if you eat peanuts while breastfeeding and introduce them to your infant’s diet within his first year, he is less likely to develop a sensitivity to them.4

Do I need extra calories when breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding mums need around 500 more calories a day than non-breastfeeding mums,5 but every woman is different, and your energy needs will change during your breastfeeding journey. The amount of calories you require will depend on your baby’s age, size and appetite, as well as your own body mass index (BMI), how active you are, and factors such as whether your baby is exclusively breastfed or not, or if you’re feeding twins or multiples.

Can I diet during breastfeeding?

It’s not a good idea to try to lose lots of weight while breastfeeding – you need to make sure you’re getting the nutrients that you and your baby need. The fat you gain in pregnancy is used to make breast milk, so breastfeeding will help you to lose any weight you’ve put on.

If you notice your weight creeping up or dropping by more than around 1 kg (2.2 lb) a week, ask yourself if you’re getting a healthy, balanced diet, adjust it if you need to, and talk to your healthcare professional if you want more advice.

How can I find time to prepare healthy food?

It’s tempting to focus on feeding your baby rather than yourself, but you need to make sure you’re not just fuelling up on biscuits and sweets. It’s understandable, but it’s not going to do your body any favours.

Go for quick, nutritious, meals such as scrambled eggs with spinach, or chicken stir fry with brown rice. Porridge is brilliant in the morning because it gives you a slow release of energy from the oats and soluble fibre – if you’ve been breastfeeding at night you need to replenish your energy levels.

Have chopped fruit and vegetables in the fridge ready for quick snacks or keep a bag of unsalted nuts in your changing bag. Both are easier than trying to peel a satsuma one-handed when breastfeeding!

Do I need more water when breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding can make you feel thirsty, so it’s important to keep well hydrated. Everyone should be aiming for six to eight glasses of fluid a day – even more when breastfeeding.6 As a rule, sip a glass of water, milk or unsweetened fruit juice whenever you’re feeding your baby.

I love coffee: Do I need to avoid caffeine?

As with anything you eat or drink, caffeine does get through to your breast milk – so you’re advised to limit your intake while breastfeeding. Official recommendations on caffeine limits vary from country to country, but most advise not having more than 200 to 300 mg (0.007 to 0.01 oz) of caffeine a day (300 mg is equivalent to two mugs of filtered coffee or four mugs of tea). Talk to your healthcare professional about what’s right for you. Don’t forget, caffeine is found in colas and energy drinks too, and there can be up to 50 mg (0.002 oz) in a small bar of plain chocolate.7

Can I drink alcohol while breastfeeding?

Many breastfeeding mums choose to stop drinking alcohol. However, occasional light drinking while breastfeeding has not been shown to have any adverse effects on babies.8 Alcohol is best avoided until your baby is over three months old, though, and then enjoyed as an occasional treat, such as a small (125 ml/4.2 fl oz) glass of wine.

If you do have an alcoholic drink, make sure you allow at least a couple of hours for the alcohol to go through your system before your next breastfeed.9 Alternatively, you could have a small drink while you’re actually breastfeeding your baby, as by the time the alcohol is in your system, he will have finished feeding. Or for total peace of mind, if you’re planning to have an alcoholic drink you could express and store milk beforehand and give that to your baby for his next feed.

Bear in mind that alcohol can temporarily reduce your milk yield,8 so if you do have a drink your baby may seem hungrier and want to feed more.

If I eat adventurously, will my baby be a less fussy eater?

Your breast milk carries the flavour of the foods you eat.10 So by enjoying a varied breastfeeding diet and exposing your baby to different tastes, he might end up liking those flavours later down the line.

If you like spicy dishes, there’s no reason to avoid them when breastfeeding either. When I had my first child, I ate a lot of spicy food. I took her to Sri Lanka when she was two and – although this may be a coincidence – she ate everything!

Is something I’m eating disagreeing with my baby?

Young babies are often fussy or gassy, and mums naturally wonder if this is caused by something they’ve eaten. Chances are it isn’t. Research suggests the proportion of infants who are allergic to something in their mother’s breast milk is only a little over 1%.11 Cow’s milk, egg, corn, or soya proteins in their mum’s diet are the most common allergy culprits, rather than the spicy foods, hot sauce or cruciferous veg that mums sometimes worry will cause a reaction.

If your baby is allergic to something in your milk, this could cause excessive vomiting, a rash, blood in their stools or persistent congestion. If your baby has a food intolerance, you’re likely to notice symptoms such as fussiness or crying after a feed, reflux, explosive stools and bringing his knees up to his chest. Seek a healthcare professional’s advice if you suspect something is wrong. They may advise you to cut out a particular food for a couple of weeks, then reintroduce it to see if there’s any difference in your baby.

You could also keep a food diary: write down everything you eat and drink and any symptoms in your baby, and you might see patterns. Remember, always seek advice from a healthcare professional before eliminating a food group, such as dairy, as you need to make sure you’re getting the nutrients it provides from other sources. You may be referred to a dietitian or other specialist, depending on where you live.

Will being vegetarian affect my breast milk?

As long as you’re eating enough calories and are getting all the nutrition your body needs –carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals – you should be fine. Those on a vegetarian and vegan diet while breastfeeding should make sure they’re getting plenty of vitamin vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids, so choose foods or supplements that will keep you topped up with these vital nutrients.

If you are on a vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic or other special diet you might want to seek additional advice from your healthcare professional to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you and your baby need.

References

1 National Health Service (NHS) [Internet]. Burnley, UK: Department of Health; 2018. Should pregnant and breastfeeding women avoid some types of fish?; 2015 Jul 06 [cited 2018 Apr 12]; Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/should-pregnant-and-breastfeeding-women-avoid-some-types-of-fish.aspx

2 Oberhelman SS et al. Maternal vitamin D supplementation to improve the vitamin D status of breast-fed infants: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013;88(12):1378–1387. 

3 Thomas M, Weisman SM. Calcium supplementation during pregnancy and lactation: effects on the mother and the fetus. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2006;194(4):937-945. 

4 Pitt et al. Reduced risk of peanut sensitization following exposure through breast-feeding and early peanut introduction. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2018;141(2):620-625.e1

5 Dewey KG. Energy and protein requirements during lactation. Annu Rev Nutr. 1997 Jul;17(1):19-36.

6 Food Standards Agency (FSA) [Internet]. London, UK:Crown copyright 2002. Eating for breastfeeding; [cited 2018 Apr 13]; Available from: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/multimedia/pdfs/board/life02breastfeeding1109.pdf

7 National Health Service (NHS) [Internet]. Burnley, UK: Department of Health; 2018. Breastfeeding and diet; 2016 Jan 29 [cited 2018 Apr 12]; Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-diet

8 Haastrup MB et al. Alcohol and breastfeeding. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2014;114(2):168-173. 

9 HealthyChildren.org [Internet]. Itasca, IL, USA: American Academy of Pediatrics;2017. Alcohol & Breastmilk; 2015 Nov 21 [cited 2018 Apr 13]. Available from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/Pages/Alcohol-Breast-Milk.aspx

10 Mennella JA et al. Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics. 2001;107(6):e88.

11 Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. ABM clinical protocol# 24: allergic proctocolitis in the exclusively breastfed infant. Breastfeed Med. 2011;6(6).