What to Eat While Breastfeeding

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 6 minutes

What should I know about my diet while breastfeeding?

  • Understand how healthy eating can impact the composition of your breastmilk

  • Learn which vitamins and minerals are especially important and which foods to find them in

  • Tips for healthy eating while breastfeeding

Maintaining your healthy eating habits while breastfeeding is as important now as it was during pregnancy. Your food choices can help optimize not only your own health, but also the composition of your breastmilk, helping your baby get the nutrition they need for growth and development.1,2,3

Just like in pregnancy, during breastfeeding your body will prioritize the baby’s nutrient needs over your own. This means that if you are not taking in enough of some key nutrients, your baby will use up what they need and you, mama, will be left depleted.4

And yet for other nutrients, if you are deficient there won’t be enough to pass on to your baby.2

Because of this, getting the right nutrition while breastfeeding can make a big impact on both you and your baby’s health. Read on to learn how to eat healthfully while breastfeeding.

Nutrition while breastfeeding

Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods will help you get most of the nutrients you and your baby need. Since every food has a different array of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals, your goal is to choose an assortment of foods from each group every day:

  • Vegetables and fruit: Choose different varieties each week (eat the rainbow!)

  • Proteins: Lean meats, fish, nuts, low fat dairy, eggs, seeds, legumes, and beans

  • Whole grains: Whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, quinoa, etc

  • Healthy fats: Fatty fish, nuts/nut-butters, seeds, avocado, plant oils5,6,28

Breastmilk is composed of specific amounts of protein (specifically: casein and whey), carbohydrates (specifically: lactose), and fat (lipids).12 The amounts change with your baby’s age and growth needs. While the protein and carbohydrate are relatively stable no matter what you eat, your diet can impact the type of fat in your breastmilk.10,11,12

Making breastmilk is a big job for your body, which is why your hunger may be pretty high right now. Be sure to eat an extra 330-400 calories per day (over your pre-pregnancy needs) of these nutrient-dense foods to help meet your body’s increased needs.7,8

Read more:

How Much Should You Eat While Breastfeeding?

Which Foods Should I Avoid While Breastfeeding?

Vitamin and mineral needs while breastfeeding

During breastfeeding many of your nutrient needs are increased.3

Interestingly, while some vitamins and minerals get excreted into your breastmilk whether you are eating enough of them or not, this is not true of all nutrients. For some, if you are not taking in an adequate amount, your baby may also be getting less.1,4

The nutrients that are more dependent upon your diet include: Water-soluble vitamins (C and B vitamins) along with vitamin A, selenium, and iodine.9,11,16

Nutrients that your body will give your baby (and leave you depleted if your diet does not have enough) include: Folate, copper, iron, calcium, copper, vitamin K, magnesium, and zinc.2,4,11,16

While more studies are needed to confirm how your diet impacts the nutrients in your breastmilk, the good news is that as long as you are eating a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet, you and your baby are likely getting the nutrients you need!

Read more: Meal Plan: Getting the Right Nutrition while Breastfeeding

Nutrients to focus on while breastfeeding

Having a varied diet that includes foods from all groups will help you get the most nutrients. Below are just some of the nutrients that are important while breastfeeding.

Iron

You need less iron now than you did before you became pregnant, mostly because your menstrual cycle stops while breastfeeding.1 Once your cycle comes back, your iron needs go back up to pre-pregnancy amounts.

If you were anemic during pregnancy, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement while breastfeeding. While more research is needed, there is limited evidence showing that maternal iron deficiency may impact your supply negatively, so it’s important to take a supplement if your iron levels are low.31

Breastmilk is not particularly rich in iron; however, your baby more easily absorbs the iron from your breastmilk than from any other source. Plus, your baby’s iron reserves are sufficient for the first four to six months of their life.

Food sources of iron: beef, white beans, eggs, spinach, lentils, and fortified grains.32

Tip: Iron from plant sources is best absorbed if taken with a good source of vitamin C (for example, pair iron-rich cereal with strawberries or beans with tomatoes).32

Read more: What Should I Know about Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy?

