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How nutrition can support breastfeeding

If you’re breastfeeding – whether exclusively or as part of a mixed feeding practice – go you! It has so many benefits for you and your growing baby. 

We know it’s not always the beautiful, natural bonding experience it’s glamourised to be. In fact, it’s often very unglamourous and unnatural. Not to mention bloody hard work.

Producing breastmilk uses up about 25% of a mama’s energy. (That’s more energy than your actual BRAIN requires, for reference. WILD, we know.) It may also involve sexy side effects like being topless for 35% of your waking time, experiencing outrageous nipple pain as you and your baby learn to do it, and getting RSI from holding your babe in strange positions to get that magical latch happening.

While so much of the focus of a breastfeeding mama is on making sure your beautiful babe is getting enough milk, it’s equally important to make sure YOU’RE getting the right nutrients. (You’re the one making the milk, after all.)

We spoke to NSW-based nutritionist and herbalist Louise Loader about why it’s important to get the good stuff into your body when breastfeeding.

Boosting your health and wellbeing 

“Exclusively breastfeeding a baby is no joke,” Louise said. “It places a huge energy demand on the mother.”

(Hmm. So that explains all the midnight snack-a-thons then.)

Louise recommends consuming at least an extra 500 calories a day from nutrient-dense wholefoods to make up for all the energy you burn through breastfeeding. Eating nutritious foods can help you avoid fatigue, recurrent infections and milk supply issues. It’s also beneficial in supporting postpartum recovery.

So now that we’ve essentially been given a license to eat… what exactly should we be eating when breastfeeding? Louise suggested a few foods to boost wellbeing.

Foods for healing and repair

  • Bone broth
  • Slow cooked grass-fed meat
  • The skin and wings of pastured chicken

Foods for iron and mineral replenishment

  • Grass-fed meat, slow cooked on the bone

Foods for nutrients and protein

  • Pastured eggs
  • Liver, from pastured chicken or grass-fed cows
  • Oily seafood such as wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, fish roe and mussels

Foods for digestion and immunity

Fermented foods like: 

  • Raw sauerkraut
  • Kombucha
  • Kefir

And don’t forget hydration!

“Hydration is equally important,” Louise told us. “A new mother will experience intense thirst in the early days of breastfeeding as her body clamours to make as much milk as possible for her baby.”

To make life easier, Louise suggested scattering water and snacks around the house near your go-to breastfeeding spots so you’ve always got fresh water and nutrition ready to go when it’s time to feed baby. Think nutritious snacks that can be eaten with one hand – trail mix, bliss balls, banana bread or fruit.

Nourishing baby

Your diet plays a big role in the nutrients that are passed onto your bub through breastmilk. But don’t beat yourself up if you happen to eat a slice of chocolate cake, or if you forget to eat breakfast every once in a while. Thankfully, your breastfeeding diet doesn’t need to be ‘perfect’.

“A mother needs to be severely malnourished for her milk to be affected and no longer be nourishing to her baby,” Louise explained. “A mother’s body will prioritise her baby’s needs, so if she’s not consuming adequate nutrients, they’ll be taken from her own stores to ensure her milk remains nutritious enough for her growing baby.”

Eating nutrient-dense foods is largely to help maintain your health, but it can also make your breastmilk more nutritious too. 

Louise recommended supplementing your diet with a few key nutrients while breastfeeding, to ensure your milk is in tip top shape to meet your baby’s needs.

Iron

“Breastmilk is known to be low in iron which is why the practices of delayed cord clamping and introducing iron rich foods to baby from 6 months are so important. The iron that is found in breastmilk is easily absorbed by baby but if the mother is deficient following birth, she will need to increase iron-rich foods or possibly supplement to ensure there is enough in her milk.”

Louise recommended getting your iron ideally from dark red meat such as liver and beef. She also noted lamb, the darker cuts of chicken and mussels as good sources. 

If you don’t eat meat, or feel you may be iron deficient, you can request a blood test from your GP and get a referral for iron supplements.

DHA

“DHA continues to be crucial throughout the entire breastfeeding period. Breastmilk DHA status is dependent on the mother’s intake, so continuing to supplement or consume fatty fish three times a week is recommended.”

Find DHA in fatty fish such as wild salmon, sardines, fish roe and mussels. Pasture-raised eggs and red meat will also provide some DHA, and Louise noted that many women require supplementing with cod liver oil or fish oil. 

While she didn’t provide plant-based options for boosting DHA levels, we hear that seaweed and algae are one of the few plant groups that contain DHA! 

Choline

“Breastmilk choline content reflects the mother’s choline intake. The requirements throughout breastfeeding are high, with the recommended dietary intake (RDI) set at 550mg a day, but optimal intake being closer to 750mg a day.”

Find choline in pasture-raised eggs (one yolk contains roughly 110mg!), tofu, broccoli, peanut butter and beans.

As a basis, Louise advised getting lots of healthy fats and quality protein into your diet to make your breastmilk as nutritious as possible.

Developing and maintaining good eating habits

Eating nutritious foods during pregnancy and while breastfeeding is a great way to establish good eating habits for life. 

And look, we get it. It’s so easy to fall into the habit of eating whatever’s easiest and yummiest (chocolate, biscuits, the entire Coles ice cream aisle…). All jokes aside, even Louise admits how common this is.

“If a new mother doesn’t prioritise her health and have adequate support around her, she will fall into the common trap of eating ‘whatever she can get her hands on’,” she told us. “Exacerbated by sleep deprivation and an intense focus on the wellbeing of her new baby, a mother will often neglect her own health until she is severely depleted.”

If ever there’s a time to ask your partner to cook for you, or visiting friends to bring you healthy snacks, it’s while you’re breastfeeding. So milk it for all it’s worth! (Yes, that’s a pun.)

Use this time as an opportunity to set yourself up for a lifetime of nutritious eating habits, which you can introduce to your little one once they start on solids.

One last note!

Louise and the Mumli crew highly recommend getting assistance from a qualified medical practitioner before commencing postpartum nutrient supplementation. Medical advice is particularly important if you’re excluding meat from your diet, to ensure you’re meeting your additional iron requirements.

What are your go-to nutritious breastfeeding snacks? We’d love to know! Share in the comments below.


Expert contributor: Louise Loader

Louise is a nutritionist, herbalist and mumma to two boys. Louise works with women as they make the momentous transition to motherhood, using a mix of modern science and traditional wisdom to support them through a nourished pregnancy and postpartum.

You can follow her on Instagram here.

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