Whether you’ve successfully breastfed before, or this is your first time trying, we understand how much of a challenging experience it can be.
If you decide breastfeeding is right for you, it can also be one of the most rewarding times of a mother’s life.
There’s so many advantages of breastfeeding, including better bonding with your baby, saving money (breast milk is free!) and even the chance of a better night’s sleep.
However, many women struggle with breastfeeding. What should be a natural and easy process can sometimes seem like a stressful and nerve-wracking one. Not being sure about what’s safe to put into your body during this time certainly doesn’t help.
Don’t worry – we’re here for you with our guide to the foods and supplements which might help give you a smoother, more enjoyable breastfeeding process.
What to try when breastfeeding
Vitamins and supplements
You should be able get most of the postnatal vitamins you need to produce nourishing milk for your baby from a good diet which includes lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and healthy fats.1
However, during breastfeeding, your requirement for certain vitamins and minerals will increase. Infant formula is fortified so bottle-feeding mothers know exactly how many vitamins and minerals their baby is getting.
Breastfeeding mothers often want some extra assurance that they’re getting their daily quota of the important vitamins that growing babies need.
Therefore, many new mums take vitamins for breastfeeding to ensure the recommended requirements are being met.
- Vitamin D – babies whose mothers are deficient in vitamin D risk decreased bone mass, among other health complications.2 However, vitamin D is difficult to get through a healthy diet alone and we mainly produce it following exposure to sunlight. As the UK isn’t reliably sunny, vitamin D is one of the most highly recommended breastfeeding supplements here. Government health guidelines suggest that breastfeeding mothers should take a daily supplement of 10mcg vitamin D, especially during the winter months when sunlight isn’t as available.3
- Calcium – calcium is vital for the growth of your baby’s bones, but did you know that breastfeeding reduce yours bone density, too?4 That’s why it’s a good idea to take a daily calcium supplement alongside your healthy diet. You need approximately 1000mg calcium while breastfeeding.5 You can often find both vitamin D and calcium in a breastfeeding multivitamin.
- Vitamin B12 – if you’re on a vegan, vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, and plan to breastfeed your baby, you should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement as this type of diet in mothers has been linked with deficiency in exclusively breast-fed infants.6 If you’re a vegan mum-to-be, speak to your healthcare provider about B12 supplementation as it’s likely you’ll need extra vitamin B12.
- Lactation supplements – Supplements to increase milk supply might offer some relief if you’re having trouble maintaining a regular flow. Certain herbs have been scientifically proven to increase milk supply, so are well worth a try if you’re not producing an excess of milk or if your baby seems to always be hungry. In terms of herbs, the standout is fenugreek – studies show it significantly increases the amount of breast milk produced.7 Fenugreek is available in capsule form, as well as in tea bags and loose leaf tea.
Fennel is another herb known to boost breast milk production.8 You can find fennel tablets, fennel tea, and use fresh fennel as an ingredient in salads and savoury dishes.
The most important thing to ensure during breastfeeding is that you have a variety of fresh, healthy food every day. There is no particular special ‘breastfeeding diet’, and if you’re well-nourished and healthy, it’s most likely your baby will be, too.
However, there are certain foods which will ensure your breast milk is of the highest quality – as well as giving your body the nutrients and energy it needs for this very special task.
Concentrate on getting vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein and healthy unsaturated fats. Foods such as eggs, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes are perfect.
Staying hydrated is key, too. Breast milk is mostly water, so you will need to make sure you’re adequately hydrated. However, don’t worry about glugging glass after glass of water, as there is no extra benefit to milk production.9
If you’re not feeling thirsty, remember you can eat your water. Watermelon, cucumber, raspberries, blueberries, celery and tomato are all mostly water, so snack on these throughout the day. You could even have a bowl of fruit next to you when you settle down in your preferred breastfeeding space at home.
How much should you be eating during breastfeeding? You’re no longer eating for two, but as a breastfeeding mum, your baby is still relying on you for food.
You need around an extra 500 calories per day when you’re breastfeeding.10 However, play this by ear and don’t force yourself to eat if you don’t feel up to it. Healthy, calorie-dense foods like hummus, avocado and nuts can be great snacks to help keep you energised.
What to steer clear of when breastfeeding
Vitamins and supplements
Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins aren’t flushed out of the body when we go to the toilet. Instead, they are stored in our fat cells until they’re needed. This can be handy if we’re not getting a daily supply from food alone, but if we take a supplement of a fat-soluble vitamin, then it can build up in the body and our levels can become too high.
This isn’t usually much of an issue, but when breastfeeding, excessive amounts of certain fat-soluble vitamins (including vitamin A and vitamin E) could be harmful to the baby.11
Dieting when breastfeeding
If your plan is to lose the weight you gained during pregnancy rapidly after giving birth, you might want to re-consider if you’re breastfeeding.
Restricting calories too much to begin with might affect the milk supply, so it’s generally advised to wait around two months post-partum before actively trying to lose weight. A slow and steady post-birth weight loss plan is the best approach.
Remember, breastfeeding itself can burn up to 600 calories per day, so as long as you’re eating sensibly, you should see weight loss after a few weeks.12
Studies show that 45 minutes of exercise, 4 days a week while breastfeeding can result in weight loss of around 0.5kg per week in overweight women, with no detrimental effect on infant growth.13
Foods to avoid when breastfeeding
It’s hard to resist the allure of caffeine when you’re exhausted from taking care of a new baby. However, just as caffeine keeps you alert, it can keep your baby alert too and stop them settling down for sleep.
The NHS recommends no more than 200mg of caffeine daily when you’re breastfeeding. Remember, chocolate and cola have caffeine too, so even if you’re not a coffee fan you should watch your caffeine intake.14
You might have been looking forward to a glass of wine after your baby arrived, but if you’re planning to breastfeed, then you might need to wait a little longer.
Anything you eat, drink or inhale goes to your baby via your breastmilk. Therefore, it’s advisable to abstain altogether during this time, or have 1 to 2 units only, once or twice a week.15
Last updated: 10 July 2020