Breastfeeding Nutrition 101
As a Naturopath, our co-founder Vaughne is constantly harping on about the importance of nutrition in the postpartum. Why?? Because breastfeeding is incredibly demanding, both physically and nutritionally. It takes a lot of work to get those nutrients from your body to your baby!
Breastfeeding also increases your appetite, and while it's tempting to reach for easy calories to keep you going, getting enough good quality, nutrient-rich foods is important for the health of you and your baby. We see so many mums who are exhausted, and when we deep dive into their diet, it is often a lack of sufficient calories being eaten throughout the day that is causing this exhaustion.
Breast milk is composed of protein, fat and carbohydrates, alongside a number of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). There are specific nutrients present in breastmilk that are affected by a mother’s diet, which include omega 3, choline, B vitamins, vitamins A, C & D, iodine and selenium. Some other nutrients remain unchanged in breast milk despite dietary and supplement interventions, but they are still important for breastfeeding folk to prioritise and eat in adequate amounts to support general health and ensure that they don’t become deficient. These include iron, zinc, calcium, folate and copper amongst others.
Some foods to focus on:
- Protein: grass-fed meat, free-range poultry, fatty fish, eggs, tempeh and tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils and legumes, organic dairy.
- Starchy carbohydrates: whole grains such as rice, quinoa, spelt sourdough and root vegetables( sweet potato, potato, beetroot).
- Healthy fats: ghee, grass-fed butter, whole egg mayonnaise, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
- Omega 3: oily fish, oysters, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds.
- Choline: eggs, liver, beef, chicken, fish and broccoli.
- B vitamins: nuts and seeds, whole grains, eggs, legumes, meat, fish and dark leafy greens.
- Vitamin A: liver, eggs, oily fish, dark leafy greens, pumpkin, sweet potato and red capsicum.
- Vitamin C: tomato, capsicum, berries, citrus fruit and broccoli.
- Vitamin D: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, anchovies), eggs, mushrooms and safe sun exposure.
- Iodine: seaweed, seafood, fish, eggs and dairy products.
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, legumes and oats.
Remember, the quality of the food you nourish yourself with can directly affect the quality of your breast milk, including how well hydrated you are and how nutrient-dense your main meals and snacks are.
How can I make meals simple for me in the early days of motherhood?
We’ve got two words for you. Meal. Prep. In your final weeks of pregnancy, ask your friends or family over for a working bee day of cooking! It’s a beautiful way to spend the last days of your pregnancy with people you love, and they will feel like they are genuinely contributing to your wellbeing. Lighten the load and let many hands make light work.
There are lots of main meals and snacks that are easy to freeze: stews, curries, soups, muffins, frittata, meatballs, lentil patties, bliss balls, slices. Prepare yourself a few litres of bone broth and veggie stock that you can use as the base of fresh soups, or to sip in a mug when you need a boost of nutrients.
In the postpartum - one day a week (while your baby is sleeping, or you can ask someone to hold the baby for an hour or so between feeds), whip yourself up something that contains multiple serves, such as a roast veg and goats cheese frittata, some egg and ricotta muffins, salmon and sweet potato patties, a big pot of chicken, lentil and veg soup, or prep some staple ingredients to build yourself a nourish bowl in the days to come (eg. cook a pot of brown rice, boil half a dozen eggs, bake a tray of root veggies and wash a packet of greens), so that you can simply throw each ingredient in a bowl for lunch. Check out our favourite, fool-proof recipes in Life After Birth
Freezable meals and snacks are also great, as you can cook, freeze and take out the night before so that all you need to do is heat and eat the next day. It can take a few weeks to get into the habit, but finding a couple of staple recipes that you can rotate will set you up for success. You will feel so much more satiated, have more time to rest or do what you need to do between feeds, and have more consistent energy if you eat a protein-rich meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When sleepless days and nights feel upside down in the early months of parenthood, meal prep is a life saver.
What about hydration?
Hydration is one of THE most important aspects of milk production, so aim to drink 2-3L daily in the form of water, herbal teas, coconut water and bone broth. Ask your partner or support person to keep filling your water bottle through the day, and always have a drink and one-handed snack when your baby feeds.
Breastmilk is approximately 90% water, and so hydration is incredibly important not only for keeping your milk flowing, but it can also help to reduce the chances of recurrent mastitis (as adequate hydration helps to improve our lymphatic system and blood flow around the body).
