Feeding the breastfeeding mother

Breast-feeding nutrition can be confusing.

  • How much should you eat?
  • What should you avoid?
  • How might your diet affect your baby?

Your body is designed to produce high quality milk for your baby, regardless of your own diet and fluid intake.

However, quality nutrition is important in helping you to recover from birth, stay healthy, and keep up with the 24/7 needs of a small baby and young children.

Table of Contents

Flavoured milk

Did you know that your own diet subtly flavours your amniotic fluid, and also your breast milk?

This provides a great sensory learning experience for your baby, with exposure to a range of different flavours in infancy associated with greater acceptance of new foods in older babies and toddlers.¹

There are no specific foods that breastfeeding mothers should avoid so if you enjoy garlic, spicy food, broccoli or curries, go ahead and enjoy them, knowing you are teaching your baby about these foods too!

Milk quality

Your own diet has a very small effect on the quality of your milk.

While the amount of fat in your diet impacts your own health, it does not change the amount of fat in your milk, which varies throughout the day depending on how full or empty your breast is.

There are healthy and unhelpful fats in food, and the types of fat you eat alter the types of fat in your milk².

If you regularly eat foods rich in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats, such as salmon, chia seeds or walnuts, this will increase the proportion of healthy fats in your breast milk (which are important to your baby’s brain development!)

If you eat a lot of foods that are high in trans fats, such as fried foods and biscuits, this will increase the proportion of unhelpful fats in your milk.

What about coffee?

Caffeine rapidly transfers into breast milk, with concentrations peaking ~1 hour after a ‘dose.’

However less than 2% of the mother’s dose passes into the milk, and effects of caffeine on babies, such as jitteriness and restlessness, have only been reported for excessive intake, e.g. when mothers have had 10 cups of coffee per day, or five cups of coffee plus several cola drinks.

Babies less than three months of age, and babies born preterm are more likely to be affected by large doses (e.g. 5 – 10 cups of coffee).

Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and green tea are fine in moderation – aim for no more than three cups per day³.

Meal planning/prep

When looking after a babies and young children, at times it can be easier to reach for takeaway foods or packaged and convenient foods.

Planning meals and snacks ahead of time can make a big difference to the overall quality of your diet.

If you plan ahead you are more likely to make healthy choices and meet the increased nutritional needs required for breastfeeding and keeping your energy levels up even, especially when you are not getting enough sleep.

Plan a menu that is easy and flexible and increase portions when cooking so you have extra for the fridge and the freezer.

For example, if you make a bolognaise sauce double the recipe and you can serve it with spaghetti one night and turn it into tacos the next.

Leftovers from meals such as casseroles, lasagne, soups and shepherds pie will freeze well and can be very handy when there is no time or energy to cook.

Snacks on the go

Nutritional needs increase when breastfeeding and snacks can be a fantastic way to meet the increased demands of breastfeeding.

Make sure your fridge, freezer and pantry are well stocked.

Healthy snack ideas that can (mostly) be eaten one-handed or when nap-trapped by baby include:

  • Fresh, frozen and tinned fruit
  • Yoghurt
  • Toast with peanut butter, vegemite, cheese or baked beans
  • Raisin toast
  • Nuts, seeds and dried fruit mix
  • Muesli bar
  • Boiled eggs
  • Fruit smoothie
  • Cut up veggie sticks dipped in hummus or cottage cheese
  • Crackers with cheese and tomato
  • Toasted cheese, ham and tomato sandwich
  • Tuna and rice
  • Porridge, chia pudding, bircher muesli, overnight oats
  • Quiche
  • Wrap with chicken and salad

Drinking for two? (fluids)

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) dietary guidelines suggest pregnant and breastfeeding women require an additional 750-1000ml fluid (3-4 glasses) per day above basic needs.

This equate to about 9-12 glasses per day.

Fluid intake should mostly comprise of water and a moderate amount of milk is also suitable.

Try to avoid soft drinks, fruit juice, flavoured milks and energy drinks.

Always have a bottle of water in arms reach when breastfeeding. If your urine is pale yellow this is a good sign that you are getting enough fluid.

If your urine is dark yellow and has a strong smell this indicates that you need more fluid.

Increased nutrient requirements

Breastfeeding uses up lots of energy and nutrients therefore it is important to eat a balanced diet from all five core food groups:

  • Fruit – 2 serves per day
  • Vegetables – 7.5 serves per day
  • Grains – 9 serves per day
  • Proteins – 2.5 serves per day
  • Dairy products – 2.5 serves per day

Eating a balanced diet will help to supply nutrients needed during breastfeeding such as protein, calcium, iron and many vitamins.

During pregnancy iron stores are often depleted therefore during breastfeeding it is a good idea to rebuild your iron stores.

Often this can be achieved through your diet however for vegetarian and vegan women an iron supplement may be indicated.

Maternal nutrition does not impact on all nutrients in breastmilk, however certain nutrients in breastmilk depend upon maternal dietary intake. For example:

  • Iodine is important for your baby’s developing brain and nervous system.
    • Breastfeeding women should include regular iodine-rich foods such as dairy products, seafood and iodised salt and take an iodine supplements of 150mcg/day.
  • Vitamin B12 is also important for your baby’s developing nervous system.
    • Vitamin B12 is found in meat, fish, eggs, milk and fortified breakfast cereals.
    • If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet you may need a supplement.
  • Vitamin D helps your baby absorb calcium which is needed for bone growth and development.
    • You and your baby can get vitamin D from direct sunlight on your skin.
    • Foods sources of vitamin D include oily fish, red meat, liver, egg yolks and fortified butter.
    • If you’re low in vitamin D a supplement is needed.

If you wish to continue taking your pregnancy and breastfeeding supplement this is safe and most will cover the nutrients listed above.

If you prefer to supplement only what is required speak to your doctor or dietitian to work out what you need.

References

1. Patel, Donovan & Lee 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7694604/
2. Perrella, Gridneva, Lai et al, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0146000520301634?via%3Dihub
3. Lactmed, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK501467/
4. NHMRC, 2013. https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/files/the_guidelines/n55a_australian_dietary_guidelines_summary_book.pdf

Author Bios

Written by Sharon Perrella, Lactation Consultant and Loren Muhlmann, Dietician. To book an appointment with Sharon or Loren, phone 9328 0500 or via our bookings page.

Photo credit: Taylor Maree Photography

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