Do you need to eat more to breastfeed? Can breastfeeding help you lose weight? And will that spicy curry change the taste of your breast milk? We answer your burning breastfeeding diet and nutrition questions
It takes around 500 calories a day to make one day's worth of breast milk, according to breastfeeding experts La Leche League (LLL). However, some of these calories come from the fat stores you’ve built up during pregnancy. “There is no need to eat for two or to eat special foods,” says Sue Upstone, a leader with La Leche League.
Emma Pickett, a breastfeeding counsellor from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM), points out, “Five hundred extra calories a day might sound a lot, but it's actually not quite an extra meal – a smoothie, a sandwich and a banana and you've probably met your extra quota.”
However, many mums do experience an increased hunger and appetite when breastfeeding. And it's not a good idea to restrict your food when, as a new mum, you're stressed or tired and breastfeeding is making demands on your body.
“It's a myth that you need to drink more fluid when you are breastfeeding, and that you need to glug down huge quantities,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “In fact, studies suggest that drinking purposefully beyond your basic needs could even slightly reduce the quality of your milk.”
That said, you should definitely ensure you stay well-hydrated and drink according to how thirsty you are – which not all mums necessarily do. As Emma points out, “Busy new mums may forget to eat or drink, so always make sure you pay attention to your thirst.”
In general you should be drinking six to eight glasses (1.2 litres) of fluids every day, though some of your water intake is contained within food, too. If your urine is dark and has a strong smell, this is a sign you may be dehydrated and not drinking enough.
It’s a good idea to keep a glass of water or juice by your side when you’re breastfeeding so you stay sufficiently hydrated.
And should you be drinking more milk? No, says Sue, from La Leche League, “There is absolutely no need to drink cow's milk to make milk. After all - cows make milk on an exclusive diet of grass!”
The Government's Food Standards Agency recommends you eat a variety of foods while breastfeeding, including:
“La Leche League recommends that mothers include a wide variety of foods in their diet, in as close to their natural state as possible,” adds Sue.
Heather Welford, breastfeeding counsellor for the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and author of Successful Infant Feeding, says, “A normal healthy diet is fine. A poor diet will not affect your breastfeeding, but you may feel better if you eat better.”
“It's a bit of a myth that you have to eat more healthily or very differently to how you do normally when you are breastfeeding,” agrees Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “This myth is sometimes perpetuated by people who want to give the impression that breastfeeding is a very hard thing to do. It's important to not give the impression that the breastfeeding mum has to be a martyr.
“In fact, we know from research done into breastfeeding women living in countries such as Somalia, who have poor diets, that breast milk doesn't change much in terms of nutritional content and calories.”
La Leche League also underlines that the quality and amount of breast milk is not really affected by diet. Milk supply is governed by how much milk is removed from your breasts.
The fat and calories in breast milk tend to come from fat laid down during pregnancy, rather than your current diet.
Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, explains, “People think, ‘If I eat lots of cream cakes, my breast milk will be different tomorrow.’ But in fact that's not what science tells us – putting down a healthy weight in pregnancy, and having a healthy weight overall, is what benefits the quality of your milk.”
However, there are exceptions to this rule. Emma adds, “What you eat day-to-day affects breast milk in certain areas. For example, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, found in fish oils and flaxseed, are good for your baby's brain development, but these are only found in breast milk if mum has had it in her diet.''
For your general health, it definitely makes sense to follow a healthy, balanced diet – as it does for everyone, breastfeeding or not. Emma adds, “It's worth making the effort to eat more protein rather than carbs, as you are more likely to have a steady energy increase as a result. But if you are a new mum, and you fancy a piece of chocolate or a biscuit, nothing bad is going to happen!”
Breast milk does subtly change in flavour depending on what you’ve eaten. Sue, from La Leche League says, “This is thought to prepare a baby for the solid foods he will eat later.”
The NCT’s Heather adds that some flavours, such as garlic and vanilla, do especially reach the milk.
“You're helping your baby to develop their sense of taste in preparation for the starting of solids,” agrees Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “But basically the sweetness of the natural sugars in the milk will dominate the flavour.”
In terms of affecting your baby's feeding, Emma says, “There is very little evidence that specific foods in a mother's diet will affect her baby's behaviour with regards to breastfeeding. The way milk is made means that only microscopic amounts will be going into the breast milk.”
