While it’s not surprising that lots of women have concerns about foods to eat while breastfeeding, the good news is that a healthy, varied diet both gives your baby everything she needs in your breast milk, and gives you the stamina and energy you need to make it through the roller coaster ride of parenthood. “Your diet does not have to be bland, limited or picture-perfect!” says Lindsey Hurd of Angel Food who is a registered dietitian and international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) in Wilmington, NC. Here’s what to keep in mind about good foods to eat while breastfeeding.
There are all kinds of lists of “foods to avoid while you’re breastfeeding” out there—but there isn’t the science to back it up. “In most cases I see, it’s not what mom is eating; the problems? are about the breastfeeding technique,” says Dallas Parsons, a registered dietitian and IBCLC in Vancouver, BC who owns Best Start [http://www.beststartlc.com/]. “A baby that’s fussy or gassy or refusing the breast is likely having trouble with the latch or the milk flow, whether it’s too much or too little, so that’s something a IBCLC can help you figure out.” It is important to respect a mom’s instincts. “If she takes an item out of her diet and the baby is better, then that’s great. I just don’t want to someone going down the path of severe food restriction when you’re already limited in the time you have to prepare food and eat it.
What about the idea of sensitizing a baby to an allergen like nuts or shellfish through your breast milk? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months has been shown to significantly lessen the risk and severity of food allergies in a family with a strong history of them, and that so far there is no evidence that avoiding certain foods while nursing can help prevent your child from developing allergies. That being said, about 2-3% of exclusively breastfed babies do show allergic reactions (such as skin rashes, severe diarrhea with blood in the stool or vomiting), most often to cow’s milk proteins in mom’s diet passed along in breast milk, so make sure to talk to your health care provider if you see these symptoms. Hanna Sandvig, a mom of two in British Columbia who blogs at Honey & Huckleberries [http://www.honeyandhuckleberries.com/2013/04/5-tips-for-eating-paleo-while.html] found that cutting out dairy for a couple months played a role in healing her second daughter’s eczema. Once her daughter’s digestive system matured, she added it back in.
Essential fatty acids called omega-3s, found in foods like fish, flaxseed and nuts, are important for mom and baby’s health. “The kind of fat content in a mom’s diet shapes the content of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk,” says Hurd. “Babies need omega-3s for retinal (eye) and cognitive development, and it has an anti-inflammatory effect so it’s important for establishing gut health. For women, it can help with immunity and gut health as well.” A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent and treat post-partum mood disorders, adds Parsons.
Creating breast milk draws on mom’s own calcium stores, so reach for calcium-rich foods like yogurt, milk, calcium-enriched soy milk, dark leafy greens and almonds. Pregnancy and childbirth can lead to anemia, so your health care provider is likely keeping an eye on your iron levels via blood tests. If your iron levels are indeed low, increase your intake of foods like meat, eggs, lentils, leafy greens and beans and throw in a little vitamin C from foods like strawberries or citrus to further boost iron absorption.
Both Hurd and Parsons agree that continuing to take your prenatal multivitamin in combination with a healthy diet is a wise idea. “It’s a good insurance policy,” says Parsons. If you’re taking a calcium supplement as well, take it a few hours later than your multivitamin, because calcium hinders iron absorption. In 2014, the AAP released a new policy statement that recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women take a supplement containing iodine, since many are lacking in it and it’s necessary for baby’s brain development. (Hurd and Parsons add that a sprinkling of iodized table salt, rather than the salt found in processed foods, is a source of dietary iodine too.)
To keep your energy levels up in those oh-so-tiring days without resorting to sugary or salty processed foods, balance your blood sugar and enjoy three meals a day with small snacks in between, advises Hurd. Hanna Sandvig of Honey & Huckleberries would regularly reach for a coconut milk smoothie, hard boiled eggs or sliced apples with nut butter while breastfeeding. “Do the best you can, but if you end up needing takeout one night, just go with the flow and eat better tomorrow,” says Sandvig. “Being a new mom has enough stress without beating yourself up over a poor snack choice.”
Chances are someone has mentioned foods to increase breast milk or supplements to increase milk supply to you by now. One popular item is “lactation cookies,” usually made with flaxseed, oatmeal and brewer’s yeast. Lactogenic or galactagogue foods—that is, foods or herbs thought to boost breast milk supply—are part of cultures around the world, notes Parsons. “You see fish and papaya soup in families with a Chinese background, or fennel and fenugreek in East Indian cooking. My take is that while it’s all anecdotal and you can’t point to a double-blind scientific study, most foods considered lactogenic are healthy and wholesome, so go for it if you want..”
Whether or not your choose to drink a little alcohol or caffeine is a personal decision of course, however, some sources say that you can occasionally enjoy an alcoholic drink while you’re breastfeeding. The safest way is to plan the timing of your drink so the alcohol has left your system (ie breastfeed, then enjoy a drink, and you’ll be able to breastfeed again two or three hours later without worrying much). A guideline:
Only 1% of the caffeine you take in enters your breast milk—which may still bother sensitive babies. “Start with small amounts and see how baby does,” says Hurd. In general, breastfeeding women can enjoy 300 mg of caffeine, preferably spread throughout the day. Some approximate caffeine amounts:
Making milk requires water, so it’s important for breastfeeding moms to drink lots of it. There’s no hard and fast rule for amounts though, says Hurd, since everyone’s metabolism and environment is different. “Look to your urine color as a guide: if it’s fairly clear or looks like lemonade, you’re fine. If it looks like apple juice or darker, you need more fluids.”
Bravado note: The sources in this article were not compensated.
Dr. Cindy-Lee Dennis is a Professor at the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto and holds a Canada Research Chair in Perinatal Community Health.