When you're a new mom, the hard work doesn't end when you give birth. Oh no, it's just beginning. The thing is, it can be hard juggling the breastfeeding diet and giving your tiny one the right nutrients while trying to fit into your old jeans. You see, when you're feeding your baby breastmilk, they're eating what you're eating—meaning you need to be sure you're consuming the right things to promote growth and development.
But there's some good news for new moms who want to get it right (and are worried about doing something wrong). "Keep in mind that it's okay if your diet is not 'perfect,'" says Juliana Shalek, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of The Nutrition Suite LLC. "The goal is to have mom put herself and her body in the best state for successful breastfeeding." You see, if a mom isn't eating well and consuming a bunch of processed feeds, Shalek said she's actually more likely to stop breastfeeding. (As for the benefits of breastfeeding, we've already discussed that it can decrease your baby's chances of SIDS, prevent illness, and can even make baby smarter).
And even though there's not one exact regimen to follow, we asked Shalek to help us navigate the breastfeeding diet, from foods to eat, foods to avoid, and everything in between.
"Individuals who are breastfeeding should be adhering to a general healthy diet to meet their nutrient needs and make sure they are getting enough energy," advises Shalek. Here are some of the basics she shares with her clients on diet, exercise, and getting back to your body before baby:
- Consume a varied and balanced diet with adequate protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy sources.
- Stay away from processed foods, canned foods, excess sugar, and artificial sweeteners.
- Make sure to hydrate—aim for eight cups of water per day.
- Get on a consistent eating schedule to keep up energy levels (try to refuel every three to four hours with healthy snacks between meals).
- Skipping meals to get off baby weight only makes you overeat at the next meal and slows down your metabolism; also, it does not promote optimal energy levels.
- Try to do some kind of physical activity a few days a week (walking counts!).
- Breastfeeding can burn up to 500 calories a day, so if you are very active you should be mindful of consuming adequate nutritious calories (since you are burning even more by exercising).
- You may feel hungrier and include one to two extra high protein snacks a day (string cheese with whole wheat crackers, peanut butter with an apple or banana, and a cup of cottage cheese with berries are all good options).
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine in large volumes (we'll go into more detail later).
WHAT TO EAT
"You want to aim for nutrient-dense foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and lean proteins and don't have a high caloric value," advises Shalek. She calls these good "bang for your buck" foods with clients. Here are some of the top things to eat:
What to Eat: Meat, fish, chicken, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, beans, nuts, nut butter, seeds
Why: "Protein is important for adequate growth and development, tissue repair, immune support, and lean muscle maintenance," says Shalek. "It's used by mom's body for the production of breast milk and helps with growth and nourishment of the baby."
What to Eat: Milk, yogurt, cheese, kale, collard greens, broccoli, soy beans, calcium-fortified food
Why: "It's important for bone and teeth formation and protection," explains Shalek.
What to Eat: Whole grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes
Why: "These serve as 'fuel' for mom and baby and are also high in fiber to help with mom's digestive health and to control glucose levels," says Shalek.
What to Eat: Red meat, green leafy vegetables, seafood, beans, fortified cereals
Why: "They're important for the production of red blood cells and to help oxygen distribute to the tissues of the body for both mom and baby," according to Shalek.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
What to Eat: Fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, canola oil
Why: "These fatty acids serve an anti-inflammatory function, help with brain and cognitive development, and can help with gut function in both mom and baby," explains Shalek.
WHAT TO CONSIDER
"It is definitely recommended to be eating a healthy, balanced diet while breastfeeding, however there are no universally 'dangerous or harmful' foods for moms to consume while nursing," explains Shalek. With that being said, there are a few things to be wary of.
High Mercury Fish
Similarly to how you avoided high-mercury fish while pregnant because mercury can be toxic, you should try to do the same while breastfeeding. Fish to stay clear of include shark, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel. Opt for salmon, shrimp, scallops, and tilapia instead.
For all those moms who have been craving a glass of wine, know that alcohol, within reason, can be okay while breastfeeding. "But alcohol goes into your bloodstream so 'pumping and dumping' is actually a myth," explains Shalek. The only way to clear the alcohol from your body is by giving it time—although the number of hours to wait before breastfeeding depends on someone's size, weight, and alcohol tolerance. "Usually, if you do not feel cognitive effects of alcohol intake like being able to drive safely and perform activities without impairment, breastfeeding is likely fine," says Shalek.
She suggests if you're concerned to wait two to three hours before nursing again to let the alcohol clear your system. But keep it within reason—Shalek doesn't recommend consuming more than one to two drinks in an evening if you're actively nursing.
The rule of thumb with caffeine is pretty similar to that with alcohol since it also enters the bloodstream and can get passed on to baby through feedings. Shalek says one to two cups a day can be okay, especially when spread out over a period of time and as long as there aren't multiple cups consumed within one sitting. However, some babies are more sensitive to caffeine—it can actually make them jittery—so if your child is fussier and not sleeping well while you're nursing, you may want to cut out coffee.
To be extra safe, avoid strong espresso shots and opt for coffee diluted with milk or a latte, cappuccino, or tea.
Shalek says that in general, moms should be mindful of any significant negative reactions baby may be having post breastfeeding because it can be caused by a particular food in mom's diet. For example, dairy has been known to cause gassiness or fussiness in babies in some situations. A mother's food intake can also change the flavor of the milk (especially garlic or spicy things), which babies can be sensitive to at times. It won't hurt your child—they just may not nurse as effectively since the taste isn't as pleasant to them.
Now that you have a better idea of what to eat (and beware of) on the breastfeeding diet, we hope you feel good knowing you're helping your little one grow healthy and strong.