What to eat when you’re breastfeeding

Which foods should breastfeeding mothers eat – and avoid? What about peanuts, oily fish or curries? What about coffee or alcohol? We answer all the important breastfeeding diet and nutrition questions with latest scientific research and advice from expert lactation consultants

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A good varied diet is important for your general wellbeing, whether you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or neither. “So, a normal, healthy diet is fine for breastfeeding,” says Heather Welford, author of Successful Infant Feeding and a breastfeeding counsellor for the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). “A poor diet will not affect your breastfeeding, but you’ll probably feel better if you eat better.”

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Indeed, the NHS guidelines for eating when breastfeeding are pretty much the same as for eating when you’re not breastfeeding: get plenty of variety in your diet; eat lots of fruit and vegetables a day, and make sure you eat starchy foods (carbs) as well as protein and dairy (or, if you’re vegan, non-dairy sources of calcium).

Saying that, there are also some additional guidelines for certain foods and drinks you should – or might want to – avoid while you’re breastfeeding that are certainly worth being aware of.

So, here’s all you need to know about eating well while you’re breastfeeding…

What foods should I eat when I’m breastfeeding?

The NHS advises that a healthy diet when breastfeeding should include:

  • At least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables a day, including fresh, frozen, tinned and dried fruit and vegetables, and no more than one 150ml glass of 100% unsweetened juice. If have a young child under 4 and are getting certain benefits or tax credits, you may be able to get Healthy Start vouchers to spend on fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables.
  • Starchy foods, such as wholemeal bread, pasta, rice and potatoes
  • Lots of fibre (from wholemeal bread and pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, pulses such as beans and lentils, and fruit and vegetables). After having a baby, some women have bowel problems and/or constipation, and fibre helps with both of these
  • Protein, such chicken,  lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, soya foods and pulses – and preferably including 2 portions of fish a week
  • Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. These contain calcium and are a source of protein (non-dairy sources of calcium suitable for vegans include tofu, brown bread, pulses and dried fruit
  • Plenty of fluids, Have a drink beside you when you settle down to breastfeed: water and skimmed or semi-skimmed milk are good options

At-a-glance guide: food and drink to avoid (or consider avoiding) when breastfeeding

Alcohol: Smalls amount of anything you eat or drink is passed onto your baby when you breastfeed – and that includes alcohol. An occasional small glass of wine after breastfeeding won’t do any harm but, if you do want to have a drink, the official advice is to allow 2 to 3 hours to pass for each drink you have before breastfeeding again.

Allergens: Obviously, if you have a food allergy, you’re not going to be eating that food but the international breastfeeding-support organisation La Leche League suggests you might also like to avoid any foods the father of your baby has an allergy to, as well. Otherwise, it’s fine to eat common allergens such as tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, eggs, shellfish and dairy. In fact, according to research collated by Unicef1, breastfeeding may lessen your baby’s chance of becoming sensitised to allergens.

Caffeine: Caffeine can transfer to your baby through your breastmilk. Although there is limited evidence of any negative effects2, breastfeeding mothers of babies under 6 months are usually advised to restrict caffeine intake to less than 200mg a day.

Fish: Fish is an excellent food choice when you’re breastfeeding but, when it comes to oily fish (salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel), the official advice is not to have more than 2 portions a week.

Food your baby ‘reacts’ to: You may observe that your baby seems unsettled when you breastfeed after you have eaten a certain food – and so, understandably, you may decide to cut that food from your diet. Ms Kene who posts on our MadeForMums forum says she stays away from “things like cabbage and broth: I found out what gives you wind will probably give your baby wind, too”. It has to be said that there’s no scientific evidence of any particular food unsettling a breastfeeding baby but that doesn’t stop the finger of blame pointing at all sorts of foods, from grapes to garlic and from lentils to curry!

Do I need to eat extra healthily while I’m breastfeeding?

“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,” says lactation consultant Emma Pickett who’s also a volunteer counsellor for the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.

“In fact, we know from research done with breastfeeding women living in countries where food choices are limited, such as Somalia, that breastmilk doesn’t change much in terms of nutritional content and calories.”

Obviously, that’s not carte blanche to eat nothing but doughnuts; you will undoubtedly feel better if your diet is healthy – but it’s good to know that, if you’re too tired and new-baby-busy to shop and cook well, a few days of not brilliantly healthy food choices isn’t going to affect your milk.

