The breastfeeding diet: What to eat and foods to avoid while breastfeeding

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  • Being mindful of your breastfeeding diet is essential as a new mum. Breastfeeding can be physically and emotionally demanding – and sometimes painful – with mums having to be available 24 hours a day to feed a new baby.

    After you’ve given birth it’s important that you’re eating and drinking properly to ensure you feel strong and healthy. Following a healthy breastfeeding diet will also ensure breast milk provides all of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that your baby needs.

    Our guide outlines all the foods you should be eating when breastfeeding, and those you should avoid, with some helpful advice from breastfeeding counsellors and nutritionists.

    Breastfeeding diet: How many calories do you need when you’re breastfeeding?

    Women only need a small amount of additional calories whilst breastfeeding. Historically, women were advised to eat around 300 extra calories whilst breastfeeding – the same extra energy requirement recommended during the final trimester of pregnancy.

    However, some studies show that eating additional calories while breastfeeding aren’t necessary. Anna Mapson, a nutritional therapist and founder of Goodness Me Nutrition, explains: “The actual number of additional calories isn’t as important as ensuring the overall breastfeeding diet is of a high quality to support the mother’s body whilst producing breastmilk.”

    “It’s more important to ensure you are eating a good range of healthy fats, protein and fruits and vegetables to help rebuild after pregnancy and birth.”

    It does depend on the individual, however. “It’s good to eat to appetite, and some breastfeeding mums feel hungrier than others,” says Jane Moffet, a breastfeeding counsellor at the National Childbirth Trust (NCT).

    Loving and affectionate mother holding newborn baby indoors at home.

    It’s recommended breastfeeding women limit certain food and drink. Credit: Getty

    Foods to avoid while breastfeeding

    • Oily fish. Eat no more than two portions of a week
    • Coffee. Drink no more than 200mg caffeine a day
    • Peppermint tea
    • Alcohol

    Everyone is different. So, in addition to the list above, you may find that removing certain foods from your breastfeeding diet have a positive affect on your experience. For example:  “If a baby has symptoms like reflux there is some evidence that removing food triggers from a mum’s diet can be useful,” says nutritional therapist Jodie Brandman. “I tend to see a lot of babies improve when a mum removes dairy.”

    1. No more than two portions of oily fish

    ‘It’s recommended not to have more than two portions of oily fish per week, such as fresh mackerel, sardines, trout and salmon,’ says Jane.

    ‘Two portions of oily fish will provide omega-3,’ says Anna. ‘The fish to avoid during pregnancy, like marlin, swordfish and shark, should still be omitted during breastfeeding. This is due to a risk of mercury from these larger fish affecting breastmilk and getting into the developing nervous system of a baby.’

    2. No more than 200mg caffeine a day

    ‘Caffeine passes into breastmilk and guidance generally suggests that breastfeeding women try not to have more than about 200mg of caffeine a day,’ advises Jane. ‘A cup of coffee = 100-140mg caffeine; a cup of tea = 75mg caffeine; 1 can of energy drink = 80mg; and 1 can of cola = 40mg,’ she says.

    3. Peppermint tea

    You may notice that certain foods have an affect on your milk production or your baby’s wellbeing. ‘Some mums may feel that certain foods affect their baby and choose to avoid them,’ says Sarah Oakley, a registered nurse and health visitor (Sarah Oakley Lactation). ‘Some herbs, such as peppermint, can lower milk production. Drinking peppermint tea regularly, for example, is something to be cautious of.’

    5. Alcohol

    ‘Alcohol will also pass into breastmilk,’ says Jane (you may have heard of the expression ‘pump and dump’, when women who have had a drink use a breast pump to get rid of milk they worry contains some alcohol). ‘It’s recommended that breastfeeding women limit their alcohol intake to no more 14 units of alcohol per week [this is in keeping with NHS guidelines and equates to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine] and to spread your drinks evenly during the week,’ she says.

    Anna suggests drinking less – a maximum of 1-2 units a week. ‘And where possible leave a few hours between drinking any alcohol and feeding your baby,’ she advises.

    A woman and her baby with her partner as they prepare food

    There are foods to boost wellness while you breastfeed. (Credit: Getty)

    Best foods to eat for breastfeeding

    • Calcium-rich food
    • Healthy fats
    • Fibre
    • Fruit and veg
    • Healthy snacks

    “If you’re breastfeeding, your body adapts to become more efficient at absorbing nutrients from food, and you will produce milk for your baby whatever your diet,” says Jane. “But like all new mums, it’s great if you’re able to eat well and have a healthy diet. If you can, try and have a good mix of at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables, lots of fibre, starchy foods, protein and dairy – plus plenty of fluids.”

