Nutrition for the Breastfeeding Mom or Lactating Parent
By Lillian Yang, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
First of all, a big congratulations to you! Whether you’ve come to this article prior to giving birth, or after, it is never too late to learn about nutrition for the lactating parent or breastfeeding/bodyfeeding mom.
As a new mom myself, I learned that breastfeeding is hard work – it can be exhausting and time-consuming. Nutrition during the postpartum period is important, but thinking about what to eat should be simple and not stressful. While food does not have to be complicated, lactating parents can benefit from learning more about what to eat to feel more energized and promote good milk supply.
What food should a breastfeeding mom or lactating parent eat?
A nursing parent should focus on eating wholesome, nutrient-dense foods and drinking enough water throughout the day. Stock your kitchen with fruits and vegetables, high-quality protein (look for organic chicken, grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and wild salmon, if possible), and whole grains. These foods, in the right combination, will provide you with enough nutrition and energy to parent.
How do I build a balanced meal when breastfeeding?
“Balance” here means there should be a variety of foods on your plate. Try to include a combination of nutrients:
- Protein: I recommend portions to be about 4 ounces of meat and seafood, 2 eggs, ½ can of beans, ½ pack of tofu, or 6 oz of Greek yogurt.
- Vegetables and Fruits: The more variety the better. If you are watching your sugar intake, stick with 1 cup of fruit at a time. Otherwise, aim to have 1-2 cups of fruits and vegetables on your plate or in a smoothie.
- Complex carbohydrate/starch: Look for higher-fiber foods for sustained energy and fullness. Examples include baked sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, farro, barley, wheat bread and pita, oatmeal, and whole-grain crackers.
- Healthy Fats: Examples include sliced avocado, feta cheese crumbles, a handful of slivered almonds or pumpkin seeds, tahini, peanut butter, olive oil salad dressing. You can drizzle or add these foods to anything!
How can I prepare food easily as a breastfeeding parent?
Plan ahead. A well-stocked kitchen with easy-to-grab foods will make food preparation much more convenient for you. Think less cooking, more assembling.
- Energy bars: Look for a bar with simple ingredients and some protein 9 (like dates, nuts and no added sugar .
- Sandwiches and toasts: turkey and cheese sandwich with jarred pesto, brie + fig jam + arugula, avocado and hummus on toast
- Consider batch-cooking: Make a big pot of oatmeal or soup in an instant pot; boil a dozen eggs; season up a big tray of oven-roasted vegetables for the week.
Ultimately, what’s most important is remembering to eat and drink in the first place! While your body is producing breast milk, you will need additional fluids and calories. Don’t worry about checking off all of the boxes, counting carbs, or counting calories (in fact, you will need some extra calories especially for the first few months postpartum). Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby, even if you didn’t eat your daily vegetable servings.
*Note: It is important for new mothers or birthing parents to focus on recovery and healing for the first few months postpartum. Weight loss may be considered later on, but be aware that your milk supply may be affected if you do not eat enough. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a nutritionist to get some expert guidance to navigate these times.
Additional nutrients to consider for the nursing parent.
While it is not necessary to overthink specific nutrients, there are a few that you may want to focus on including in your diet. Many of these are found in high-quality animal foods, so generally, I would not stress about it unless you limit your intake of meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs.
- Vitamin B12: Especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may be low in certain B vitamins. I highly recommend supplementing B12, which is readily available over the counter.
- Choline: Choline needs are highest while breastfeeding! For mom, choline can help improve focus and memory during this time. Food sources include egg yolks, broccoli, cauliflower, brewer’s yeast, quinoa, and almonds.
- Iodine: This nutrient is critical after pregnancy because it can help prevent thyroid dysfunction. Great sources include seafood, seaweed, dairy, and eggs.
- DHA and omega-3s: These fatty acids help to maintain cognitive function and reduce the risk of postpartum depression. You can either supplement or consume fish 2-3 times/week.
- Vitamin D: If you took vitamin D supplements during your pregnancy, continue to supplement postpartum. I recommend choosing vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).
While nutrients are more readily-absorbed through food, I do recommend continuing to take your prenatal vitamins to cover your bases. Many prenatal vitamins include the nutrients listed above.
Examples, examples, examples, please!
