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The importance of a healthy diet while breast-feeding by Lucinda Miller

The importance of breast-feeding your baby, especially during their first few weeks and months, cannot be overstated. Breast milk is perfectly designed for your baby's physical and mental development and will adapt itself to the baby's nutritional needs. Breast-fed babies tend to be more robust and freer from allergies and other complaints, especially digestive problems, than those on formula.


It must be emphasized, however, that the quality and quantity of a mother's milk may vary considerably. A good healthy diet is the corner stone to producing good quality and sufficient breast milk for your baby's needs. It is also fundamental to the long-term health of a breast-feeding mother. A healthy diet, rich in vitamins and minerals provides your baby with all the nutrients it needs for healthy development in the first months of life.

How much food should I eat?

The baby, who weighs only a few pounds, will receive nearly 1,000 calories per day in breast milk. A nursing mother produces between 23 ounces (680ml) to 27 ounces (800ml) of milk per day. This requires an extra energy expenditure of at least 500 calories per day and this means eating more than normal (but not to excess if you are planning to lose your pregnancy weight).


Adding extra food to your daily intake is usually easy for a breast-feeding mother as feeding your baby is hungry work. A typical 500 calorie meal might be a chicken and salad baguette or a large bowl of cereal and should be eaten in addition to your normal day's food intake. Tea time is generally the time when a mother's energy is lagging and breast milk production is reduced. Extra food at this time will boost the milk supply and help you get through the bath and bedtime routine more easily.

What should I be eating?

It is important to try to eat a variety of foods including:
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables (fresh, frozen, tinned, dried or a glass of juice). Aim for at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day
  • Starchy foods such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes to give you the extra energy you'll need
  • Protein such as lean meat and chicken, fish, eggs and pulses
  • Plenty of fibre, found in wholegrain bread and breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables.
  • Oily fish rich in omega 3 such as mackerel, sardines, herring or salmon - try to eat these twice a week.
  • Nutrition-rich seeds. The best ones are pumpkin, sunflower and sesame, hemp and flax. Supermarkets now sell blends of flaxseed oil and hemp oil that you can use for salad dressings or for drizzling on vegetables instead of butter.
  • Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, which contain calcium and are also a useful source of protein
It can be difficult to find the time to eat properly when you're looking after a young baby but you might find these five points helpful:
  • Think ahead and freeze lots of good-quality meals before your baby arrives.
  • Keep meals simple so they don't take too long to prepare.
  • Make eating regularly a high priority.
  • Try eating smaller meals more frequently.
  • Try to always eat a balanced meal containing both protein and carbohydrate.

What should I avoid?

  • Stimulants Small amounts of whatever you're eating and drinking may pass to your baby through your breast milk. So it's a good idea to think carefully about how much alcohol and caffeine you're having. These may affect the baby in the same way they affect you. If you do have alcohol or caffeine, try to have them only occasionally, because having them regularly, or in large amounts, will affect your baby.
  • Peanuts Peanuts are one of the most common causes of food allergy, affecting about 1 per cent of people, and peanut allergy can cause severe reactions. Your baby may be at higher risk of developing a peanut allergy if you, the baby's father, brothers or sisters have a food allergy or other allergic conditions such as hay fever, asthma and/or eczema. If your baby is in this higher-risk group, you may wish to avoid eating peanuts and peanut products while you're breast-feeding.
  • Some Fish You should avoid eating shark, swordfish or marlin because of the levels of mercury in these fish. This advice is the same for women who are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant.
  • Spicy Foods Some strong-flavoured foods such as garlic or spicy foods may cause your baby to be colicky or irritable. You'll be able to figure out whether your child is sensitive to something you eat or drink as they will show their discomfort by being fussy after feedings, crying inconsolably, not settling at bedtime or sleeping very little. Some common foods which can cause discomfort also include broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, onions and cows' milk.
  • Too much citrus It is thought that too many citrus foods such as oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, lemon and pineapple (being the worst offender), may in some cases cause your baby to develop nappy rash. Stick to apple juice or pear juice whilst breast-feeding.

