infant on mother's chest

Learn about the best nutrition for breastfeeding

When you’re breastfeeding, your body is constantly working. To keep your milk supply and energy up, it’s so important to take in optimal nutrition. Plenty of water and lots of healthy foods will help you feel your best as your body takes on the very important job of nourishing your baby. So what exactly should you eat and drink? We’ve got the 101 on nutrition while breastfeeding.

Calorie intake

The act of creating milk requires a lot of energy. That excess effort means your body will need more calories. In general, you’ll need about 300 to 500 more calories a day than a woman who isn’t breastfeeding, which means your daily total calorie intake could range from 1,800 to 2,200, or more. Since pregnant women typically need 300 additional calories in the latter part of pregnancy, breastfeeding moms would eat about the same, or a bit more, than they did while pregnant.

On the other hand, dieting or taking in fewer calories can negatively affect your milk supply and production, as well as your health and energy. The exact number of calories you need depends on individual factors, like weight, metabolism, activity level and frequency of feedings. A good guide? Listen to your body and follow your hunger cues.

What to eat and drink while breastfeeding

A well-balanced diet with a variety of vitamin-rich foods, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats will ensure you and your baby are in good health. Rest assured, your baby will get the nutrients he or she needs, even if your diet isn’t perfect. But when your body is low in certain nutrients, it will start to pull from its reserves, which can affect your own health.

Breastfeeding moms (and their babies) need vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, D, choline, selenium and iodine from the mom’s diet or supplements to grow and thrive. You can find these vitamins in fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, bananas, carrots, dark leafy greens and more. Other vitamins, such as folate, calcium, iron, copper and zinc, are secreted in breast milk regardless of diet, so it’s important to include these so your body’s reserves don’t become depleted. Seafood, meats, dairy products, beans, nuts and green vegetables will provide this support. Continue to take your prenatal vitamin to cover all your bases.

Protein-rich foods will help your milk production and keep you satisfied throughout the long days and nights. While lean meats are a good source, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and other foods also provide protein, so moms who eat a vegetarian diet can still reap the benefits. If you follow a vegetarian diet, you’ll also want to pay special attention to foods that supply iron and calcium. Iron-rich foods include lentils, dark leafy green vegetables, whole grains and enriched cereals. Pairing these foods with ones that are high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, will help your body absorb the iron. Dairy products and dark green vegetables are a good source of calcium.

Complex carbs, such as whole grains, beans and starchy vegetables, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, provide long-lasting energy and nutrients. Healthy fats keep you satiated and pass on important nutrients to your baby. Turn to avocado, nuts and fish with DHA and EPA (omega-3 fats that help with your baby’s brain and eye development) as a source of healthy fat.

While drinking more fluids is assumed to boost milk production, research doesn’t show a correlation. Regardless, hydration is important to your general health, and becoming truly dehydrated may have an effect on your supply. As a rule of thumb, drink to satisfy thirst—which means drink before you’re thirsty. Breastfeeding moms are busy, so it’s easy to forget or put off drinking water. Make it a habit to always have a large water bottle nearby so you can easily grab it during busy times.

What to avoid

In general, there aren’t any foods or drinks that breastfeeding moms must avoid. But some guidelines can help you make the best choices as far as which types of foods, when and how much you eat or drink. For anyone following a healthy diet, it’s a good idea to avoid processed foods, added sugar, saturated fat and trans fat. These don’t provide the nutrients you need and they often add empty calories and destabilize energy levels.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, avoid pesticides by choosing organic and local when possible and washing items thoroughly before eating. And while fish is great for providing protein, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, high-mercury fish should typically be avoided or limited, just as during pregnancy. Instead, choose low-mercury fish, like salmon, tilapia, shrimp, canned light tuna, cod and catfish, and limit albacore tuna to six ounces per week.

Alcohol and caffeine don’t have to be strictly avoided, as only a very small amount will make its way into your breast milk. But be mindful of when and how much you take in. Because levels peak within the hours right after ingestion, you may want to hold off on breastfeeding directly after you have alcohol or caffeine. Moderation is key, and do a gut check to determine what you’re personally comfortable with.

All that said, if you notice your baby is fussy or gassy at certain times, track your food to see if there might be a connection. Adjust by eliminating what you think may be causing the discomfort and see if there’s an improvement. While most babies don’t have issues with “gassy” veggies, dairy, citrus and spicy foods, some may be sensitive to these. And of course, if you notice your baby develops a rash or hives, changes in his or her stool, or congestion or breathing problems, get in touch with your pediatrician about a potential allergy.

Eating nutritious foods and drinking plenty of water is not only good for you but also for your baby. That’s why taking care of yourself is extra important as a new mom. Make it easy on yourself with healthy takeout options, pre-cut fruits and veggies, bagged salads, crockpot meals, and snacks like nuts and dried fruit that you can eat with one hand while nursing. Breastfeeding can be demanding on your body, but a healthy diet will keep your supply and energy up. If you need help navigating breastfeeding nutrition or any other breastfeeding-related questions, reach out to Ashland Health. We have the resources to guide you on your breastfeeding journey.