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Maternal Nutrition and Breastfeeding

A mother's diet while breastfeeding

One of the most frequently asked questions from mothers who are breastfeeding or pumping milk to feed their babies is, "Do I need to be on a special diet?" In most cases, the answer is no. Women who are breastfeeding should eat a well-balanced diet and drink enough liquids. Although shedding those extra pounds gained during pregnancy may be one of your biggest concerns, strict weight-loss programs are not recommended, especially during the first few months of breastfeeding. There are no special diets a breastfeeding mother must eat, but the following suggestions may help you focus on your eating patterns while breastfeeding:

Enough fluids

Drink enough liquids. You may find you are thirsty during the first few days after delivery as your body sheds excess fluid accumulated during the pregnancy. After that, the body will balance out to a thirst based on your body's needs. However, most mothers do notice they are thirstier when breastfeeding. Drink plenty of liquids, such as juice, water, milk, and soup to quench your thirst. Liquids can be in any form, but limit your intake of any with caffeine. It is not necessary to force fluids beyond your thirst, but it is a good idea to drink something whenever you feel thirsty. Grab something to drink while breastfeeding or keep a glass or mug of liquid near your favorite breastfeeding spot.

Variety

Eat a variety of healthy foods. The best guide as to how much to eat should be your own appetite. In general, mothers are hungrier during the first several months of breastfeeding, and you should not ignore feelings of hunger when producing milk for your baby. Grab a one-handed snack to eat while breastfeeding or keep wrapped snacks near your favorite breastfeeding spot.

Enough calories

Eat many different foods to get the calories, vitamins, and minerals you need to remain healthy. A minimum intake of at least 2,000 calories per day, with an optimal intake of 500 calories above a nonpregnant caloric intake of 1,800 to 2,200 calories, is recommended. (This is the equivalent of a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk.) Foods from the following food categories offer the most nutritional value:

  • Meats

  • Beans

  • Vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables)

  • Fruits or 100 percent fruit juice (not fruit drinks)

  • Breads, cereals, and grains

  • Milk, cheese, and eggs

Other diet considerations while breastfeeding

Spicy or "gassy" foods

Spicy or gas-producing foods are common in the diets of many cultures, and these kinds of foods do not bother most babies. A few babies will develop gas or seem uncomfortable when their mothers eat certain foods. However, there are no certain foods that create problems for all babies. Unless you notice that your baby reacts within six hours every time you eat a certain food, there is no need to avoid any particular foods.

Vegetarian diets

Vegetarian, or mostly vegetarian, diets have been the mainstay of many cultures for centuries, and the milk of vegetarians usually is as nutritionally appropriate as that of other mothers. You will want to be sure that your diet includes complete proteins, so eat a wide variety of foods. Many vegetarians, including some lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products, may require supplementary vitamin D, iron, and calcium during lactation. In addition, the milk of women eating vegan or macrobiotic diets may be deficient in vitamin B12 and these mothers often require supplements of vitamin B12 so their breast milk will contain a sufficient amount.

Coffee, tea, or sodas

You may drink caffeinated beverages; however, caffeine may make your baby jittery, irritable, or have difficulty sleeping, especially if you drink too many or drink too much quickly. Drink mainly caffeine-free beverages when breastfeeding. If you enjoy caffeinated beverages, limit your intake to about two eight-ounce servings per day.

Alcohol

It is best to limit drinking alcoholic beverages while breastfeeding or pumping for milk, although an occasional alcoholic beverage or two is not contraindicated. Alcohol passes into and back out of breast milk at about the same rate it enters and leaves your bloodstream. If you plan to have an alcoholic beverage, breastfeed beforehand and allow an hour or two before breastfeeding afterward. If you become intoxicated, pump and do not give that milk to the baby. You can resume breastfeeding once you are sober.

Smoking or tobacco use

Tobacco use often affects a woman's appetite and the taste of many foods. It is best to avoid tobacco use when breastfeeding or pumping. Although the benefits of your milk generally outweigh the risks of limited tobacco use, nicotine and its byproducts do pass into milk and tobacco use may cause a baby to have a more rapid heartbeat, be restlessness, or have vomiting or diarrhea. Babies should not be exposed to secondhand smoke. (Respiratory illnesses are more common among babies exposed to parental smoking, regardless of the infant's feeding method.) Secondhand smoke increases the risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). 

In addition to its possible effects on the baby, tobacco use can interfere with milk let-down (milk ejection reflex) and it may reduce the amount of milk you produce. If you cannot stop using tobacco products, consider a low-nicotine variety and smoke immediately after breastfeeding, as the amount of nicotine in your milk decreases over two to three hours:

  • Talk with your doctor if you want to use nicotine gum or patches, and do not combine the gum or patch with smoking while you are breastfeeding.

Health conditions affecting mother's diet

A few maternal health conditions may have a direct or indirect effect on lactation. Talk with your health care provider if you are concerned that your health condition may affect breastfeeding.

If you ever have any questions about nutrition or healthy dieting when breastfeeding, contact your doctor, a certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), or a dietitian who specializes in perinatal nutrition.