Emma adds, “It's a myth that if you eat spicy food, then your baby will be affected. For example, the whole Indian subcontinent eats spicy food and often breastfeed to age 3 or 4 with less difficulty than we do.”
According to La Leche League, babies are generally not bothered by particular foods mums eat unless there’s a family history of sensitivities or allergies or mums eat excessive amounts of one particular food.
The Department of Health recommends all breastfeeding mothers take a Vitamin D supplement (10 micrograms per day). Vitamin D is not very easily absorbed from foods, and is made by our bodies in response to sunlight. Vitamin D is important because it helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphates in our bodies, and so helps keep our bones and teeth strong and healthy.
It's also a good idea to make sure your baby gets out for half an hour a day, with their hands and face exposed to light, so they make enough Vitamin D. However, always make sure you use sunscreen if you plan to be out for any longer than this or the sun is strong.
If you wish, you can try taking a special breastfeeding supplement, with essential vitamins and minerals, for your general health. Some of these also have omega-3 oils added.
Most women don't get enough calcium in their diet anyway so it's a good idea to make sure you’re getting the recommended daily amount - this is usually 700mg for adults, but when breastfeeding, experts recommend 1,000mg to 1,200mg. However, there's no need to take special calcium supplements when breastfeeding.
The calcium contained in your breast milk is actually taken out of your bones. Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, says, “This sounds scary, but one of the ways breastfeeding helps mums is that the calcium is taken out of their bones, and then is actually replenished by the body in a more secure way - so it can actually help guard against osteoporosis in the future.”
The occasional glass of wine after a feed is fine. “Research shows that small amounts (no more than one unit a day) of alcohol has no significant effect on breast milk,” says Sue, from La Leche League.
Mums shouldn't beat themselves up about the occasional drink, says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “If you have a glass of wine after a feed and you are not going to feed again for a while, research indicates that's okay. We're not saying to mums you can't ever have a glass of wine for six months or a year!” Emma explains.
Emma also points out that avoiding feeds after drinking could potentially even cause other problems. “Not breastfeeding when you've had a moderate amount of alcohol might even end up doing more harm than good if breasts are left engorged or an exclusively breastfed baby ends up having a different kind of milk, even as a one-off.”
It’s definitely a good idea to sensibly limit how much you drink. Too much alcohol regularly can affect brain development in your baby, so it is important to only indulge occasionally. NHS Choices site states, “It’s unlikely that having an occasional drink will harm you or your baby, but it might affect how easily your baby feeds. So when breastfeeding, it's probably sensible to drink very little. For example, no more than 1 or 2 units once or twice a week.”
If you do drink a glass of wine, it is true that the alcohol goes into your milk. However, once the alcohol has gone from your bloodstream it will disappear from your milk, within a few hours. It’s a myth that if you enjoy a drink, you need to 'pump and dump' your milk. Emma explains, “What doesn't happen is that alcohol goes into your milk and stays there indefinitely. If milk is made and not used up, it is reabsorbed into the body and new milk is made.”
Remember, sensible drinking depends on your personal circumstances, too. “If your baby is little or premature or unwell, then he is going to be hit harder by alcohol,” says Emma. “If your baby is stronger, heavier and older, then he is less likely to be affected.”
Excessive amounts of coffee and tea should be avoided, as caffeine does transfer into your breast milk. If you find, for example, you’re having several double shot espressos a day, you need to curb your caffeine habit!
Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, adds, “Some babies do respond to caffeine more than others. They can get jittery, and caffeine is a powerful drug, which can affect brain development. Caffeine also has a long half-life, around five to seven hours, which means it stays in the body for quite a while. It can take over 24 hours to be eliminated from your body. And caffeine on top of more caffeine means the effect accumulates.”
Research indicates that if you have less than around 300mg of caffeine a day, then most babies seem to be unaffected. There is around 80mg-100mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee, so that's around three cups of coffee a day. A cup of tea contains about 48mg. Sue, from La Leche League says, “Many breastfeeding mothers drink coffee and tea in moderation though some mothers prefer to cut down or avoid them.”
Some mums may have heard that 'acidic' foods, such as tomatoes or citrus fruits, can affect breast milk and cause conditions such as reflux or indigestion - but there’s actually little evidence this is the case.
However, if you're feeling stressed about a particular food then that could have an impact in itself. “If a mum believes that eating spices or another food will affect her baby, then she's likely to be over-sensitive to any changes in her baby's behaviour and read any fussiness as a result of the food,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “Mum herself is also likely to be more anxious, which baby will pick up on. The research just isn't there to support the idea that different foods make babies fussy as a matter of course.”