Do I need to eat more when I’m breastfeeding?

Breastfeeding mothers need roughly 500 more calories a day3 than mothers who aren’t breastfeeding – but every woman is different and, as you know from your pre-pregnancy days, your own energy requirements will depend on many other factors, including how active you are.

“And, anyway, 500 extra calories a day might sound a lot but it’s actually not quite an extra meal,” says Emma. “A smoothie, a sandwich and a banana and you’ve probably met your extra quota.”

Do I need to drink more when I’m breastfeeding?

“It’s a myth that you need to drink more fluid than normal when you are breastfeeding, and that you need to glug down huge quantities,” says Emma. “In fact, studies suggest that drinking purposefully beyond your basic needs could even slightly reduce the quality of your milk.”

Instead, aim to drink the usual 6 to 8 glasses of fluid every day to keep yourself well-hydrated. (If your urine is dark and has a strong smell, this is a sign you may be dehydrated and not drinking enough.)

“And pay attention to your thirst,” says Emma. “It’s easy to forget to drink enough when you’re busy with a little baby.” It’s a good idea to keep a glass of water by your side to sip from when you’re breastfeeding.

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And should you be drinking more milk? No, says Sue Lipstone of La Leche League GB: “There is absolutely no need to drink cow’s milk to make human milk. Remember, cows make milk on an exclusive diet of grass!”

Does the food I eat change my breast milk?

The basic fat and calorie content of your breastmilk tends to come from the fat you laid down during your pregnancy, rather than your current diet.

“It’s not right to think, ‘If I eat lots of cream cakes, my breastmilk will be a better quality tomorrow,” says Emma. “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.”

Saying that, there are some nutrients that will only feature in your breastmilk if you’re eating them yourself. “Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, found in fish oils and flaxseed, are good for your baby’s brain development,” says Emma, “but these are only found in your breastmilk if you have them in your diet.”

What about dairy food: can eating dairy produce affect my baby?

It’s possible but unlikely. Some small babies do have cow’s milk protein allergy – and will therefore react to the small quantities of cow’s milk that have passed into your breastmilk – but it’s very rare in exclusively breastfed babies (affecting 1 in 200)4 and the symptoms are usually mild or moderate.

“Dairy protein intolerance is extremely rare, but can sometimes explain symptoms like wheeziness, vomiting, swelling of the lips, a rash, diarrhoea, eczema and/or a blocked nose,” says Emma.

If you suspect your baby may have cow’s milk protein allergy, you should go to see your GP, who may advise you to cut dairy out of your diet for 2 weeks to see if it improves the symptoms.

If I eat spicy food, will my breast milk taste spicy too?

A little. Breastmilk does subtly change in flavour, depending on what you’ve eaten – and that includes foods such as garlic and vanilla, as well as curry and spices.

“You’re helping your baby to develop their sense of taste in preparation for the starting to eat solid food later on,” says Emma. “But basically the sweetness of the natural sugars in your milk will dominate these other flavours.

You may hear plenty of people say that eating spicy food when you’re breastfeeding will unsettle your baby but, says Emma, “there is very little evidence that specific foods in a mother’s diet will affect her breastfed baby’s behaviour6. The way milk is made means that only microscopic amounts will be going into your breastmilk.

“Beside, the whole Indian subcontinent eats spicy food and mothers there often breastfeed to age 3 or 4 – with no obvious effects on their babies.”

Should I take vitamin D supplements while I’m breastfeeding?

Yes. Official NHS recommendations say everyone, including breastfeeding women, should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10mcg vitamin D, at least between October and April, when there isn’t enough sunlight to help us naturally absorb vitamin D from our food.

Ask your GP or health visitor where to get vitamin D supplements. You may be able to get free vitamin supplements if you’re eligible for Healthy Start. Or, your GP may agree to prescribe you some (you’re entitled to free NHS prescriptions for 12 months after your baby is born, as long as you have a valid maternity exemption certificate).

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Should I take calcium supplements while I’m breastfeeding?

No, although it’s a good idea to make sure you’re eating plenty of calcium-rich foods, including dairy produce, tofu and green leafy vegetables.

Although the calcium contained in your breast milk is taken out of your bones, that’s not as scary as it sounds – as all that all the calcium is usually recovered within a few months after breastfeeding ends5.

