Breastfeeding Diet: The Best Foods For Nursing Mothers

You're no longer pregnant, but as a nursing mom, you still want to feast on foods that nourish your baby. Dig in with our primer on the best breastfeeding diet for a happy, healthy little one.
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You are what you eat—and so is your baby. You may be searching for the best breastfeeding foods, but it’s important to know you don't have to follow an impeccable diet to produce nutrient-rich breast milk. There's also more good news: To manufacture Baby's meals, your body burns about 500 calories a day. That translates into extra “breastfeeding calories” for you to enjoy, say, a small chunk of dark chocolate at 3 p.m. without gaining weight. No matter the number on the scale, though, it’s important to fuel your body with healthy, nutrient-rich items after giving birth.

Following the food pyramid ensures that you'll get the right amount of nutritious foods. Each day you should aim for six or more servings of bread and cereal; three or more servings of vegetables; two or more servings of fruit; two to three servings of milk, yogurt, and other dairy; and two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and/or beans. You should use sweets and oils sparingly.

Nursing mothers should also maintain a regular eating schedule. You should never skip meals, even when dealing with a jam-packed busy schedule. Breakfast might seem like the one meal you just don't have time for, but there are a few quick, healthy options: sprinkle berries on cereal or oatmeal, top a bagel with cottage cheese, add chopped peppers and carrots to your standard cream cheese bagel, or toss dried fruit and granola into nonfat yogurt. As for dinner, try whipping up healthy entrees in bulk to freeze the leftovers for later (think vegetable lasagnas and soups).

To keep up your energy, snacks are just as important as meals in a breastfeeding diet. Stock your pantry full of healthy, easy-to-eat, and prepared foods. High-fiber cereal, instant oatmeal, microwavable veggies, low-fat yogurt, bananas, and low-fat popcorn all make nutritious snacks. Another good idea: Keep smoothie ingredients around so you can whip up a filling, good-for-you mini meal. You may also decide to keep food items in your baby's nursery. Some easy ones that don't require two hands to eat: grapes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and squeezable yogurt packs.

What to Eat When Breastfeeding

Folic Acid. This mineral is crucial for preventing birth defects early in pregnancy, but its powers continue through your baby's infancy by encouraging growth. Folic acid is also a friend to your heart. Aim for 500 micrograms each day—slightly less than the 600 micrograms you needed during pregnancy. Try a fortified cereal; 1 cup of Special K and 1 cup of Kellogg's All-Bran Original each has 400 micrograms of folic acid. At dinner, add 1 cup sautéed spinach (350 micrograms), black-eyed peas (350 micrograms), or asparagus (243 micrograms) to your plate.

Multivitamins. Speaking of folic acid, make sure you take a daily women's multivitamin to get 400 micrograms of this mineral, as well as other nutrients you and your baby need, says Willow Jarosh, R.D., co-owner of C&J Nutrition, in New York City. It will keep you from stressing about a less-than-stellar day of eating. If another baby is in your future, switch back to a prenatal dose when you start trying to conceive or get that positive test. Talk to your OBGYN for more information.

Calcium. If you don't fill up on this mineral must, your body will "rob" your own bones to make sure there's enough calcium in your breast milk to nourish your baby's bones and nervous system. Start with breakfast to hit your daily 1,000-milligram goal: Pour 1 cup of skim milk (300 milligrams) over 1 cup of original Total cereal (1,000 milligrams), and you are more than done. Some other ideas for heavy hitters: Sip 1 cup of orange juice (150 milligrams), slide a 1-ounce slice of cheese (200 milligrams) into your turkey sandwich, snack on a creamy cup of fat-free yogurt (250 micrograms), and steam a cup of broccoli for dinner (156 milligrams). For insurance, take a 500-milligram calcium supplement (half your daily need).

Plenty of Liquid. It's a myth that guzzling H2O boosts your milk supply, says Nancy Hurst, Ph.D., R.N., director of lactation services at Texas Children's Hospital Pavilion for Women, in Houston. But it does help your body recover from the physical stress of childbirth and give you more energy. Sip water every time you nurse or pump; you'll know you're drinking enough if your urine is clear.

Fish. The more fish you eat, the more omega-3 fatty acids your breast milk will contain, and that's crucial for the development of your infant's eyes and brain," says Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., a pediatrician in Camden, New Jersey, and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Chowing down on these good fats is also good for you, staving off heart disease and cancer. A 6-ounce salmon filet packs an omega-3 punch (1.7 grams), and it's a low-mercury swimmer. Tuna also contains omega-3s, making it ideal for a breastfeeding diet. The canned kind is lower in mercury than tuna steak (which you should limit to 6 ounces a week). Not a fish lover? Snack on a handful of walnuts (2.6 grams), add flaxseed to oatmeal, and use omega-3-fortified eggs for your morning scramble.

Lactation Foods. Oats, fennel, brewers yeast, and fenugreek  (a common herb used in breastfeeding supplements) are considered foods to increase breast milk supply. Consider whipping up a batch of lactation cookies that contain several of these ingredient; Allrecipes has a delicious 4.5-star recipe with two of the milk-increasing foods (brewers yeast and oats). Alternately, you can buy lactation tea, which is an herbal supplement marketed toward nursing mothers. Many lactation tea options contain fenugreek or fennel, and they can be found at drugstores everywhere.

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What Not to Eat When Breastfeeding

Spicy Foods. If you love spicy foods, it's fine to continue eating them while you're breastfeeding. Keep in mind, however, that some infants fuss or cry if their mom has had something spicy (like a curry), or "gassy" such as cabbage, onions, or broccoli. Typically fussiness only lasts a few hours. You may need to play around with your diet to figure out the foods to avoid when breastfeeding. 

Alcohol. You can drink alcohol, but not habitually, and one drink is the max. Alcohol does get passed to your baby via breast milk. And there's no benefit; tales about beer increasing your milk supply are false, and alcohol won't necessarily help your baby sleep. One drink (a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce wine, or ounce of hard liquor) two hours or more before your next breastfeeding session is your best bet for reducing how much baby will receive.

Caffeine and sugary drinks. To cut back on liquid calories, limit the amount of sweetened beverages you drink. Nursing mothers can also have a little bit of caffeine, but stick to less than 5 ounces per day so Baby doesn't become jittery or irritable.

Other Considerations for a Breastfeeding Diet

Continue your vegetarian diet. Breastfeeding moms who follow a vegetarian diet are safe to stick to their meatless meals. Eating animal-derived foods such as dairy products supplies plenty of calcium and protein. For moms who stay away from milk derivatives, a vitamin B-12 supplement is recommended, but like all other supplements, you should consult your doctor first.

You can eat foods you avoided during pregnancy. You can eat soft cheeses, cold cuts, rare beef, and other potential sources of food poisoning that you avoided during pregnancy. Even if you get sick, you won't pass it on to your baby via breast milk.

About two out of every hundred babies will have a reaction to the cow's milk in their mother's diet. If your baby has severe colic, abdominal discomfort, or a skin rash or hives, vomits or has diarrhea, or has difficulty breathing after breastfeeding, contact the pediatrician right away. You may have to temporarily add cow’s milk to your list of foods to avoid when breastfeeding. The same can happen with eggs, peanuts, and other nuts.

As you're picking and choosing what to eat for snacks and meals, rest assured that Baby enjoys the flavors that come through in your milk. Simply eat right and keep watch over your newborn for any sensitivity or reaction.


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