fuel for the fourth trimester
Koren Bradshaw MS,CDN,CLC
Functional Nutritionist | Certified Lactation Counselor
We all know there are three trimesters to pregnancy, and, thankfully, there is beginning to be broader awareness of the all-important – yet little-discussed – fourth trimester. These post-birth months are both a time of continued newborn growth and development and an incredibly important time of healing, adjustment and regeneration for new postpartum parents. Your postpartum diet is a key part of your recovery. For ages, different cultures have honored traditions of ‘mothering the mother’ or nurturing the birthing parent with emotional support and nourishing meals, all in the name of helping the new parent replenish their strength and heal from the hugely physical accomplishment that is pregnancy and birth.
Why Your Diet Matters During the Fourth Trimester
Regardless of whether you’ve had a vaginal or c-section birth, or if your baby is breast or bottle-fed, during the first few months after pregnancy you are likely to be adjusting to the changes this new little person is bringing to your life, all while healing yourself and running on less sleep than you’re used to. As the saying goes – you can’t pour from an empty cup. This is a really important time to focus on your own nourishment.
During pregnancy, your baby obtains all of their nutrients from the food you eat….and from your body itself! In the ultimate act of parenthood, important nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and folic acid are donated from your body’s own stores directly to the fetus. This is completely normal and healthy, but also makes it all the more important for you to include your own nourishment and replenishment on your list of important things to focus on, once baby is born. Don’t shy away from family and friends’ offers of help during the first few weeks – food drop-offs can be a wonderful way for them to give you a break and for you to get a warm meal! Having a few things prepped in the freezer before the birth can also make things easier when you’re feeling tired or pressed for time.
What To Eat in the Fourth Trimester?
During pregnancy most caregivers recommend taking a prenatal vitamin, and if you have taken one, you should continue taking that vitamin at least through the first month or two after you give birth. It’s ideal to get as many nutrients as you can from foods, but prenatal vitamins can be a great way to help fill in any gaps.
Just as you would after any huge physical event, after the marathon of pregnancy and birth you need to refuel! Your body needs nutrients such as protein to heal, healthy fats and magnesium to help balance your hormones, calcium to replenish your bones. Think about:
- Warming foods such as bone broth, vegetable soup, grass-fed meats, lentils and eggs for supportive protein.
- Whole grains such as rice, quinoa and old-fashioned oats which provide magnesium to help calm, sleep well and support your ‘feel good’ hormones as well as your muscles.
- A small piece of dark chocolate is a powerhouse dessert, lending powerful antioxidants, calming magnesium and important minerals like iron and zinc. Look for dark chocolate that is at least 70% cacao or higher for the most benefits.
- Healthy fats like olive oil drizzled on vegetables, grass-fed butter, avocado, nuts and seeds and salmon help provide omega-3 to support hormone balance and skin health (including on your belly!).
- Calcium for your bones can come from full-fat organic dairy* such as plain yogurt mixed with fresh fruit or jam and topped with a sprinkle of granola or chia seeds, a snack of cheddar cheese or a handful of almonds. (*…that’s right, full-fat dairy! The fat will help you feel satisfied and keep you from getting hungry again too quickly. Meanwhile, the lower the fat in dairy, the higher the level of lactose milk sugar; sugar can cause inflammation and slow healing, so it’s best to avoid excess whenever possible.)
- And don’t forget that rainbow of fresh fruits and veggies on your plate – the fiber helps support digestion that can slow down after birth and each color represents a different vitamin it provides, and you will really benefit from orange and red produce like sweet potatoes, mangoes, red peppers and carrots rich in vitamin A, dark, leafy greens like romaine, spinach and chard rich in vitamin E, citrus and strawberries providing vitamin C and dark purple fruits and berries bursting with antioxidants.
What If You Just Had a C-section?
If you’ve had a C section or have been on antibiotics, you will need to lend a helping hand to the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut to help them rebuild their numbers. Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and apple cider vinegar are just the thing to add in some probiotic healthy bugs. Be sure to eat some PREbiotic foods too, to feed that good bacteria – things like onions, garlic, bananas, asparagus and oats will keep them healthy and happy.
What To Eat If You Are Breastfeeding/Chestfeeding?
If you’re nursing, be sure to be taking in about 500 calories per day more than you normally would when not pregnant. That’s about equal to an English muffin with peanut butter and an apple, so think in terms of adding in an extra snack or two.
Two hormones in particular do some heavy lifting in a lactating parent’s body – Prolactin helps your body create that liquid gold that is breast milk, and Oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone”, gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling and helps your milk “let down” and be available to your baby. To keep your levels of these hormones healthy, be sure to include foods like shrimp, nuts and seeds that are rich in zinc, plus some extra servings of the foods mentioned above like dark leafy greens, healthy fats like avocado and salmon, whole grains like oats and quinoa, and antioxidants like green tea.
Finally, everyone should be drinking at least half of their body weight in ounces in water to flush out toxins, help your cells and skin repair, support your body in healing and keep your energy up. For instance, a 160 lb. person should aim for about 80 ounces of water per day. And, don’t forget to take your baby for a walk outside each day for some fresh air and a hit of vitamin D for you both!
Throughout time, a nourishing postpartum diet has been central to a birthing parent’s recovery and support. Caring for and nourishing yourself is as critical as feeding your baby! A healthy parent can best take care of their baby, so remember to include whole, healthful postpartum foods frequently so you can have the energy and strength to move through the fourth trimester while caring for your little one.
Koren Bradshaw, ms, cdn, clc is a functional nutritionist and certified lactation counselor. She specializes in personalized nutrition focusing on women’s health, maternal nutrition and new eaters as well as skin health. Koren lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her husband and two children.