What to Eat When You're Breastfeeding: Nutrition for the Nursing Mom

Megan Dahlman
February 23, 2016

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What to Eat When You're Breastfeeding - Good Nutrition for the Nursing Mom

​Not much changes after the baby comes. Oh my goodness, that sentence sounds hilarious, because EVERYTHING changes once baby arrives! But nutrition-wise, you can continue eating very similar to how you ate when you were pregnant, if you paid close attention to your eating choices. Yesterday we unpacked the best nutrition for pregnant mommas, so make sure you go back and read that here. It will tie in very closely to how nursing mommas should eat. 

Of course, most postnatal women are very concerned about losing their baby weight. As soon as your little one is born, you’re thinking “ok, now back to the body I recognize…stat!”

Wow, this mindset I can completely identify with. I felt exactly the same way after the birth of both of my boys. The race was on to locate the body I once had.

I was convinced (and told by many) that breastfeeding was a fantastic way to help shrink my body back down to normal size.

In certain respects, yes, nursing helps.

First of all, in the first couple weeks after delivery, the hormones that contribute to the letdown reflex also aid in involution, the contracting of your uterus back down to its normal size. (Hello, do these contractions hurt!) Your abdomen will start to shrink in size simply because your uterus is going from the size of a watermelon back down to a pear. Whether you breastfeed or not, your uterus will do this on its own, but nursing does help speed up the process.

Secondly, your body requires extra calories, about 500 per day, to produce breastmilk. This increased energy requirement is about the same as what your body needed at the end of your pregnancy. You will probably see some weight loss if you go back to your pre-pregnancy eating portions, which would cause your body to come up with those extra 500 calories.

But you have to be careful here—if you try to eat less food in an attempt to lose weight, your milk supply will suffer. You could have a harder time producing enough.

On a personal note, I found that whenever I was breastfeeding (I nursed both boys for 11 months each), my body simply maintained a higher level of body fat. It didn’t matter what I ate or how I exercised—which was pretty intense by 8-9 months postpartum—I couldn’t shed the extra layer of fat until I stopped nursing. My body just knew it needed a reserve while I was feeding someone else. Understanding this about my own body gave me a better perspective, allowing my body some grace knowing that I wouldn’t feel really lean again until I stopped nursing.

With that said, your most important goal if you’re breastfeeding is to provide plenty of good nutrients for your baby. Your body shape still takes the backseat here, and that’s ok. Just like with pregnancy, this time period will pass and then you can really focus on your body composition goals later if you choose.

What you eat really matters, because it all directly filters into your breastmilk. Even the flavors of the foods you eat can be passed to your baby in your milk. Your baby can begin to taste many flavors if you eat a diet full of variety. This is so cool!

Make sure you know your basics. A nursing mom has special nutrition needs, but just like during pregnancy, the foundation of nutrition should always be the healthy eating habits. Every woman, regardless of situation, should eat according to these principles:

  • Eat frequently and purposefully
  • Eat protein with every meal
  • Eat produce, preferably vegetables, with every meal
  • Eat healthy fats throughout the day
  • Eat starchy carbs, like whole grains, based on your goals and body type
  • Avoid processed and packaged food, always choosing whole, real food
  • Avoid beverages with calories, choosing water above anything else

Even while you are breastfeeding, these principles should dictate your food choices. These healthy eating habits ensure that you and your baby get adequate nutrients. We discussed these habits more in depth in What to Eat When You're Pregnant, and you can also read more about them in detail here

Breastfeeding specifics. If you are nursing, you do need to pay special attention to a couple things.

Eat enough. As I mentioned before, if you limit your food intake by eating less meals or too small of portions, your milk production will suffer. I recommend eating 5 or 6 small meals per day, always following the healthy eating habits listed above.

Eat fats. As with pregnancy nutrition, healthy fats are very important when you’re breastfeeding. Your baby really needs these for multiple levels of development. Be sure to take an omega-3 fish oil supplement, looking for one that is high in EPA and DHA and does not come from the liver of the fish. Take about 2,000-4,000mg daily. Also, eat nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, and avocados. You can also eat some saturated fats, found in dairy, meat and tropical oils like palm and coconut oil. Just don’t emphasize these saturated fats as much as the other fats. You can learn more about fat here.

Vitamins and minerals. If you eat according to the healthy eating habits, you will most likely get all the nutrients you need, but you should continue taking your prenatal vitamin or a regular multivitamin. Calcium and Vitamin D are both particularly important when you’re breastfeeding. You won’t be able to provide all of the vitamin D your baby needs (your pediatrician will probably suggest a supplement for her), but you can provide quite a bit. Good sources of calcium and vitamin D are egg yolks, fish, mushrooms, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and dairy foods. Eat eggs for breakfast and have a big, green salad daily to help get these nutrients.

Drink enough water. Yes, you are a milk factory and you will feel like a cow most days. Your body is producing lots of extra fluid so you need to stay extremely hydrated by consuming about double the water you normally would. Don’t worry about measuring the amount you drink, just pay attention to the color of your urine, which should be pale yellow. Also, drink before you get thirsty and make sure you have water with you when you’re nursing. (You will feel completely parched the second you start a nursing session!)

Adult beverages. You can now drink alcohol and caffeine, but be very careful. Your baby will get this stuff in her milk, too. Caffeine can make a baby extremely fussy and have difficulty sleeping (duh!). Most experts agree that about 300mg of caffeine total per day is ok (about three 5 oz cups of coffee), but I noticed that mine would be fussy with even less than this.

And obviously, alcohol is a big no-no in your breast milk. Keep in mind that alcohol metabolizes out of your milk at the same rate it’s metabolizing out of your blood. If you feel the effects of alcohol AT ALL, your baby will. If I had an alcoholic beverage when I was breastfeeding, I would drink it while I was nursing (haha…mom of the year, I know) or immediately after. That way, when it was time for the next feeding it would be completely out of my system, without a doubt. When in doubt, use some backup milk or formula.

Foods to avoid? Some will suggest to stay away from particularly spicy or gas-producing foods, like broccoli, onions and cabbage, as these foods might make your baby fussy. No evidence really supports this other than a mom’s intuition. Pay attention to how your baby reacts after certain foods. Mine never seemed to really care what I ate, but then again I had one baby that was always fussy no matter what. Use your own judgement as a good mom. If you are sensitive to these foods, your baby may be as well.

Increasing milk supply? Certain foods seem to increase milk production like oats, garlic, carrots, spinach, ginger and flax seeds. There is no hard evidence on this, just speculation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to eat these foods. In fact, you’re probably eating them anyway if you are making good food choices like I’ve outlined above. Just remember, the two most important dietary factors for milk production is eating enough calories and drinking enough water.

Do you have any tricks for boosting milk production that you noticed worked well for you? If so, comment below...I'm sure other moms would find this helpful.

It’s important that nursing moms eat well, just don’t get trapped into focusing too much on very specific do’s and don’ts. Simply follow the healthy eating habits outlined above, prioritizing protein and a variety of produce and healthy fats; make sure you eat frequently to get enough nutrients to support a good milk supply; and drink lots of water.

​When you eat healthfully and mindfully, your baby weight will gradually come off and you will be set up to dial it in even more after you’re done breastfeeding. 

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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