The benefits of breastfeeding for mum and baby are well documented. But the purpose of this post is not to focus on those or to promote any particular type of feeding. Simply to give some practical advice on what a healthy diet during breastfeeding might look like. We know there are certain foods to be aware of during pregnancy. However is there anything different when it comes to breastfeeding?
This blog will go through the basics of a healthy diet whilst breastfeeding. Including any particular foods or nutrients to be aware of. As well as consolidating the evidence on caffeine, alcohol, allergies and supplements.
What does a healthy diet during breastfeeding look like?
The reality is that a healthy diet whilst breastfeeding is mostly the same as a general healthy diet that is recommended for the rest of the population. Eating a varied diet and consuming enough calories should help to ensure you’re meeting the recommended energy and nutrient requirements you need to produce milk for your baby and keep yourself healthy. I’ve written a post previously about what a healthy balanced diet actually is but overall it includes:
- At least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day (this can be from fresh, frozen or tinned fruits & fruit juices up to 150ml).
- Starchy carbohydrates – bread, pasta, rice (wholemeal where possible) & potatoes
- Protein – beans & pulses, lean meats & fish, nuts & seeds, eggs, dairy and soya products
- Dairy foods/fortified alternatives – these provide calcium and protein
- Fibre – wholegrains, fruits & vegetables, beans and pulses are all good sources of fibre and can help with bowel problems and constipation which some women experience after giving birth
- Plenty of fluids
What about extra energy and nutrients?
When it comes to extra calorie and nutrient requirements during breastfeeding, on the whole there is no general recommendation for everyone. While breastfeeding does require energy, the amount will be different for every mother. Depending on so many different factors, particularly how much you’re breastfeeding and for how long. If you’re breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months, you may need up to an extra 300 calories per day. If you’re giving some formula feeds this will be less.
In terms of specific nutrients, there are a number of different nutrients that are required in higher amounts during breastfeeding. But again, the amount you need will be highly individual to you and your circumstances. I’ve included a quick round-up of the nutrients and which foods contain them below for information.
As you can see from the list, there are many foods that provide a variety of different vitamins and minerals. So overall, you don’t need to worry too much about individual nutrients and specific amounts. Prioritising balance and variety, however, can help ensure you’re getting everything you need from your diet.
A few other important nutrients:
While protein requirements increase by 11g per day during the first 6 months of breastfeeding and by 8g per day after 6 months, for most people, we already exceed our daily protein requirements. If you’re including a protein source with every meal, you shouldn’t need to worry too much about the extra 11g. It could be half a filet of cod, 1 large slice of wholemeal toast, a small teaspoon of peanut butter or around 30g of cheese.
One nutrient to be aware of is calcium as requirements are almost 80% higher when breastfeeding compared to general requirements (1,250mg/day vs 700mg/day). So it’s important to include calcium-rich foods in your diet. These include dairy or fortified alternatives, tofu, sardines (with bones), pulses, fortified breads & cereals, green leafy vegetables (kale & spring greens), almonds and figs. (BDA fact sheet / BNF Nutrition Requirements).
Other dietary recommendations for breastfeeding mothers:
Fluid requirements are also increased when breastfeeding. Breastfeeding women need about 700mls (3-4 glasses) of extra fluid per day. While tea, juices, milk and other fluids count towards your daily intake, water is the ideal choice to stay hydrated when breastfeeding. Natural Source Waters Association has a great Factsheet with more on hydration before, during and after pregnancy.
Fish while breastfeeding
Fish is a really great source of a range of nutrients, including essential fatty acids, protein and iodine. There are certain fish that have higher levels of mercury and pollutants. So there are recommendations to limit these whilst breastfeeding.
- Oily fish: It’s recommended to limit oily fish to two portions per week (one portion is 140g) due to higher levels of certain pollutants that can build up in the body when eaten regularly and could be harmful to your baby.
- White fish: Most white fish is fine to eat without limits, but sea bream, sea bass, halibut, turbot and rock salmon contain similar pollutants to oily fish and should be limited to two portions per week as well.
- Shellfish: The only recommendation for shellfish is to limit the amount of brown crab meat eaten.
- Other: Shark, swordfish and marlin should be limited to once per week due to the higher levels of mercury, although this is the same recommendation as for all adults.
Caffeine & Alcohol
Both caffeine and alcohol can pass through your breast milk into your baby. Caffeine can affect babies by disrupting their sleep. So keeping caffeine intakes low when breastfeeding is recommended. The recommendation for pregnancy is 200mg of caffeine per day. This is equal to about 1 mug of filter coffee or 2 mugs of tea and is generally good to stick to whilst breastfeeding. With alcohol, babies’ livers are particularly delicate and so alcohol can be harmful to them. It’s recommended not to drink any alcohol for the first 3 months when breastfeeding and no more than 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week after that.
Allergies & Breastfeeding
Research on maternal diet and allergy outcomes is limited. But there is some research to support the fact that breastfeeding can help to prevent the development of allergies (Unicef Baby Initiative). When it comes to a mother’s diet, there are no recommendations to avoid allergens, such as nuts or eggs whilst breastfeeding in order to prevent allergies. Traces of the foods you eat can pass through breast milk. So there are some foods that your baby might be sensitive to. If you suspect your baby is reacting to anything from your breastmilk, consult your GP before cutting anything out of your diet.
Vitamins & Supplements
A daily supplement with 10mcg of vitamin D is recommended to everyone, including breastfeeding women. Especially during the darker months between October – April. Check with your GP if you’re eligible for Healthy Start vouchers for free vitamin supplements.
Other than this you should ideally be able to get all the nutrients you need from a healthy, varied and well balanced diet. If you’re worried that you might not be getting enough in every day, your appetite is a bit varied or you’re simply not eating a balanced diet every day then it might be worth considering a multivitamin supplement or a breastfeeding multivitamin supplement. Which is likely to contain some of the nutrients required in larger amounts above.
For vegan mothers who are breastfeeding, the Vegan Society has some helpful information on what to consider in your diet. Aside from Vitamin D & B12, a balanced and varied diet should provide sufficient nutrients. Some nutrients to be aware of, however, include iodine and omega-3 fatty acids.
Take Home Points
- Recommendations for a healthy diet during pregnancy are largely the same as for the general population. Plenty of fruit & veg, focus on whole grains and plant-based proteins, dairy or fortified alternatives and fibre and fluids
- Protein & calcium requirements are slightly higher whilst breastfeeding so ensure you’re including plenty of sources of both as meals and snacks
- Limit oily fish (and some white fish) to 2 portions per week and shark, swordfish and marlin to just once per week
- Limit caffeine and alcohol as much as possible
- No need to avoid allergens unless you suspect a reaction (seek support from your GP or HV in this case)
- A 10mcg daily vitamin D supplement is recommended throughout breastfeeding, especially in the darker months of October – April