Sure, you’ve heard breast is best. But have you ever thought about how the food you eat while breastfeeding affects baby? And what about getting rid of the baby weight? Can you diet while still safely nourishing your newborn? Well, we’re here to help you get to the bottom of all your post-pregnancy diet concerns.
To start, there’s good news for your evolving body: Making all that milk means you’re burning about 500 calories a day if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. That’s the equivalent of running about five miles at a good clip—except you can do it from the comfort of your chair while snuggling up with baby! And even better, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you’re supplementing with formula, you’ll still burn through about 300 extra calories a day, says Jessica Cording, a registered dietitian who works with new moms in her New York City practice.
And though it may not feel like it right now, thanks to breastfeeding, you can (and likely will) lose weight. “You do naturally when you’re breastfeeding,” Cording says. “It’s helping the uterus shrink down, your metabolism is firing, and it happens without even having to obsess over calories.” If you’re anxious to slip back into those pre-pregnancy jeans, it’s fine to start watching what you eat. Just beware of overly restrictive diets that sap your energy and, worse, might even mess with your ability to produce the milk baby needs. In one study, women were able to eat as few as 1,500 calories a day without impacting their milk output, but once they dipped below that number their production shrank by 15 percent. “I generally encourage moms to take it slow and steady,” Cording says. “Sometimes if we’re being overly restrictive with our calorie intake, you’re missing out on important nutrients that mom and baby really need.”
Breastfeeding super nutrients you need now
Generally you’ll need about 500 calories more per day to make up for what you burn while breastfeeding, but the best diet for breastfeeding doesn’t just require more calories. Since you now have to share all the vitamins and minerals you eat with baby, maximizing nutrition is the name of the game. Here are the key nutrients you’ll want to incorporate into your daily meals.
Protein You need about 15 more grams of protein than you did before you were pregnant, Cording says. Try this breastfeeding diet tip so you know you’re getting enough: Take your weight, cut it in half and add 15. That’s about how many grams of protein you should aim for each day. Or a simpler strategy is just to include some protein in every meal or snack.
Carbohydrates Now’s not the time to go low-carb, Cording says, especially if you’re short on sleep. Your energy levels and hormones are in a state of flux, and making sure you have some carbohydrates for your body to work with will help you stay more energized. You’ll need about 210 grams a day, or about 60 percent more than before you were pregnant. So make sure your breastfeeding diet includes some type of healthy carb—it could be a fruit, whole grain, veggies, pasta or dairy product—at each meal or snack. And as you probably already know, skip the white carbs and do your best to reach for healthy, higher-fiber carbs that’ll keep you full longer and pack an extra-nutritious punch.
Folic acid You already know how important folic acid is during pregnancy, but it’s just as important for your postpartum diet too. “Your baby is still developing, so those same things are still very important,” Cording says. Breastfeeding moms should aim for .5 mgs per day. A great source: greens like spinach and kale. “It’s kind of a cliché, but these leafy greens are good for just about everything,” Cording says. You’ll also find it in fortified breads and pastas as well as oranges and sesame seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids We often immediately think of fish for omega-3s, which are important for baby’s brain development—but they’re hardly your only source. You can also find these healthy fats in grass-fed beef and dairy, chia seeds, walnuts and free-range eggs. Shoot for 200 to 300 mg of omega-3s per day, or the amount in one to two servings of fish a week. (Just steer clear of high-mercury seafood—see below for more details).
Calcium While you don’t actually need more calcium while you’re breastfeeding, it’s important that you fill your quota of about 1,000 mg. It’s normal to lose about 3 to 5 percent of your bone mass during breastfeeding (don’t worry, it comes back after you wean), but you want to make sure your bones don’t take a bigger hit than they need to. Luckily, unlike baby, you’ve got plenty more options to pick from than milk. Add salmon, sardines (or any fish with little bones in it), broccoli, bok choy and tofu to your breastfeeding diet meal plan.
Iron Most women don’t need extra iron while breastfeeding, but if you lost blood during your delivery or after, you might. Check with your doctor to see how much daily iron he or she recommends. Red meat is the easiest way to get your fill, but vegans and vegetarians have options too. Dried beans, peas and (again) dark leafy greens will all help you get the iron you need with or without meat on the menu.
Breastfeeding foods to put on your watch list
Now that you’ve safely ushered baby into the world, there are fewer no-nos when it comes to what you can eat. So, can you eat sushi while you’re breastfeeding? Yep! If you’ve been craving your weekly fix these past nine months, go ahead and put it back on your breastfeeding diet menu. But don’t forget that what you eat and drink still gets filtered through to baby, so there are some foods to avoid or limit while breastfeeding.