One instance where what you eat could affect your baby is milk protein from dairy foods, which does move into breast milk. Some babies do have an intolerance or reaction to this (not the same as a lactose intolerance).
“Dairy protein intolerance is extremely rare, but can explain symptoms like reflux, unusual stools and weight gain problems,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.
Peanut allergies are one of the UK's most common, with around 1% of people suffering from them. The current advice from the Government's Food Standards Agency states that it's okay to choose to eat peanuts or foods containing them when you’re breastfeeding, unless you yourself are allergic to them, or your health professional has advised you not to.
This advice follows a major review that found eating or not eating peanuts during breastfeeding, pregnancy and early childhood seemed to have no clear effect on the chances of a child developing a peanut allergy.
However, if you, your baby's dad, or any of your baby's siblings has a peanut allergy or other allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema, then your baby may be at a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy, so you may wish to avoid eating them while breastfeeding.
Yes. In fact, you should eat oily fish, such as mackerel, sardines, trout and salmon, when breastfeeding. Oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for the development of the central nervous system. Evidence suggests that if you eat oily fish when pregnant and breastfeeding then it can help your baby's development.
However, the Government's Food Standards Agency advises that breastfeeding and pregnant women (as well as all women and girls who may have a baby one day) shouldn't eat more than two portions of oily fish per week. A portion is classed as 140g. This is because oily fish can contain dioxins, a type of pollutant, which could be harmful in high doses and can transfer into your breast milk.
“Some herbs can cause changes in breast milk, such as fresh sage and fresh peppermint. If you were drinking fresh peppermint tea six times a day it could potentially impact on your milk supply,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.
Some standard medicines people use in winter, such as decongestants, can also affect milk supply so always double-check with your doctor and pharmacist, and read the label before you take anything.
Yes, breastfeeding should help you get back into shape more quickly. It's a matter of simple maths - as breastfeeding means you use up more calories, breastfeeding can help you to lose weight after birth.
The NCT’s Heather says, “The research isn't clear, but it seems that breastfeeding up to age 6 months or more makes it more likely you will get back to your pre-pregnancy weight than if you formula feed, or breastfeed for less time.”
Of course, there are no guarantees you'll shed the pounds - especially if you’re enjoying lots of cakes and chocolates that well-meaning visitors have brought round after the birth! “Some women don't lose weight, as they are maybe eating more sugary snacks such as biscuits after the birth,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “A few women do seem to hang onto baby weight for longer, but they are in the minority.”
Yes, but only within reason. “If you are crash dieting, or trying to lose more than 2lb a week, then it will damage your milk quality,” says Emma, from the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. “Eating less than 1,500 calories a day [rather than 2,000 - the normal daily calorie intake recommended for an adult woman] could affect your milk supply and quality. But if you lose around a pound a week, then that's fine.”
So don't let breastfeeding put you off if you do want to sensibly diet, says Emma. “Some women don't breastfeed because they want to lose weight, and think they can't diet and breastfeed, or think it means having to make a sacrifice in terms of what they eat and drink,” Emma adds.
While celeb mums are all-too-frequently snapped looking unrealistically svelte a few weeks after labour, for most new mums rushing into a diet isn't realistic – and could be dangerous.
Anna Burbidge, from the La Leche League, says, “La Leche League's Health Advisory Council suggests that breastfeeding mothers should not consciously try to lose weight during the first two months post-partum. This extra time in the early months allows a mother's body to recover from childbirth and establish a good milk supply. It's common for mothers to lose weight during this period by just following a normal diet and eating to hunger. One study showed that breastfeeding mothers tend to lose more weight when their babies are 3 to 6 months old than mothers who are bottlefeeding and consuming fewer calories.”
Anna adds that, on average, lactating women who eat to appetite lose weight at the rate of 0.6kg to 0.8kg (1.3lb to 1.6lb) per month, in the first four to six months. “But there is a wide variation in the weight loss experience of lactating women (some women gain weight during lactation). Those who continue breastfeeding beyond four to six months ordinarily continue to lose weight, but at a slower rate than during the first four to six months.”
If you do want to diet while breastfeeding, it's a good idea to get help from diet experts who have tailored advice for nursing mums, such as Weight Watchers.
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