by Alissa Pemberton – Midwife, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant
& Holistic Sleep Coach
Sit down with your cup of tea, a quick search of Google and you’ll probably find yourself inundated with lists of things you can and can’t do/eat/drink whilst breastfeeding. Combine this with the advice of well meaning relatives, mothers and grandmothers and you’ll start to think you should be not eating too much, but making sure you’re eating enough, whilst keeping your diet nutritionally balanced, but also not stressing about your diet, and drinking enough water, but not drinking too much water - confused? Yep - aren’t we all!
So here’s all you need to know about diet whilst breastfeeding!
What should I be eating?
Producing breastmilk uses, on average, around 300-500 calories a day depending on your milk supply, how often you’re breastfeeding and the age of your baby. Your breastmilk is a complex combination of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals & antibodies + much more, and luckily your body quite cleverly does all the hard work you to create the perfect combination for your baby.
It’s not uncommon amongst mamas to worry that if you’re not taking in the right combination of all of these nutrients then your body won’t be making the right combo for your baby - but this isn’t strictly true.
Research shows that the quality of a mother’s diet has little affect on the composition of her breastmilk. Regardless of whether your diet is perfect - you are still providing your baby with the absolute best nutrition and immunological benefits through your breastmilk.
It’s been said time and time again, whether it be about pregnancy, labour, birth or breastfeeding - we could all do with trusting our bodies a little more! They say a mother’s instinct about her baby is usually right - well I truly believe a mother’s instinct about her body is usually right too! So the general rule of thumb whilst breastfeeding is to eat to your appetite - you don’t need to be counting calories, macronutrients, micronutrients or following a specific eating plan - but lets all use a little common sense.
- eat to your appetite - try to prepare meals in advance, or accept offers from friends/family to cook a meal or snack for you. - keep your diet varied, but be kind to yourself. You’ve got a newborn baby, you’re exhausted, recovering from your body running a little marathon called labour - you won’t be whipping up Michelin star meals in the those first few months (or even first few years!) and that’s alright. Add veg to meals wherever you can, try to limit takeaways and fried foods, make easy swaps like brown rice instead of white wherever you can - but forgive yourself the odd bit of a chocolate or slice of cake - we are all human!! - keep healthy snacks within easy reach of wherever you often tend to sit to breastfeed. Think nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, muesli bars etc. - drink to your thirst, and try to make sure you are consuming a decent amount of water in your daily intake, over squash, juice, coffee & tea. Avoid overconsumption of sugary drinks, energy drinks etc. as these are likely to leave you feeling worse!
Ultimately your focus when it comes to your diet should be nourishing yourself as best as you can - let your body figure out the rest!
So what does impact on milk supply?
Here’s a little run down of how your milk supply actually works…
Progesterone, released by your placenta, is what keeps your body producing colostrum during pregnancy and the first few days after birth.
Once your placenta is birthed, the progesterone levels in your body slowly drop, reaching their lowest around day 3 and thus causing the process of your ‘milk coming in’.
This will happen for all mothers - regardless of whether they initiate breastfeeding or not.
Initially your milk supply is controlled by hormones - including oxytocin & prolactin.
Over the first 6-8 weeks your body starts a subtle shift - changing from hormonal control, to supply and demand.
This means your body relies on levels of a protein in your milk to tell it how much to produce.
Picture tins of baked beans on the supermarket shelf. If the shelves are frequently full of beans the manager will assume they aren’t being bought and won’t order any more. If customers are constantly removing tins of beans, the manager will see they’re in high demand and be loading up those shelves!
So the key to a good milk supply lies not in what you’re eating, drinking or how much, but in how frequently and effective you are removing milk from your breasts (this can be via baby or breast pump - depending on your circumstances).
What about reflux? Should I avoid chocolate? Caffeine?
The list goes on and on. Everything from strawberries to onions to chocolate has been listed in various sources as foods that breastfeeding mamas should avoid.
The answer is no, not necessarily. Some babies are sensitive (more so in the early days of breastfeeding, sensitivities tend to lessen dramatically from 6 months and onwards) to certain foods and you may find particular foods in your diet (especially in high quantity have an impact on your babies temperament. Some babies may be a little more energetic and have trouble settling if you’ve had large quantities of caffeine, dark chocolate etc. but not all babies will react in this way. So again, trust your gut.
Most mamas find they can have caffeine (in moderation), chocolate, cheeses and other rich foods without having any noticeable effect on their baby. There’s no reason to feel you need to be deprived of anything just because you’re breastfeeding.
….and what about alcohol (I hear you all ask!)
Most of us are known to enjoy the odd glass of wine on occasion, and after 9 months of sobriety for some that might be the first thing on their minds - so here’s the lowdown on booze.
According to research1, whilst large quantities of alcohol consumed regularly (more than 4-5 standard drinks per day) have been shown to decrease milk supply; casual use of alcohol (one standard drink in a day, or less) is unlikely to have any significant short term or long term impact on a breastfeeding baby. This is especially true if mum waits for 2-2.5 hours after consuming alcohol before breastfeeding.
Alcohol levels in breastmilk mirror blood alcohol levels so the notion of ‘pumping & dumping’ (Where mum expresses after having an alcoholic drink and discards the tainted milk) does not serve any purpose. As the breasts refill and there is still alcohol in the mums system the replacement milk will still have some alcohol content.
If you are planning to have an alcoholic drink, try to time it for just after feeding or pumping so you have the longest time possible before needing to feed again, have a meal at the same time and avoid more than 1-2 standard drinks at any one time.
If you have concerns about your milk supply, your baby’s feeding patterns or weight gain the first step should always be seeking advice from a breastfeeding specialist like an IBCLC. You can also speak to breastfeeding peer supporters via services like the Breastfeeding Network.
1. Haastrup MB, Pottegard A, Damkier P. Alcohol and breastfeeding. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2014;114:168-73.