You’ve done an amazing thing – you’ve had a baby and now you’ve decided to give your baby the best start in life by breastfeeding. I get lots of requests for information from mums who are breastfeeding and are not sure if they’re eating enough, too much or not enough. So, I decided to write a blog on this to give everyone some accurate expert information.
What should breastfeeding mums be eating?
It’s important to keep your strength up. Sleepless nights, breastfeeding and caring for your newborn will take its toll on you. It’s really imprortant to make time to eat regularly. Breakfast is really important, especially if you’ve had an unsettled night. Try to eat something even if you don’t feel like it. When I had my babies, a group of friends got together and organised a meal rota for me. This was a life-saver, meaning I didn’t need to think about cooking. Ask your friends if they could organise something for you in the early day or if you’re struggling with the baby blues. Alternatively, it’s fine to rely on convenience foods / ready meals / microwave meals for a while if you’re not up to cooking.
A healthy diet for breastfeeding features the following:
- 5-a-day – 5 portions of a variety of fruit & vegetables a day – and extra as snacks if needed
- A portion of starchy food at every meal, e.g. pasta, bread, breakfast cereals, potato, rice, crackers – and extra as snacks if needed
- Protein-rich food twice a day, e.g. meat, fish, eggs and pulses (fish should be included twice a week, one of which should be an oily fish, e.g. salmon, pilchards, sardines)
- Low fat dairy foods, e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt
- Limiting foods high in sugar and fat, e.g. sugary drinks, butter, sweets (it’s best to snack on foods from the other food groups)
A breastfeeding mum’s requirements for specific foods & nutrients
– Energy – calories!
The best advice is to be guided by your hunger, rather than going out of your way to regularly eat ‘unhealthy’ snacks and foods. Your body is very efficient at making milk, so just be guided by your appetite, and eat something when you’re hungry. Eating 3 meals a day with additional snacks is important to maintain a good milk supply. Although, you need extra calories (producing breast milk uses around 500-600 calories (kcal) per day), be guided by your appetite. To give you a guideline, 500kcal is the equivalent of 2 ham sandwiches (made with 4 slices of bread) or 2 bowls of breakfast cereal.. Try to make sure your snacks are healthy, rather than relying on sugary snacks, which often contain empty calories. Healthier snacks include fruit, nuts and seeds, yoghurts, crackers, sandwiches, scones, cereal and teacakes.
Include some iron-rich foods to help prevent anaemia. Oily fish, eggs, tofu, beans and pulses (e.g. kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas), red meat, fortified breakfast cereals (check the label of your usual cereal to check it’s fortified), bread, dried fruit, spinach, broccoli and kale of good sources of iron. Including a small glass of fruit juice or a piece of vitamin C-rich fruit (e.g. orange, satsuma, grapefruit, pineapple, strawberries) with meals can help to increase the amount of iron your body absorbs.
If you’re suffering from constipation (which is very common in breastfeeding mums), give your fibre intake an extra boost by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans and pulses. Fresh prunes or prune juice may help if you’re struggling to go. Porridge really is a ‘superfood’ and is great for alleviating constipation!
– Vitamin D
Be sure to take a supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D every day. This is because you’re more at risk of vitamin D deficiency as a breastfeeding mum. Vitamin D is important as it enables calcium in your diet to be absorbed from your food. Vitamin D supplements will also prevent rickets (bone deformities) in your baby as they grow. Healthy Start Vitamins are a great choice – you may be able to access these free depending on your geographical area / income status. If you plan to take a multivitamin tablet or single vitamin D supplement, check the label to ensure it contains 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D.
Caffeine-containing foods and drinks may affect your baby by causing them to be more wakeful (which is not what you want as a new mum!), irritable or restless. Although there’s no UK guideline on safe upper limits, in the US, the limit is 300mg. It’s therefore probably best to limit your intake of tea, coffee, energy drinks, coca cola and chocolate if you notice them affecting your baby.
Alcohol can pass to your baby through breast milk in small amounts. Try to limit alcohol to 1 or 2 units once-twice a week, although some women prefer to avoid alcohol altogether.
Your baby drinks approximately one pint of breast milk each day. To stay adequately hydrated, you need to drink plenty. Water, tea, coffee, squash, herbal teas, fruit juices and milky drinks all count (but watch out for the caffeine in certain drinks). I recommended drinking a large glass of fluid during every breastfeed, and additional drinks in between.
Whilst breastfeeding your calcium requirements increase from 700mg to 1250mg per day – your requirements almost double! This extra calcium is needed to build up bone calcium stores that may have been depleted during pregnancy. Your baby also needs calcium through your breast milk to grow. Your calcium requirements can be met by including 3-4 portions of dairy foods every day, in addition to other good non-dairy sources of calcium, such as bread, tinned fish (with bones), green leafy vegetables, beans, pulses and some dried fruits. To give you an idea of how to meet these requirements, the following foods will give you 250mg of calcium:
- A glass (200ml) of milk or calcium enriched soya/rice/almond milk
- A matchbox sized piece (35g) of hard cheese
- A standard pot (125g) of yoghurt
- 6 tablespoons baked beans / kidney beans
- 2 small fish from a tin of sardines/pilchards (with bones)
- 4 ½ tablespoons cooked spinach
- 4 dried figs
- ½ can rice pudding / custard
Losing weight safely and healthily
Try to remember that as it took your body 9 months to make your baby, it’s likely to take you around 9 months to lose that elusive baby weight! – Give your body time and go easy on yourself. Some mums find it easier to lose weight than others, so try not to compare yourself with other mums. As breastfeeding burns around 500kcal a day (less if your baby is weaning), the chances are you’ll lose weight naturally over time. Don’t actively ‘diet’ whilst breastfeeding as you may miss out on essential nutrients.
Physical activity (exercise) is also key – the sort that gets your heart rate going. Not only does it help lose weight more quickly, but it also has a range of other benefits to your post-baby body, such as reducing constipation, helping you feel more ‘positive’ emotionally, improving bladder control (those pelvic floor muscles!) and restrengthening your bones. I would advise you to wait until you’re given the ‘all clear’ at your 6-week check before starting an exercise routine. If you’re concerned, chat to your GP about your plans.