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Eating Well During Breastfeeding

By Karen Manning, APN, IBCLC

      Lactating women should drink when thirsty; increasing fluids does not increase milk supply unless the woman is severely dehydrated.  Calorie requirements should be 300-500 calories per day over non-pregnant requirements.  Calories should be 50% from carbohydrates, 12-15% from proteins, and less than 30% from fats.  Daily calories should not go below 1800.  The USDA food pyramid is a good reference for finding which foods belong to which food category and portion size.  At least 3 meals and 2 snacks daily should be chosen from the food pyramid and distributed throughout the day.

     An inadequate diet or irregular eating patterns can affect how a lactating woman acts and feels, which can negatively influence milk production and let down.  For example, foods high in refined sugar cause an increase in blood sugar levels that then decreases rapidly and results in the mother feeling hungry soon after eating.  Refined carbohydrates increase blood sugar levels fast and then when the level decreases, the mother feels fatigue 2-3 hours later.  A proper diet with sufficient amounts of protein and complex carbohydrates (especially at breakfast) allows breastfeeding moms to function with the highest degree of performance and endurance. 

     A mother nursing multiples or a pregnant nursing mother may need to increase her food intake significantly by increasing serving sizes or increasing snacks between meals.

     A vegetarian diet including some animal products such as eggs and milk can adequately supply a lactating mother with the necessary nutrients to support her body and the healthy growth of her infant.  Lactating women should plan meals with combinations of foods that provide essential amino acids to synthesize proteins.  Also, over the counter supplements and prenatal vitamins are recommended to supplement the woman’s diet (depending on her diet restrictions).  Overly restrictive diets by a breastfeeding mother puts both mother and baby at nutritional risk.  There are times when a detailed nutritional assessment and counseling by a dietician is recommended.

     Eating large amounts of sweets and processed foods in place of nutritious choices can contribute to weight gain by the mother and prevent her from getting the proper vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients her body needs to breastfeed.  Moms should be aware of how to read food labels to check for additives (sugar, salt, preservatives, flavoring, and coloring), processing, and other unhealthy choices.  Fresh, unprocessed foods are the most nutritious. 

     Improper food storage can result in a loss of nutritional quality.  To limit exposure to pesticides and heavy metals, wash produce in water with a mild dish detergent, and limit intake of fresh water fish and animal fats. 

     Women sometimes believe they need to avoid certain foods while they are breastfeeding.  Foods that affect the mother do not have the same effect on the baby.  Certain foods like garlic or certain spices have odors that pass into breast milk and can be noticeable to the infant.  If a lactating mother suspects a problem with a certain food, eliminate it for a week and see how the infant responds.  Then, reintroduce the food and see how the infant reacts.

     Occasional alcohol consumption timed around breastfeeding does not seem to harm a breastfeeding infant.  Moderate alcohol consumption over time by a breastfeeding mom may slow brain growth in her infant, impair milk let down, and change the taste of breast milk. 

     Lastly, susceptible infants sensitive to caffeine (preterm or ill) may experience excessive wakefulness and fussiness when breastfeeding mothers consume caffeine.

Topics and Subtopics: Children's Health & Women's Health

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Obstetrics and Gynecology Pediatrics
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