    Calcium-rich food

    “The amount of calcium a mum absorbs is enhanced during lactation so your body excretes less through urine,” says Anna. “A low calcium intake will not affect the amount of calcium in your milk but, because the milk will pull calcium from your body, women who don’t eat enough calcium may affect their long-term bone density. This is especially the case if you breastfeed for a long time,” she explains.

    “The recommendation for breastfeeding women is up to 1350mg calcium a day. This is done through dairy like milk, cheese, yogurt, tinned sardines with edible bones and tofu (in water) processed with calcium sulphate. Also, bok choy, broccoli, kale, and dark leafy greens,” she says.

    Healthy fats

    “Women should include healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and avocados in their breastfeeding diet,” advises Anna. Other healthy fats include olive oil and rapeseed oil.

    Fibre

    “Fibre can help to support a healthy digestion. Focus on whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats,” says Anna.

    Fruit and veg

    “It’s important to eat a healthy balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables,” recommends Sarah. Aim for at least five servings a day.

    Healthy snacks

    “Having healthy snacks in the house, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fortified cereal or dried fruit, can help keep your energy levels up,” says Jane.

    Women on breastfeeding diet holding her baby and drinking water in the kitchen

    Keep your fluid intake up when you’re breastfeeding. (Credit: Getty)

    How much water should you drink while breastfeeding?

    Drinking water throughout the day is very important for everyone as even mild dehydration can cause tiredness and a low mood. But it’s especially true for new mums.

    “Most breastfeeding women have an increased thirst during a feed. It’s the body’s way of requesting more fluids,” says Anna. “Some recommendations increase the target to three litres a day (the normal UK recommendations are two litres a day).”

    Essentially, your best bet is to listen to your body. “Drinking to thirst is the important thing. It’s a good idea to have a bottle or glass of water to hand when you sit down to feed, so you can stay hydrated,” advises Jane.

    What foods that you avoided during pregnancy are okay to eat again while you’re breastfeeding?

    “Foods avoided during pregnancy are okay to eat again, although see above for guidance on fish,” says Jane. “If you have been missing the Brie or pâté it’s time to treat yourself!”

    There is more good news. “As well as soft cheeses, you can bring back in seafood like prawns and shellfish,” adds Anna.

    Woman taking food from the fridge while carrying baby

    Breastfeeding can make you feel very hungry. (Credit: Getty)

    Why does breastfeeding make me so hungry?

    “Supporting another human being is hungry work! Women are recovering from a birth and a physiological change after pregnancy. These changes all take energy and may make women require more food,” explains Anna. “Many mothers feel extra hungry whilst breastfeeding because they are so tired, and when our brain is sleep-deprived we will crave carbohydrates and sugars to provide energy to get through the long days. Combined with developing a relationship with their baby, and juggling life commitments, it can be exhausting for new mothers,” she says.

    “Breastfeeding can use up extra calories (on average, an extra 300 calories a day). So, for some women, they feel more hungry than usual,” says Jane. “Hormonal changes and sleep deprivation can also increase appetite. Resting when you can and having healthy snacks to hand can help.”

    How can I increase my breast milk following a breastfeeding diet?

    “There’s no real scientific evidence that particular foods can increase breast milk, says Jodie. ‘But I like to go on ancient wisdom that certain ingredients called “galactagogues” can help. These include almonds, flax, brewer’s yeast, fennel and oats.”

    “Dietary support for breastmilk production includes drinking enough water, and eating sufficient food,” says Anna. “However, if a woman feels her milk supply is low, it’s important to look at lifestyle factors as well as diet. The most effective way to stimulate more breastmilk is to feed the baby more frequently as the suckling stimulates milk production,” she says. “Also important is to increase the mother’s rest time, and allowing sleep between feeds. Many mothers find that when they are supported, and are allowed more time to cuddle the baby, this releases oxytocin in both mother and baby, helping to calm them both.”

    If you are worried about your milk production, seek help before you decide to stop breastfeeding.

    “Milk production is driven by the frequent and effective removal of milk from the breast and if a mother has worries about her milk supply it is essential she seeks skilled breastfeeding help from an International Board Certified lactation consultant or breastfeeding counsellor to identify the cause,” advises Sarah. “Simply eating lots of oats is unlikely to have any significant impact,” she says.

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