Breastfeeding diet: what your body needs
When you’re breastfeeding, your body needs extra nutrients. That’s because your body is working harder to make breastmilk full of nutrients for your baby. So it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods every day from the five main food groups:
- vegetables – 7½ serves a day
- fruit – 2 serves a day
- grain foods – 9 serves a day
- protein – 2½ serves a day
- dairy or calcium-enriched products – 2½ serves a day.
If you’re eating a healthy diet, you’ll be getting enough of most nutrients. But there are a few nutrients you need to be aware of – calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. It’s also important to make sure you’re drinking enough healthy fluids.
Calcium is very important for your baby’s bone development and makes up an important part of breastmilk.
You get calcium from:
- dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt
- calcium-enriched products like some brands of soy milk
- fish with edible bones, like sardines and salmon
- some green leafy vegetables like kale and bok choy
Iodine keeps your baby’s brain and nervous system developing. Your baby depends on your breastmilk as a source of iodine.
You get iodine from dairy products, seafood, iodised salt, and bread made with iodised salt.
Iodine deficiency in breastfeeding mothers can be a risk for babies. So when you’re breastfeeding, it’s recommended that you take an iodine supplement of 150 micrograms (μg) per day. If you have any pre-existing thyroid problems, check with your doctor before taking a supplement.
Vitamin B12 is very important for your baby’s developing nervous system. Your baby gets vitamin B12 from your breastmilk.
You get vitamin B12 from meat, fish, eggs, milk and fortified breakfast cereals.
If you follow a restricted diet, particularly a vegan diet, you need to be extra careful about making sure you get enough vitamin B12. You might need a supplement. Your GP or a dietitian can help you work out what you need.
Vitamin D helps your baby absorb calcium, which baby needs for bone growth and development. Your baby gets vitamin D from your breastmilk. Your baby’s body also makes vitamin D when there’s direct sunlight on baby’s skin.
You need enough direct sunlight on your skin to make vitamin D. There are also small amounts in oily fish, fish liver oils, egg yolks and butter.
You might be at risk of vitamin D deficiency if you’re dark-skinned, if you keep all of your skin covered, or if you rarely go outdoors. If you’re deficient, you and your baby might need to take a vitamin D supplement. Your GP or a dietitian can help you work out what you need to do.
Your body needs more water when you’re breastfeeding. You should aim to have around 10 cups of fluids a day. But you might need more on hot or humid days or if you’re very active.
If you’re not sure whether you’re getting enough fluids, have a look at your urine. It should be pale yellow. Dark yellow urine is a sign that you need to drink more fluids.
Water is the cheapest and healthiest drink. Avoid soft drinks, fruit juices, flavoured milk, flavoured water, sports drinks and energy drinks.
Some women worry about losing their ‘baby weight’. The best way to get back to a healthy weight after pregnancy is by eating healthy food and doing gentle exercise. Crash or fad diets aren’t good ways to lose weight, because you’ll miss out on important nutrients.
Foods to limit in a breastfeeding diet
Caffeine transfers into breastmilk, so avoid drinking large amounts of caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee. Newborns are especially sensitive to caffeine.
A moderate amount of caffeine is usually fine – about two cups of coffee or four cups of tea a day. You could also try things like non-caffeinated and herbal teas or decaffeinated coffee instead.
If your baby is restless or has difficulty sleeping, you could try limiting how much caffeine you have and see whether this helps.
Keep ‘sometimes’ foods to a minimum. These foods are high in salt, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre and nutrients.
Excluding potential allergy-causing foods while you’re breastfeeding won’t reduce the risk of your baby developing allergies. In fact, avoiding too many foods can be dangerous, because your baby won’t get important nutrients.
Alcohol, smoking, medication and breastfeeding
What you eat, drink or smoke can pass through your breastmilk to your baby and affect your baby’s health and development.
If you’re breastfeeding, it’s best not to drink alcohol, smoke or use drugs, including marijuana.
But if you plan to drink alcohol, it’s best to limit the amount to one drink. And wait 2-3 hours (per drink) before breastfeeding again.
Even if you smoke, breastfeeding is the best option for your baby. You can protect your baby by always smoking outside, and not smoking for an hour before feeding.
Smoke gets trapped on your hair, clothing and skin. So when you’re smoking, cover your hair and clothes with something your baby won’t come into contact with. And you should also wash your hands and brush your teeth after each time you smoke.
Make sure other people smoke well away from you and your baby too.
Most medications are safe while you’re breastfeeding, but it’s good to check with your doctor or pharmacist. You can also ask the pharmacist at large maternity hospitals.
Exercise and breastfeeding
It’s important to let your body recover after birth, but when you’re ready, some regular exercise will boost your health and wellbeing.
Being active every day:
- strengthens your bones, muscles and joints
- reduces your risk of heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes
- controls your weight
- improves your sleep
- reduces your stress levels
- improves your mental wellbeing.
You can begin with gentle exercise like taking short walks, and then try activities like swimming, yoga or Pilates.
Moderate exercise won’t affect your breastmilk, your supply, the amount of nutrients in your breastmilk or your baby’s growth.
Some women worry that exercising will lead to too much lactic acid in their breastmilk. But this happens only after exercising at a very high intensity, and extra lactic acid in your breastmilk won’t harm your baby anyway.
Talk with your doctor or physiotherapist about the right exercise for you.
It can be hard to find the time to fit exercise in, but you can try making it part of everyday activities. For example, pushing your baby’s pram to the shops to pick up some things for dinner gets you out of the house and keeps you active too. You could learn a few exercises to do from home, or use exercise apps or YouTube videos.