Breastfeeding is a journey that includes a lot of questions for many new moms. Among them may be the question, “Does the way we feed ourselves help feed our babies?” A quick search on the internet reveals hundreds of articles about foods that help produce breast milk, or what you “should” and “should not” eat. But before we go judging ourselves based on what we’ve read online, let’s take a look at the current recommendations according to the experts.
Your baby benefits from the nutrients you are getting through your food. Contrary to what you might hear, however, there is no breastfeeding-specific diet. Rather, a generally healthy diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can support your and your baby’s health while you’re breastfeeding. You can continue taking a multivitamin, but it does not have to be a specific prenatal supplement, which typically has more iron than is needed. (Your doctor may recommend the additional iron if you had anemia during pregnancy, or a lot of blood loss.)
Healthy fats are important for your baby’s development. Aim for two to three servings of seafood per week, choosing low-mercury fish like salmon, shrimp, sardines, and tilapia. You should also be drinking plenty of water, which might not be hard since many breastfeeding moms feel thirstier than usual. Staying well-hydrated provides the extra fluid needed to produce breast milk. You will know if you are drinking enough fluids if your urine is only lightly colored. Breastfeeding mothers should also focus on calcium-rich foods, such as dairy, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and calcium-fortified foods.
Some folks believe that certain foods or herbs (like barley, oats, or fennel) can improve your milk supply. However, the evidence is lacking. Although there is no harm in eating these foods, the best way to make sure you are producing enough milk is to feed your baby on-demand, and try to empty the breast at each feeding. Certified lactation consultant and registered dietitian Danielle Lavallee says "Feeding frequency and skin-to-skin contact, throughout lactation but particularly early in the postpartum period, go a long way in establishing and maintaining a healthy milk supply.” So continue to pay attention to your baby’s cues while eating a healthy diet to promote lactation.
“Don’t forget that your body needs energy to produce that milk,” Lavallee adds. “Lactation isn’t the time to be dieting or restricting.” Between 300 and 500 additional calories per day are generally needed while breastfeeding, with the exact amount depending on how much milk you are producing and how active you are.
So what could negatively affect your milk supply? Of course stress, anxiety and fatigue can decrease production, but you may want to think twice before you sit back and relax with a glass of wine. “Too much alcohol can impact your ability to breastfeed,” says Lavallee, “so if you decide to drink, keep it to one per day.” Instead, manage stress with moderate activity, like walking or yoga. Some medications and herbal supplements can also affect your milk supply, so talk with your doctor if you have concerns about what you are taking.
The bottom line is this - if you don’t have a picture-perfect diet, you will still be able to give your baby everything she needs through breast milk, so feel confident that you are doing the best for your little one. If you are having difficulties with breastfeeding, working with a lactation consultant can make a difference. Go to the International Lactation Consultant Association or La Leche League to find support in your area.