Is it OK to drink alcohol when I’m breastfeeding?

The occasional glass of wine after a feed is fine.

“Research shows that small amounts of alcohol has no significant effect on breast milk,” says Sue. And Emma agrees: “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 OK. We’re not saying you can’t ever have a glass of wine if you’re a breastfeeding mum.”

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However, it’s definitely a good idea to limit how much and how often you drink (no more than 1 or 2 units once or twice a week) – and to avoid breastfeeding soon after having had alcohol (when it might still be present – in small quantities – in your milk).

If you do drink a glass of wine, allow 2 to 3 hours to pass per unit of alcohol before you breastfeed again. It’s a myth that, if you have a drink, you need to ‘pump and dump”: once the alcohol has gone from your bloodstream, it will disappear from your breastmilk, too.

“What doesn’t happen,” says Emma, “is that alcohol goes into your milk and stays there indefinitely. If milk is made and not used up, it is reabsorbed into your body and new milk is made.”

What about caffeine and coffee when I’m breastfeeding?

As with anything you eat or drink, caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks and chocolate) does transfer into your breastmilk.

There’s little clear scientific evidence that caffeine in breastmilk has any negative effect on a breastfed baby2 but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from breastfeeding mothers that some babies do seem to respond to caffeine more negatively than others. On our MadeForMums Facebook page, Becky told us: “I had to cut out caffeine as it made my son very irritable. That included chocolate too, which was tough as he was born 16th December and there was loads of Christmas chocolate to taunt me!”

“Caffeine can make babies jittery,” says Emma. “And caffeine stays in the body for quite a while – it can take over 24 hours to be eliminated from your body.”

Officially, breastfeeding mother are advised to restrict their caffeine intake to less than 200mg a day – which is, roughly, 2 cups of instant coffee or 2 ½ cups of tea. Don’t forget that cola also contains caffeine (40mg per small can), as do energy drinks (80mg per small can) and chocolate (50mg per bar).

What about ‘acidic’ foods: do they affect my breastmilk?

There are people who warn that ‘acidic’ foods, such as tomatoes or citrus fruits, can affect breastmilk and also cause colic, reflux (spitting up of milk) or indigestion but – as with similar warnings about spicy food (see If I eat spicy food, will my breast milk taste spicy too?, above) – there’s actually little evidence that this is the case6.

However, if you think you’ve noticed a link between a particular food you’ve eaten and a change in your baby’s behaviour, then there’s no harm in cutting that particular food out of your diet for a while.

“If you believe that eating a certain acidic food affects your baby,” says Emma, “then you’re likely to be anxious about it and perhaps over-sensitive to any changes in your baby’s behaviour after you’ve eaten that food. Whether the food is actually causing the changes or not, your baby will pick up your anxiety – which may, of course, be unsettling in itself.”

Is it safe to eat peanuts when I’m breastfeeding?

Yes, unless (of course) you are allergic to peanuts yourself. The official NHS advice is that “there’s no clear evidence that eating peanuts while breastfeeding affects your baby’s chances of developing a peanut allergy”, so eating peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) as part of your normal diet is fine, while you’re breastfeeding.

In fact, Canadian research suggests that your baby may be less likely to develop a sensitivity to peanuts if you eat them while breastfeeding7 and introduce them into your baby’s own diet (once they’re on solids) within their 1st year.7

If you have any questions or concerns about this – maybe because your baby’s dad, your baby’s siblings or other members of your immediate family have a peanut allergy or other allergic conditions such as asthma and eczema – then it’s worth talking to your GP, midwife or health visitor.

Can I eat oily fish when breastfeeding?

Yes. In fact, you should eat oily fish, such as mackerel, sardines, trout and salmon, when breastfeeding: oily fish are good sources of protein and vitamins and minerals, as well as being rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be important for brain development in infants8.

However, the official NHS guidelines are that breastfeeding (and pregnant) women shouldn’t eat more than 2 portions of oily fish per week. This is because oily fish can contain dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants that can be harmful in high doses.

In addition, a breastfeeding woman (in common with all adults) shouldn’t eat more than 1 portion of shark, swordfish or marlin a week because these fish may contain high levels of mercury.

Do note that breastfeeding women do not need to limit tuna – which is different from advice given to pregnant women to limit their tuna consumption to 4 medium-sized tuna can (or 2 tuna steaks) a week.

