The Nutritional Guide for Nursing Parents: What to Eat and What Not to Eat When Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding parents are busy people: nursing every few hours, adjusting to a whole new sleep schedule, recovering from childbirth and whatever that may have entailed for you. So while you might be focused on your little one’s nutritional needs ahead of your own, it’s just as important that you properly nourish yourself—especially during this time. Here’s what to eat when breastfeeding… and what not to eat when breastfeeding.
Eat Diverse, Whole Foods
In general, lactating parents can eat as they please, with a particular focus on nutritious foods. Because you need energy, iron-rich foods like leafy greens, legumes, and red meat might be a good idea—they’ll help sustain you throughout the nursing process. Hydration is also key. Adequate water intake is important for maintaining your breast milk supply, and it’s also essential for preventing lethargy, headaches, and weakness. Protein in any form can give you an energy boost, whether that’s legumes paired with whole grains, eggs, or meat. And finally, nuts and seeds are chock-full of the vitamins and minerals lactating people need. Some—specifically flax, almonds, and sesame—are anecdotally believed to exhibit lactogenic properties (link to galactagogue article), which means they might even increase your milk supply.
Watch Out For Mercury
Although fish is a great source of protein and the vitamins and minerals a lactating parent needs, most fish contain some amount of mercury that can be passed to a baby via breast milk, affecting their brain and nervous system development. The FDA advises breastfeeding parents to eat a variety of fish (rather than the same fish over and over again) and follow the guidelines on this chart to ensure your mercury consumption is safe for your infant. And if you’re wondering “can you eat sushi while breastfeeding?,” the answer is yes! As long as you’re confident that your favorite sushi restaurant sources high-quality fish, and you remain conscious of mercury levels, you can still enjoy your favorite spicy salmon maki in moderation.
Monitor your caffeine consumption
Now the question every exhausted parent wants to know: can you drink coffee while breastfeeding? In short, yes—but not too much. Caffeine is transferred to nursing infants through breast milk. Moderate amounts of caffeine, found in coffee; energy drinks; soda; tea, and chocolate, are safe to consume, but more than 300 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee) could cause jitters, poor sleep, and irritability for your baby. Per the CDC, preterm and younger newborn infants break down caffeine extra slowly, so their parents might consider further minimizing their caffeine intake.
Stay Mindful With Alcohol
The CDC states that abstaining from alcohol is the safest choice for breastfeeding parents. But one standard drink per day, consumed at least two hours prior to breastfeeding, is not known to cause harm to infants. Drinking in excess of that could damage your nursing baby’s sleep patterns, development, and growth, so if you do choose to imbibe, practice moderation.
If You’re Vegan or Vegetarian, Consider Supplementation
Lactating parents who don’t consume animal products might put their infants at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency, which could result in neurological damage. Talk to your doctor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant about the best supplements for your vegan or vegetarian diet.
Talk to Your Doctor or IBCLC About Multivitamins
Lactating people need to increase their daily intake of many vitamins and minerals (like iodine), so it’s possible that your diet alone might not provide adequate nutrition—especially if you avoid certain foods. It’s always best to talk to your doctor or IBCLC to make sure you’re getting the right mix of nutrients to keep you and your baby healthy.
Increase Your Caloric Intake
According to the CDC, lactating parents typically need an additional 450-500 kcal of nutrient-dense food every day (approximately 2,300 to 2,500 daily kcal)—that’s more calories than you needed to consume while pregnant! But that math doesn’t apply to everyone: the number of calories an individual needs will depend on their age, body mass index, activity level, and whether they’re exclusively breastfeeding or supplementing with formula. Plus, the increased recommended caloric intake absolutely does not mean you should expect nursing to help you lose pregnancy weight. The priority is filling up your stores so you can feed your little one—not emptying them prematurely because of societal pressures.
A solid rule of thumb is this: eat the things that make you feel good, and check in with your doctor or IBCLC about any questions that arise. When you take care of yourself with a balanced, nutritious diet, you and your baby will benefit!