If you think something you are eating is affecting your baby, you may need to do a bit of detective work to figure out the cause of the sensitivity. If you are not sure, try cutting the food out of your diet for up to a week to see if things improve. If avoiding the food causes a nutritional imbalance, seek professional advice before removing it completely from your diet.

Boosting your milk supply

Often mothers feel they are not producing enough milk for their baby. This can be due to a number of factors.
  • Regular and efficient feeding The quantity of milk produced can be increased through regular and efficient feeding. When you have your baby in a good routine your body will naturally tell your breasts when to fill up - new mothers often feel a tingling in their breasts when this is happening.
  • Tiredness A sleep-deprived mother will produce less milk. This is often why early evening feeds need topping up with formula. Try to have a nap when your baby is having their afternoon nap, and you should have sufficient milk for the evening feed.
  • Hydration Water is crucial to producing enough milk. Large amounts of fluid are lost from the body daily, and particularly when breast-feeding. Therefore when breast-feeding you need to drink plenty of water. A non-breast-feeding mother needs about two litres of water a day - a breast-feeding mother needs to increase this to three litres. If you feel thirsty, this means you're already dehydrated. If your urine is dark and has a strong smell, this is also a sign that you are not drinking enough. Plenty of water will ensure you have enough breast milk. It's therefore a good idea to have a large glass of water by your side before you settle down to breast feed. Water is the best option, however milk, unsweetened and well-diluted fruit juices and herbal teas are also good choices.
  • Fennel tea Sweet-tasting fennel in the form of fennel tea has traditionally been used as a galactagogue, which simply means that it can boost your milk supply. It is also said to be good at calming a baby and reducing symptoms of colic and trapped wind. Fennel tea can easily be bought in large supermarkets and health food shops. You will find it either in the baby food section or in the herbal tea aisle. Drinking fennel tea will also help to keep you hydrated. Fenugreek is similarly used in India by nursing mothers to increase milk supply.

Quality of Milk

The quality of milk depends greatly on the mother's diet. Including meat, poultry, liver and eggs in your diet will ensure sufficient amounts of vitamins B12, A and D as well as all-important minerals such as zinc in your milk. Cod-liver oil supplementation should be considered to help support levels of these nutrients. Whole milk products and home-made stock (made from bones) will ensure that your baby receives adequate calcium.
Spend some time outside daily with your baby - this will naturally maintain good levels of vitamin D for you and your baby which may not be that plentiful in breast milk. Twenty minutes twice a week in the sunshine with exposed hands, arms and face is considered to be sufficient to maintain levels of vitamin D, which is essential in helping the assimilation of calcium and phosphorous which themselves are key to the development of strong bones and teeth.

The importance of a good diet for the breast-feeding mother

Good nutrition is just as important for you as it is for your baby. A woman who does not feed herself properly may still have a healthy baby, but it will be to the detriment of her own health. If you lack adequate nourishment, your body will make milk production its first priority, and your needs will go unmet. It is just the same as it was during pregnancy, when the nutritional needs of the foetus were satisfied before those of the mother. If you have had fertility issues or a child with health concerns and plan to get pregnant again it is particularly important to watch your health as good nutrition is the foundation to producing healthy babies. A well-nourished mother will also be a healthy happy mother.


Preventing baby blues


Postnatal depression is prevalent amongst breast-feeding mothers with newborn babies and beyond. A good-quality diet is crucial to keeping your mood balanced. In addition to a nourishing diet a mother prone to baby blues or postnatal depression might want to consider supplementing with a good quality omega 3 fish oil.


Losing weight


It's not a good idea to try to lose weight while you're breast-feeding because you do need to maintain your energy levels and you might miss out on the nutrients that you and your baby need. The good news is that the extra fat laid down in pregnancy is used to make breast milk, so breast-feeding will help you get back into shape quicker. If you eat a healthy, balanced diet, limit the amount of fat and sugar you eat, and are physically active, this will help you to lose any extra weight you may have put on during pregnancy

About the author

Lucinda Miller is a Family Naturopath and Herbalist with eleven years experience. She specialises in helping people with fertility, antenatal, postnatal and paediatric health issues

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