What Should I Eat When I’m Breastfeeding?

Stacelynn Caughlan

Scientists have discovered a source of liquid gold. For decades they have tried to dismantle, analyze, and recreate this amazing substance – to no avail. The only known source of this magical fluid is a mother’s breast, and it’s not giving up its secrets easily.

Shortly after giving birth, chemical messages are sent throughout a woman’s body, instructing it to produce breastmilk. The mechanisms involved in its production are mind-boggling, as are the various benefits it provides to the infant. Through diet we can increase its potential and help ensure that it is of the highest possible quality.

CALORIES
Producing enough milk to feed a rapidly growing child can take a lot of energy – about 500 calories each day. Find these calories in nutrient-dense foods, not high sugar ones. Be sure that food is readily available to you in the weeks postpartum, as you will likely discover that you are ravenous! Even with the additional intake of food, you will likely see a reduction in your weight without giving it much thought. Rapid weight loss (more than 2-4 pounds per month after the first four weeks) may signal that you are not eating enough calories to both keep yourself healthy and produce milk for your baby.

PROTEIN
The protein found in your breastmilk is easily and quickly digested. It has the perfect amino acid profile for growth, one which is unique to human milk. During the postpartum period, a diet low in protein may lead to an increase in recovery time. This may affect your ability to establish a good nursing routine and thus a good milk supply.

Some studies had determined that the protein content of breastmilk could be enhanced with an increase in dietary protein, while other more complete studies make no such correlation. None the less, we do know that lactating requires extra protein in the mother’s diet. Include at least 4 protein dense servings of food daily (i.e. tofu, nuts, beans, egg, fish, etc.).

FATS
Fats in – fats out. The composition of fat found in your milk is highly variable and very much under the influence of your diet. Within hours of a meal, the type of fat you consumed will become the predominant fat in your milk. This means you should try to be aware of what to eat – and not eat!

During the prenatal and neonatal stages, the one substance that plays an important role in growth, neurologic development and function, and learning and behaviour is fat. Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), (found in nuts, seeds, fish, and greens) are an important part of your diet during both pregnancy and lactation. The parent EFAs (linoleic acid and linolenic acid) are converted into arachidonic acid (AA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All are very important for infant development. AA and DHA are found in great concentrations in the human brain and nervous system. They are thought to be part of the reason why the human brain has developed advanced cognitive abilities beyond that of most other mammals. Breastmilk is a good source of EFAs, and can be especially rich if you are sure to include EFA foods in your diet.

If your diet is high in Trans-Fatty Acids (TFAs), these too will be passed on to the infant. TFAs, which are found in hydrogenated oils and processed foods, have been linked to cardiovascular risk, neurological underdevelopment, and other life-long risks in children. Even if your diet is rich in EFAs, the inclusion of TFAs will prohibit their metabolization and neither you nor the baby will receive all possible benefits.

In addition to regular dietary sources, EFAs can be taken in supplement form. Many products are suitable for nursing moms and have been used therapeutically when milk supply is deemed low, engorgement is common, or the infant is susceptible to numerous infections.

VITAMINS AND MINERALS
Many vitamins will pass through to your milk from your bloodstream and are therefore under your influence. Most minerals will not. In some cases the breast has a ‘saturation-point’ by which you can be assured that nutrient levels will not surpass those needed by your child. But some nutrients, such as B6, manganese, iodine, and selenium will continue to accumulate.

Thiamin, B12, folic acid, and Vitamin D may be important supplements to consider if you are at all concerned that your diet does not include enough. These vitamins are crucial to infant development and have been observed to be dangerously low in some women. Vegan mothers should definitely watch their intake of vitamins B12 and D as these are typically found in animal foods. The influx of fortified foods on the market, however, will likely decrease the need for any additional supplementation if they are included in your diet regularly

Obviously the best place to get your nutrients is from the food you eat. Be sure that your diet contains optimal amounts of whole grains, and fresh, colourful fruits and vegetables. A good quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement will fill in any gaps and help prevent some of the exhaustion many new moms experience.

WATER
It is a sharp realization to a new mother that all of the liquid coming out of her infant (which can sometimes seem copious!) had to enter via her breastmilk. The extra fluid you are creating must be supported with additional fluids in your diet. Some mothers will experience an intense thirst as their baby latches on. All the more reason to keep a glass of water nearby at all times!

It was once thought that the more water you ingested, the more milk you would produce. Although this is not actually the case, what we do know is that when water intake is low, a mother’s body may not function optimally. Therefore drinking approximately 8-10 glasses, but no more, of water each day is very important.

TOXINS IN YOUR MILK?
In addition to TFAs, there are other substances in your diet that are passed on to your child. Caffeine and alcohol, both very common in the Western diet, are taken in by the infant through milk. Unfortunately the baby’s immature liver will have difficulty processing these chemicals, even if no outward signs of ingestion are visible (irritability, sleeplessness, etc.). Small amounts in your diet, timed around nursing sessions (if predictable) are usually not a problem. Large amounts are, of course, best avoided.

Many mothers worry about the research that has shown breastmilk to be a high source of environmental contaminants (PCBs, DDT, mercury, etc.), and some have doubted the safety of their milk. What is important to recognize is that what is found (or not found) in the alternatives to breastmilk is far more dangerous than these chemicals. Knowledgeable doctors have begun to counsel patients to continue nursing through a course of pharmaceuticals because they know that the alternatives are worse than the baby receiving a dose of the drug themselves. For obvious reasons smoking is best avoided, regardless of whether or not you are nursing. But even smokers should pursue breastfeeding, as their baby’s lungs actually stand a better chance at being healthy than if they were to be fed formula.

We may never know how to replicate breastmilk, and we are only just beginning to understand its value. As a breastfeeding mother you should feel encouraged that you are doing what is best for your child. Taking good care of yourself and eating a healthy diet will help you meet the demands of your nursing relationship. Your baby will thank you.

Stacelynn Caughlan is a Clinical Nutritionist and Certified Herbalist who specializes in Prenatal and Pediatric Health.