This is a lot of information to process! I call this speaking in “vitamin” terms. What do these mean in terms of actual food I can put together? Here are some examples of very easy meals and snacks that incorporate a variety of nutrients for the pumping/breastfeeding/chestfeeding parent.
- “I can’t even” meals and snacks:
- Bread and crackers with peanut butter, almond butter, hummus, avocado, cheese
- Whole grain cereal and instant oatmeal topped with frozen fruit and hemp seeds
- Greek yogurt with granola and fruit
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Trail mix
- Boiled eggs and baby carrots with hummus
- Toaster waffles with ricotta and fruit
- “I have 15 minutes” meals/snacks:
- Overnight oats and chia pudding with fruit
- Sardine or tuna salad (add yogurt, mayo, mustard, capers or pickles) with crackers or toast
- Oven-roasted vegetables like baby carrots, prewashed broccoli and cauliflower florets, zucchini, cherry tomatoes (simply spritz with oil and sprinkle with all purpose seasoning, roast at 400F for 15 minutes)
- Marinated bean salad with pesto, mozzarella balls, cucumbers, olives
- A nutty green smoothie with baby spinach, frozen fruit, nut butter, greek yogurt, chia seeds, oats, avocado – whatever is in your pantry and freezer!
- Salad mixes with your favorite salad dressing, avocado, feta, olives, and store-bought rotisserie chicken
- Microwave-steamed frozen vegetables with coconut aminos and sesame oil, topped with pan fried eggs
- Store-bought ravioli with peas and broccoli from the freezer, add your favorite tomato sauce, pesto, or butter and lemon
What can I eat to promote a good milk supply?
To promote a good milk supply, first be sure you have a good latch or a proper fitting pump and a regular frequent milk removal. Eating foods to build milk supply won’t work if you’re not removing milk frequently enough from your body because “more milk out is more milk made!”
- The powerful galactgogues
If enhancing your milk supply is your goal, then I recommend focusing on incorporating galactagogues into your meals. Oats, flaxseed, nuts and seeds, and brewers yeast are traditionally thought to increase milk supply and can easily be thrown together for a nourishing bowl of oatmeal in the morning. I caution the use of fenugreek, which can work for some but can also decrease your supply – check with your lactation consultant before considering taking herbal supplements.
- What about lactation cookies and supplements?
Lactation cookies are available to purchase online, or you can make them yourself (or find a baker friend :). If you are interested in adding them into your day, go ahead! Just make sure they are nutrient-dense and low on added sugar, otherwise, you’re likely just eating dessert!
- Don’t forget to drink adequate fluids
It is easy to go through half the day without a sip of water when caring for a baby. I recommend having about 80 ounces of water a day to stay hydrated (allowing 8 oz of coffee, or 2 cups of tea). Keep a large water bottle close by. If plain water isn’t appealing enough, throw in a slice of lemon or some frozen berries, or drink herbal teas. Start the morning with a glass of water before jumping into your day, and have a glass at each meal.
How can I set myself up for success in terms of eating while nursing?
As with anything, a little bit of prep work will make things easier for you. Consider how you can get balanced and nutritious meals with low-effort. Using frozen fruits and vegetables, precut and prewashed vegetables to throw into stir-fries, batch cooking chicken and stews or getting a rotisserie chicken, vegetarian-friendly proteins that don’t require cooking (beans, lentils, tofu, nuts and nut butters, cheese).
Don’t feel shy about asking for help either! Ask for professional help or ask a friend to bring over food when they come to visit. Utilize ready-to-eat food delivery programs that you can pop into the microwave to heat up quickly.
Lastly, try your best to not stress about nutrition while breastfeeding/chestfeeding/pumping. The days of having a newborn can be a blur, and you’ll want to spend more time snuggling with your baby than in the kitchen (you can totally send this article to friends and family as a gentle nudge!). Life is about to get complicated (in the best way!), but eating shouldn’t be!
Lillian Yang is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Diabetes Specialist in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from New York University and completed her Dietetic Program at Stony Brook University. Her nutrition philosophy is based on real food and holistic wellness, and she will help you pinpoint your specific health goals and ways to achieve them that make sense for you. Lillian is available for nutritional support via the boober platform.