Alcohol Okay, so after nine months of just saying no, you're probably wondering what the word is on your postpartum drink order. Like so many things about raising babies, the amount of alcohol that’s safe for baby is up for debate. A small percentage of the alcohol you drink does go into your breast milk. And just as your body naturally metabolizes alcohol from your bloodstream, it will also clear from your breast milk after about two to three hours per serving. While some women believe they can just “pump and dump” to help remove alcohol from their breast milk after having a drink, this is actually a myth. Only time gets rid of the tainted milk.
As expected, there are lots of opinions on the topic. While some experts recommend being a teetotaler—when it comes to baby you never can be too safe—others find that approach to be overly strict. After all, the amount of alcohol that makes it into your breast milk is equivalent to about 5 to 6 percent of the strength, relative to baby's size, and drinking small amounts hasn’t been shown to be harmful. If you do decide to drink up, the experts agree on one thing: Make it two drinks or less, and always wait those allotted number of hours before you nurse or pump. The bigger risk with drinking is likely caring for baby safely, so make sure if you do indulge in a little happy hour fun, someone else is available to help. And never share a bed with baby after drinking.
Caffeine If, say, caffeine is your must-have to function like a human, the rules are much more liberal. That’s right, it is safe to drink coffee while breastfeeding. Woot! Less than one percent of the caffeine in your venti latte makes it into your breast milk, so as much as three eight-ounce cups (about 750 mg of caffeine), spread throughout the day, is considered safe for you and baby. Keep in mind some babies are sensitive to caffeine, though, so if you find baby’s especially fussy, jittery or prone to waking up more than usual, try decreasing your intake of caffeinated drinks and foods (yep, that means chocolate too) and see if that makes a difference.
High-mercury seafood Fish is a great food to include in your diet—in fact the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding moms eat it once or twice a week. But both pregnant and breastfeeding moms should steer clear of seafood that’s high in mercury, like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Your best bet with all fish, Cording says, is to mix it up: Have your tuna salad (canned albacore is higher in mercury) once or twice a week, but go for salmon (which tends to be lower in mercury) another day.
Making milk: How to pump up your output
Struggling with supply? Nursing (or pumping) frequently is the best way to make sure you keep up your milk. But if you’re looking for alternative ways to try and boost supply, certain breastfeeding foods are rumored to help with milk production. Even though there’s little hard evidence that they really work, it can’t hurt to try—especially if lactation cookies are on the menu, right?
Oatmeal Doesn’t matter how you eat this breakfast of champions—slow cooked, quick or even baked into cookies—oatmeal is a smart go-to for milk-making moms. “I recommend finding ways to add it to non-breakfast things too,” Cording says. “Put it into meatballs instead of breadcrumbs. Or stir it into yogurt. It helps with supply and keeps your energy levels consistent.” No research has proven it works, but oats pack protein, fiber and iron, which are all part of a healthy breastfeeding diet, so eat up.
Lactation cookies Did someone mention cookies? That’s right—there are plenty of recipes for cookies that may help to promote milk supply. The magic ingredients vary, but tend to include things like oatmeal, wheat germ (a source of zinc, which may help heal cracked nipples) and flaxseed (good for omega-3s). Just remember, cookies are still cookies.
Garlic It doesn’t just linger on your breath—garlic also changes the flavor of your breast milk. And that could be the reason why women have claimed for centuries that garlic is a milk booster. New research suggests that when baby gets a taste of that unexpected and new flavor, it may cause her to suckle more, which in turn helps boost your supply.
Herbal tea Certain herbs are commonly said to help with milk supply, including fenugreek, blessed thistle and fennel seed (you can also eat fennel for a similar effect). Packaged teas designed for nursing mothers are likely to contain these herbs and others. If you want to try one of them, you’ll get an added bonus: Drinking herbal tea will help you stay hydrated, since getting enough water is also key for milk production. Just keep in mind that most herbs haven’t been extensively studied, especially when it comes to breastfeeding, so sip with caution and moderation, and check with your doctor if you have concerns.
Carrots These beta-carotene powerhouses are rumored to help with milk production, whether you crunch the sticks or drink them juiced. Plus, you could be setting baby up to be a lifelong veggie eater: One study found that when breastfeeding moms ate carrots regularly, their babies were more receptive to the taste later on.
Water Just like during pregnancy, you’ll want to keep a water bottle within reach and drink up. Two to three liters a day (8 to 12 cups) is helpful for breastfeeding moms to offset the fluid going into the milk you make, Cording says. But chances are you may feel thirsty all the time anyway, so it probably won’t be too hard to get your daily requirements.
Do I need to take supplements when breastfeeding?
