Nutrition during breastfeeding, why does it matter?

Nutrition during breastfeeding, why does it matter?

After childbirth, new mums begin a new stage in their lives: the postpartum period or what we sometimes call “the fourth trimester”. This is a period that is important not only to establish the breastfeeding process and bond with our babies, but also because it is the time to recover from labour, to heal our tissues and aim in returning to the weight we used to be before pregnancy.

Despite our current (scientific) knowledge about how diet affects the quality of breastmilk, there’s still some controversy and misconception about this topic. Some may say that it doesn’t matter what mums eat, breast milk composition is fixed, and it won’t change. Some mums might also feel a lot of pressure with the need to eat perfectly in order to make good quality milk, and in the end, this fear might be one of the reasons that women stop nursing their babies.

The concept with breastfeeding nutrition is that mums don’t need to follow a perfect diet all the time – she will still produce quality breastmilk. However, the nutritional composition does change based on a mother’s nutrient stores and diet. So, by aiming to eat a nutrient-dense diet, a mum will automatically optimize her nutrient intake and stores, which in turn supply the nutrients needed for babies. It will also ensure mothers have the proper building blocks to recover from labour for future pregnancies, and prevent other health issues later on in life.

Losing weight while breastfeeding

Like many mums, getting back to your pre-pregnancy weight after childbirth is tough sometimes. There are so many things going on during this stage that paying attention to what you eat and trying to achieve a normal weight takes second place.

However, it is important to return to your ideal weight, especially if you gained more weight during those previous months than recommended, or if you were already overweight before getting pregnant. Post-partum weight retention is a risk factor for future obesity and some chronic diseases such as heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Likewise, if you plan to get pregnant again in the future, excess weight put you at risk for medical complications. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to healthy eating and pelvic floor friendly exercises to help you achieve your weight loss goals and prevent future health issues for you or your child.

So, should I go on a diet as soon as I arrive home?

If you are breastfeeding, it’s best to wait for at least 2-3 months until your breastfeeding supply is well established before trying to lose weight.

Energy and nutrient requirements during breastfeeding are high and can have a negative impact on both, you and your baby if they are not met. In contrast following a well-planned and healthy diet while you are nursing your newborn is important because it will aid with wound healing, restore your nutrient stores, help your breastmilk supply and equally important, it will affect some of the nutritional content of your breast milk.

As mentioned, during breastfeeding, caloric and nutrient requirements are higher than usual, and mums should eat at least 1800 Kcal per day. Eating less than this amount can negatively affect breastmilk volume; plus, a poor diet with a very low caloric supply might be lacking in essential nutrients and lead to changes in the nutrient composition of the human milk.

Some new diet patterns, such as intermittent fasting, are not advisable because mums need consistent calories, nutrients, and fluids throughout the day to support milk supply and meet their own body’s nutrient requirements. Limiting food and fluids for extended periods of time during the day can lead to reduced milk supply, inadequate nutritional status, low energy levels, and dehydration.

Key nutrients that are transferred to breastmilk

Another key topic in regard to your diet while breastfeeding, is that there are several nutrients in mum’s milk that are dependent on them. For example, vitamin A, water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6, vitamin B12; iodine, selenium,  vitamin D and choline, as well as fatty acids such as DHA which are key nutrients for neurological and eye development of the baby.

What are the best foods to eat while breastfeeding?

You can eat most foods while breastfeeding, you just need to do your best to follow a balanced diet, similar to when you were pregnant. You can obtain the extra energy and nutrients needed by eating slightly more of the same foods you already used to eat during pregnancy.

Vitamin D: This is an essential micronutrient for bone health and metabolism. Sunlight exposure is the best source to synthesize vitamin D. Very few food products are a good source of vitamin D, but you can obtain some vitamin D from foods like dairy products, fatty fish, animal fats of pastured animals, liver and egg yolks. Given the few dietary sources, lack of sun exposure in some parts of the world, and/or covering up due to skin cancer concerns or religious/cultural practices, Vitamin D deficiency is very common among people and supplementation is required in almost all cases in order to meet the body’s need. If a breastfeeding mum has low Vitamin D stores from pregnancy, she might not pass on enough Vitamin D to her baby. This is why some authors have proposed to supplement newborns with the vitamin. Exposure to sunlight will also influence the baby’s Vitamin D stores.

Choline: is just as important as it’s cousin – folate, and has a key role in central nervous system development, brain development and cognition. You can include choline in your diet by eating  eggs, liver, salmon, broccoli, kidney beans, brussels sprouts.

Group B vitamins: This is a very big and also essential group of vitamins. They are in charge of multiple functions within our bodies. Inadequate intakes of these B-group vitamins can result in growth retardation. Luckily, B-vitamins are found in lots of foods, from animal and vegetable foods, however vitamin B12 is the only one found in animal sources, this is why vegan or vegetarian mums must take a supplement of the active form of vitamin B12.

Omega-3 fatty acids: Fat is the most variable component of breast milk and it has important functions for your child’s health. It is considered one of the most important nutrients of human milk and is used to provide energy for the breastfed infant. Omega-3 has a crucial role in the growth and function of nervous tissue, brain and eye development, cognitive function and behavior. There are very good sources of healthy fats such as fish (like salmon, trout or sardines), olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds.

Vitamin A: Vitamin A has many functions in the human body, in growth and development, antioxidant and immune function, which highlights the importance of this vitamin in mum’s and baby’s health. Liver and organ meats are incredible and safe sources of this micronutrient. However, care is needed when taking synthetic vitamin A supplements as it has been linked to birth defects at high doses. Talk to your APD Women’s Health Dietitian if you need supplements.

Iodine: Iodine is a mineral not only important for woman’s thyroid health, but also for a newborn’s health. Sources of dietary iodine include iodized salt, dairy foods, and bread dough.

Mum, as you just read, there are several nutrients that are important while you are breastfeeding.  These are essential not only for your newborn but also for your own health and recovery after labour. However, these nutrients are widely found amongst all food groups, so, as long as you eat a healthy and balanced diet, and avoid unhealthy and unnecessary restrictions in your diet, you’re going to meet most your nutrient requirements. However, due to the high demand for nutrients during this time, some nutrients may need to be boosted with supplements. It is important to follow up with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, such as Kristy from Growth Spectrum to ensure you are replenishing your nutrient stores from pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding and meeting your requirements.

Recommendations for mums:

  • Include a wide variety of healthy foods, trying to choose nutrient-dense foods
  • Continue taking your prenatal vitamins and check you’re taking an appropriate supplement (Ask your APD Women’s Health Dietitian)
  • Remember that this is not a stage to go on fad diets
  • If you follow a vegan diet, it’s especially important to choose foods that will give you the nutrients you need and replace with foods high in nutrients you usually find in animal foods

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