Anything else I should avoid eating when I’m breastfeeding?

You may hear that some herbs such as peppermint and sage can affect your milk supply. That’s because dried sage and peppermint essential oil are traditionally used to decrease milk supply if you’ve an oversupply or you’re giving up breastfeeding.

“Some herbs can cause changes in breastmilk, such as sage and fresh peppermint, but you’d have to eat a lot of them,” says Emma. “Only if you were drinking fresh peppermint tea 6 times a day, could it potentially impact on your milk supply.”

And, although they’re not foods, it’s worth mentioning that some standard medicines, such as decongestants, can also affect milk supply. So always double-check with your GP and pharmacist before you take anything (even over-the-counter medications) and read the label carefully.

Will breastfeeding help me lose weight?

Yes! Breastfeeding should help you get back into shape faster than if you didn’t breastfeed but don’t expect miracle weight loss compared to your formula-feeding friends. A 2004 review of 5 studies concluded that after 12 months, breastfeeding mums had lost between 0.6kg and 2kg more weight than mums who didn’t breastfeed.9

And that’s probably because, although breasfeeding is thought to use up an additional 600 to 700 calories a day, breastfeeding does make you hungry – meaning you will probably cancel out some of that calorie deficit by eating (or snacking) a bit more, too.

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“Some breastfeeding women don’t lose weight,” says Emma,”maybe because breastfeeding making them crave more sugary snacks. And a few breastfeeding women do seem to hang onto their babyweight for longer anyway – but they are definitely in the minority.”

Is it safe to diet while I’m breastfeeding?

Yes, as long as you take it slowly. “If you are crash-dieting, or trying to lose more than 2lb a week, then it can damage your milk quality,” says Emma.

A useful rule-of-thumb is a much-cited 1998 study that suggests that lactation (both breastmilk volume and quality) is not adversely affected by moderate rates of weight loss – which the researchers define as no more than about 4½ lbs per month or 1lb a week.

So, if you’re thinking of not breastfeeding – or giving up breastfeeding – because you can’t diet to lose weight, think again. “Some women think they can’t diet and breastfeed,” says Emma, “but they’re wrong!”

That said, it’s best to wait till your baby’s at least 6 to 8 weeks old before starting a weight-loss diet, say experts at La Leche League GB, as your body needs this time to recover from childbirth and establish a good milk supply. It’s common, they add, for breastfeeding mothers to lose weight during this period anyway, just by following a normal diet and eating to hunger.

If you do decide to diet while you’re breastfeeding, it’s wise to get help from diet experts, such as WeightWatchers, who have tailored advice for breastfeeding mums.

Pics: Getty

About our experts Heather Welford and Emma Pickett

Heather Welford is the author of Successful Infant Feeding and a breastfeeding counsellor for the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). From 2012 to 2016, she was the chief content provider and editor for NCT’s web-based information centre on pregnancy, birth, parenting.

Emma Pickett first became an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in 2011. She recertified in 2016 and,as well as private lactation consultant work, she continues to offer voluntary support at groups across north London. She also volunteers on the National Breastfeeding Helpline and Association of Breastfeeding Mothers national helpline

References:

1. Research on allergies: Unicef Infant Health Research
2. Effects of maternal caffeine consumption on the breastfed child: a systematic review Dewey, KG. J Nutr.1998 Feb;128(2 Suppl): 386S-389S. doi: 10.1093/jn/128.2.386S.
3. Energy and protein requirements during lactation. Dewey, KG. Annu Rev Nutr. 1997 Jul;17(1):19-36. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4757-4242-8_9
4. Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of cow’s milk protein allergy in infantsVendenplas, Y et al. Arch Dis Child. 2007 Oct; 92(10): 902–908.
5. Pregnancy, Breastfeeding and Bone Health. NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases
6 .Maternal food restrictions during breastfeeding Jeong G et al.Korean J Pediatr. 2017 Mar; 60(3): 70–76
7.Reduced risk of peanut sensitization following exposure through breast-feeding and early peanut introduction. Pitt et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2018;141(2):620-625.e1
8. Nutrition in brain development and aging: role of essential fatty acids. Nuts Rev. 2006 May;64(5 Pt 2):S24-33; discussion S72-91.
9. Impact of breastfeeding on maternal nutritional status. Dewey, KG. Adv Exp Med Biol.

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