When breastfeeding, a person requires around 450 to 500 extra calories per day. People who wish to lose weight after pregnancy may not need to increase their calorie intake while breastfeeding, but they should discuss this with their doctor.
Specific nutrients, such as iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A and D, are particularly beneficial when breastfeeding. Eating a wide variety of foods is also essential, as this will expose the baby to different tastes and may result in them being more receptive to solid foods later on.
In this article, we look at the foods that experts advise people to eat or avoid while breastfeeding. We also provide information on supplements and strategies for preparing nutritious meals.
What to eat while breastfeeding
No single diet will be ideal for everyone who is breastfeeding. The goal should be to eat a healthful, varied diet. When breastfeeding, aim to include the following foods in each day's meals:
Grapefruits and oranges are good souces of essential nutrients.
Fruits are a rich source of many nutrients. They may also help relieve constipation, which some people experience after giving birth. Aim for about 2 cups of fruit per day, which should include a wide variety of different fruits.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend the following fruits as these are all excellent sources of potassium, and some also contain vitamin A:
People who are exclusively breastfeeding should aim to eat 3 cups of vegetables a day. Those who are combining breastfeeding with formula-feeding should eat 2.5 cups of vegetables each day.
Vegetables are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. Consuming a sufficient quantity will help the body to replenish the nutrients it needs to make milk.
The USDA recommend the following vegetables due to their potassium and vitamin A content:
- cooked greens, such as kale and collards
- sweet potatoes
- red sweet peppers
Grains offer vital nutrients, especially whole grains, such as brown rice and whole-wheat bread. People should aim to eat 8 ounces (oz) a day if they are exclusively breastfeeding, or 6 oz if they are also formula-feeding.
Some grains, such as quinoa, are also high in protein, which is an essential nutrient to eat when breastfeeding.
Fortified cereals provide added nutrients and are also a good option. It is best to stick to whole-grain cereals that do not contain added sugar.
When breastfeeding, the body requires an extra 25 grams (g) of protein per day and at least 65 g per day in total.
Experts recommend including some protein with every meal.
The USDA recommend the following sources of protein:
- beans and peas
- nuts and seeds
- lean beef, pork, and lamb
- oysters, crab, and mussels
- salmon, herring, pollock, sardines, and trout
Seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can support healthy brain development in the baby. Salmon, sardines, and trout are excellent choices because they are high in omega-3s but low in mercury.
People who are breastfeeding should avoid other fish, such as albacore tuna, swordfish, shark, and king mackerel, which are high in mercury. Other forms of tuna are safe to eat.
Both pregnancy and breastfeeding can leach calcium from the bones. This puts people at risk of osteoporosis if they do not get enough calcium and vitamin D. Dairy products, such as cheese and milk, are excellent sources of calcium, and many have added vitamin D.
People who are breastfeeding should aim for a minimum of 3 cups of dairy products each day. The following are good sources of vitamin D and calcium:
- natural cheese
People who do not eat dairy can also get calcium from dark leafy greens, beans, and fortified orange juice. The National Academy of Sciences recommend that people who are breastfeeding should consume 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day.
The sun is a primary source of vitamin D, but consuming mushrooms and oily fish can increase intake. Supplements may also be beneficial.
A doctor can offer advice about taking nutritional supplements while breastfeeding.
In most cases, a well-balanced diet should provide all the nutrients that a person who is breastfeeding needs.
However, nutritional demands increase when breastfeeding, so some people may need vitamin and mineral supplements.
It is important to note that supplements cannot replace a healthful diet. People who are breastfeeding should speak with their doctor before taking any herbal or dietary supplements.
People who have dietary restrictions or follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle should also be mindful of certain vitamins and minerals that may be missing from their diet. Anyone who is concerned about meeting all of their nutritional needs should speak to a dietician.
Other diet tips
Many people worry that they have to measure food portions, or that missing a few nutrients will affect their ability to make enough milk. However, people all around the world are able to produce milk with a wide variety of diets. The goal should be a well-rounded diet, not a perfect one.
It is crucial to drink plenty of water, especially in the first few weeks after the birth when some people are so overwhelmed and distracted that they forget to drink. The need for fluid also increases when breastfeeding.
Not drinking enough fluids can lead to dehydration and may even affect milk supply.