As a Naturopath, Vaughne loves the health benefits of herbs, which are so readily available to us - both fresh from the garden and dried. We have created a beautiful Milky Magic Tea to support you on your breastfeeding journey. Herbal teas are a wonderful way to boost hydration - you can steep or infuse the herbs, and the therapeutic properties and flavours of herbs can make it easier to drink more fluids through the day and night. Make a big pot of tea or herbal infusion (see some great recipes for this in our book), and serve it warm or chilled, with a few fresh mint leaves, a squeeze of lemon juice and ice for a fun and hydrating drink.
What foods can help boost breast milk?
Foods that may help to boost breastmilk production are known as ‘galactagogues’. The science behind how galactagogues work within the body continues to grow and although much of their use is based on the positive experience and stories of mothers from generation to generation, studies indicate their effect works on boosting the production of prolactin, which is the hormone that creates and stimulates breast milk flow.
Galactagogue foods and herbs are also incredibly nutrient-rich, which I encourage mothers to combine and create nourishing snacks and meals with. Some galactagogue foods and herbs we love include:
- Dark leafy greens
- Fennel seeds and bulb
- Cumin seeds
- Nuts and nut butters
- Green papaya
Hot tip: Brewers yeast is a big ingredient we often see used in recipes, however it is incredibly bitter, and the amount you need to use to be therapeutically beneficial (2+ Tablespoons daily) can ruin the flavour of your cooking, and often requires large amounts of sugar to conceal the flavour. Opt for a combination of other whole food galactagogues to nourish you - such as our Milky Magic Cookies.
Are there any foods I should avoid while breastfeeding?
There are no food groups that you should absolutely avoid while breastfeeding - every mother and baby has their own digestive capacity and potential reactivity to certain foods, so it is often a process of elimination if your baby begins to show signs or symptoms of a sensitivity. Ensuring that you eat a wide variety of whole foods is essential to health, however, there are some that are the main culprits when it comes to causing gassiness in babies, and that can exacerbate health concerns for the mother. When it comes to supplements, herbs and medication - always consult with your healthcare provider to confirm if it is safe to take while breastfeeding.
What to be mindful of…
Gassy baby culprits: Some babies will show occasional signs of discomfort after a mother eats a certain type of food, whereas others will develop a series of symptoms that can indicate a true sensitivity or allergy. Foods that can increase gassiness in babies include unsoaked lentils and legumes, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts), garlic, onion and spicy food, dairy and fibrous fruit. Some of the main allergens include soy, cow’s milk, egg, nuts and wheat, which often cause a number of symptoms including digestive upset, nappy rash and eczema amongst others. The quality and colour of your baby’s poo can indicate something isn’t sitting quite right, and if it contains mucous or blood, you should speak immediately with a trusted health practitioner.
Refined carbohydrates and sugar: It is so easy to reach for packaged, sugary, baked goods when you are sleep deprived, but the issue with eating things like cakes, pastries, cookies and fried foods on a regular basis is that they are high in processed sugars and oils, and often contain little to no protein or nutritional value. This increases the risk of blood sugar imbalance, having low energy (after the initial speedy sugar rush), and also increases the risk of nipple thrush and mastitis due to sugar fuelling bacteria and suppressing the immune system.
Caffeine: We’re not here to tell you not to drink coffee, but it is important to remember that caffeine is a major stimulant, and for both baby and mum can affect stress response, sleep and mood. Caffeine also increases nutrient excretion from the body, so be mindful of this as it can exacerbate deficiencies. Relying on multiple cups of coffee to get you through the day can make things worse than they already are (hello crippling anxiety on top of exhaustion!), so always make sure that you eat a protein-rich breakfast before drinking your cup of coffee, stick to one shot per day, consider drinking decaf and look at lower-caffeine alternatives that won’t send your nervous system sky-high. Some options include green tea, matcha, cacao and herbal tea. For many of the mums we support - drinking coffee is more about the taste or the ritual of having a hot drink than the caffeine hit itself, so swap things up from time to time.
Alcohol: I can’t not mention this one, because it causes mothers SO much stress on their breastfeeding journey. Having an occasional glass of wine or gin and tonic while breastfeeding is considered safe - in fact a recent Australian study confirmed that there are no known adverse effects in babies under 12 months exposed to low levels of alcohol via breast milk. Caveats to this are that alcohol can make you tipsy, which can reduce your ability to respond in a timely manner to your baby’s needs. No parent should ever co-sleep if they have drunk alcohol (this is unsafe practice which could cause risk to your baby), and alcohol inhibits your ability to absorb nutrients - which can undo a lot of good work done with diet and supplements, or exacerbate postnatal depletion. Most importantly, if you are drinking alcohol to cope, we highly recommend reaching out to someone you trust, as this can indicate that you need more support and community help.