A healthy, well-balanced diet is all you really need to cover your nutritional bases when you’re breastfeeding, especially if you include meat and fish in your diet. Still, many experts do recommend sticking with your prenatal vitamin while breastfeeding anyway. These are some of the reasons why you might want or even need to supplement your post-pregnancy diet as long as you’re feeding baby.
For your bones Calcium, as well as the vitamin D that helps you to absorb it, is a must-have for nursing moms since both pregnancy and nursing temporarily decrease your bone mass (even though extra calcium can’t actually prevent the bone loss).
For your blood The whole no-periods perk of pregnancy and (early) breastfeeding means you’re probably at less risk of anemia (low iron) now. But if you lost a lot of blood during or after your delivery, your doctor or midwife might recommend an iron supplement to help replenish that loss.
For baby’s brain The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends getting 200 to 300 mg a day of omega-3 fatty acids. If you don’t serve up seafood at least once a week, a supplement can help your daily numbers stay on track. Allergic to fish? You can opt for a plant-derived vegetarian supplement.
For vegans and vegetarians If meat, chicken, fish and/or dairy products are off the table, you’ll need a supplement with vitamin B12 in it. Moms who are vegan may be short on this vitamin, which can lead to low milk supply. Luckily, most over-the-counter multivitamins have it, and it’s also in fortified foods like breakfast cereal, some nutritional yeasts, meat substitutes and milk substitutes.
Do certain foods make baby gassy or colicky?
When baby’s fussy or has colic, it’s natural to (desperately!) look for a fix. The truth is, every baby is different. If he’s otherwise healthy, well fed and gaining weight, some research suggests proteins in your milk (typically from the cow’s milk you drink) could be the culprit. If you’re breastfeeding a gassy or colicky baby, try giving up dairy for a week to 10 days to see if it helps. But if you can’t imagine your morning without a bowl of cereal and milk, take note: Cow’s milk sensitivity is estimated to only happen with about .5 to 1 percent of babies.
Other research has taken a bigger picture look at moms’ menus. Along with cow’s milk, foods including cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, onion and chocolate were more common in the diets of breastfeeding moms whose babies had belly pain, were irritable and cried a lot. And it makes sense. Many of these trigger foods can lead to gas and bloated bellies in adults, so think what they might do to baby’s tiny developing GI track.
In one other study, moms went on a low-allergen (that means no dairy, soy, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts or fish) breastfeeding diet and it turned out after a week, their colicky babies cried 90 minutes less per day compared with babies of breastfeeding moms who ate their normal diets—including peanuts, chocolate, soy and milk every day.
How to tell if your breastfeeding baby has an allergy
First off: If you’re worried baby has an allergy, the odds are she probably doesn’t. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 2 to 3 percent of exclusively breastfed babies have an allergic reaction. Cow’s milk protein is usually the culprit, but egg, corn, and soy were other common offenders in one large study. If you (and baby) happen to be the unlucky ones, you’re most likely going to see that allergy in the form of a skin rash like eczema or a gastrointestinal symptom like blood in her diapers.
One of the simplest ways to figure out if one (or more) of the foods on your breastfeeding diet is bothering baby is to systematically eliminate suspected offenders from your plate. Experts recommend cutting one food at a time, starting with the most likely: cow’s milk. Then wait at least two weeks (though often you’ll see a change in as little as a few days) before moving on to another food. Don’t see a difference? You can add that food back and try cutting out the next one on your list (like soy, citrus fruits, eggs, nuts, peanuts, wheat, corn, strawberries or chocolate) until you’ve found the offender.
How to prevent baby from getting food allergies
You may be tempted to try and ward off allergies by avoiding foods like milk or nuts, but sorry to say there’s little to no evidence that works—and it could even backfire, according to some research. Unless you’re dealing with an existing food sensitivity, go nuts: There’s no evidence that restricting your own diet will have any effect on baby’s chances of eating peanut butter without issue.
When it comes time to move beyond milk, the rules are also pretty liberal. Between 4 and 6 months, when you and your doctor decide it’s time for solids, the sky’s the limit as far as what single-ingredient foods you can introduce to baby. While it’s a good idea to start with things like fruits, vegetables and grains, as soon as you’re past these less-allergenic menu items, it’s fine to try adding egg, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. And new research suggests that starting these foods sooner rather than later might even help decrease the risk of allergies. Yes, you read that right. There has been very real and substantial evidence and recommendations about introducing allergenic foods earlier are changing worldwide. The most major original trial was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, and as of summer 2015, the AAP accepted and endorsed the recommendations. Plus, a whole host of other organizations, including the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the World Allergy Organization, the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, and the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, all now support early introduction of allergenic foods.
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t. Yes, breastfeeding nutrition is important, but try not to drive yourself crazy. “As long as you’re breastfeeding, you feel good, your baby is growing well and everybody is getting along, that’s the important thing,” Cording says.