People who are breastfeeding can remind themselves to drink by keeping a bottle of water in each room in the house. They should also have a water cup within easy reach of the place they tend to breastfeed.
The USDA's "MyPlate Plan for Moms" provides information on the best types and amounts of food for people who are breastfeeding. It is possible to personalize the plan according to age, height, weight, activity levels, and breastfeeding status.
Foods to avoid
The list of foods that a person should avoid during pregnancy is long. This may be why some people believe that they must also eat a restrictive diet when breastfeeding.
In fact, there is no list of foods that people who are breastfeeding should avoid altogether. Instead, they should eat food that is healthful and pay attention to cues from their body.
Breast milk comes from nutrients that pass into the blood. Many of the potentially dangerous ingredients that could cross the placenta during pregnancy do not get to the breastfeeding baby.
Some tips that can support healthful eating include:
- Limiting consumption of seafood that may contain mercury.
- Paying attention to how caffeine affects the baby. When a person who is breastfeeding drinks coffee, the baby will only get a very tiny dose of caffeine in the breast milk, but this could be enough to affect their sleep.
- Monitoring how the baby reacts to the diet, and making changes according to the needs of both the baby and the person who is breastfeeding.
Some experts warn against so-called gassy foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, but most babies are unaffected by these foods. Likewise, there is no reason to avoid spicy or strong-flavored foods unless the baby reacts negatively to them.
Medical authorities and parenting guides often provide mixed or unclear advice regarding alcohol consumption when breastfeeding.
Alcohol is dangerous during pregnancy because it crosses the placenta, but a breastfeeding baby only gets the amount of alcohol that passes into the blood of the person breastfeeding. In other words, the blood alcohol content of the person breastfeeding is the amount of alcohol that reaches a breastfeeding baby.
With moderate consumption, this amount of alcohol is negligible and unlikely to cause harm.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend no more than one drink per day. They also suggest reducing the risk further by waiting at least 2 hours to breastfeed after drinking alcohol.
Can some foods increase breast milk?
The body of research on foods that increase breast milk supply is scant and mixed. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that, for some people, the following foods may support a higher production of milk:
- fenugreek seed
- goat's rue
Trying these remedies is safe. However, people wanting to use proven milk production strategies can try:
- Breastfeeding on demand. If the baby is also getting solids or formula, pump when the baby gets these foods. The production of breast milk occurs according to need, which means that supply decreases when demand does.
- Pumping after each breastfeeding session. This technique raises supply by increasing demand and can provide additional milk.
- Trying "hands-on pumping." Massage the breasts before pumping. After pumping, massage the breasts and then pump again. People should aim to pump eight or more times over 24 hours.
Smoothies are easy to prepare and nutritionally dense.
The first weeks of breastfeeding can be demanding. People have to contend with recovering from birth, lack of sleep, and the emotional demands of caring for a newborn. For many, the most challenging part of eating a healthful meal is finding the time and energy to prepare food.
Enlisting the assistance of a partner is a great way to share the burden. One partner can pump or breastfeed while the other prepares food.
If a supportive partner is not available, a few easy-to-prepare meals can ensure adequate nutrition. The following meal strategies could help:
- Consuming a morning smoothie to load up on fruits and vegetables. Try blending frozen berries, a banana, and an avocado. Add more protein by adding a container of Greek yogurt.
- Preparing instant oatmeal as a filling, fiber-rich snack that may support a healthy milk supply. To add more calories and increase protein content, use milk or yogurt instead of water.
- Snacking on nuts during the day. Try placing a can of nuts in a favorite breastfeeding spot.
- Buying pre-cut cheeses. These snacks are high in protein and very filling.
- Considering enrolling in a ready-meal service, or asking people to bring meals around a few times a week. Freeze any leftovers to thaw for a quick snack.
Breastfeeding can be a challenge, especially during the first weeks. Many new parents and caregivers feel so overwhelmed that they forget to eat. Others may worry that taking time for themselves means taking time away from the baby.
The health of a baby often depends on the well-being of its caregivers. Self-care is a way for caregivers to ensure that they have enough energy and emotional resources to care for the baby.
Proper nutrition is crucial both for babies and for people who are breastfeeding. Listen to the body, and eat what feels right.