Vitamin B12

Newborns have very little B12 stored away and will rely on getting this nutrient from your breastmilk. This means eating enough B12-rich foods.29 B12 is important for normal brain function and forming red blood cells.13

Food sources of B12: Clams, canned light tuna, nutritional yeast, salmon, beef, dairy, and fortified cereals.13

Tip: Since B12 is mostly found in animal products, vegans and vegetarians may need to take a supplement to meet their and their baby’s needs.14 Chat with your health care provider for more information.

Read more: Why Does B12 Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Vitamin B6

B6 is needed for many functions, including brain development and immune function.17 The amount of B6 in your breastmilk changes quickly in response to your diet.16

Food sources of B6: Chickpeas, salmon, chicken, fortified cereals, potato, banana, bulgur wheat.17

Folate

Folate (B9) plays an important role in DNA synthesis.18 Your needs for folate are increased during breastfeeding, but the good news is that your body can store a certain amount of it. If you are low in folate, your baby will get enough but your reserves will deplete.4 Low folate can actually cause a type of anemia.18

Food sources of folate: Spinach, black-eyed peas, fortified cereals, rice, asparagus, brussels sprouts, lettuce, broccoli, green peas, kidney beans, wheat germ, orange, peanuts, banana.18

Read more: Why Does Folate Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for healthy skin, tissues, and eyes.19 It also plays a role in the immune system. Newborns have low vitamin A stores and depend on breastmilk to get enough of this nutrient. While vitamin A in breastmilk comes from the mother’s stores, a diet low in vitamin A may result in low amounts of this nutrient in breastmilk as well.4

Food sources of vitamin A: Red and orange fruits and vegetables will have vitamin A, including sweet potato, carrots, cantaloupe, red bell pepper, mango, and tomato juice. Other sources include spinach, Atlantic herring, dairy with vitamin A added, fortified cereals, eggs, black-eyed peas, salmon, broccoli.19

Read more: Why Does Vitamin A Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Choline

A large amount of choline is transferred to breastmilk to help meet baby’s needs. Choline is necessary for many functions in your little one’s body, including building cell membranes and brain development.11

You’ll need good sources of choline in your diet to ensure there’s enough to support you and your baby’s health.

Food sources of choline: Eggs, beef, soybeans, chicken, cod, beans, quinoa, low fat dairy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.15

Read more: Why Does Choline Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Vitamin D

The vitamin D concentration in breastmilk is highly dependent on your own vitamin D status. Vitamin D supports bone health as well as influences immune function and blood glucose; and your newborn needs adequate vitamin D to prevent rickets, a disease that weakens the bones.2 While some foods contain this nutrient, most of our vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight.20

Since it can be difficult to reach the recommended amount of vitamin D, even with taking a vitamin D supplement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that any baby who is partially or fully breastfed should receive 400 IU vitamin D supplement each day until weaned from breastmilk.4,21

Food sources of vitamin D: Salmon, fortified dairy, fortified soy products, fortified cereals, egg, canned light tuna, portabella mushrooms.20

Read more: Why Does Vitamin D Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Calcium

Calcium is not only important for bones and teeth, but also helps with muscle contractions, blood clotting, and hormone secretion.22

Just as with folate, the calcium used for breastmilk comes from the stored form of calcium in your bones, and is not impacted by what you eat.1,4 This bone loss during lactation is temporary and normally bounces back after weaning from breastfeeding. However, if mom does not get enough calcium during lactation and directly after, the bone loss will be difficult to rebuild.4

Food sources of calcium: Low-fat dairy, fortified orange juice, canned sardines and salmon with bones, fortified plant milks, tofu, soybeans, spinach, kale.22

Read more: Why Does Calcium Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Zinc

Zinc is essential for tissue growth, immune function, wound healing, and so much more.23 The zinc in your breastmilk is not linked with how much zinc is in your diet, baby will get what they need from your stored zinc.11 The goal is to eat enough foods high in zinc to ensure your own needs are met.

Food sources of zinc: Beef, shellfish, beans, chicken (dark meat), pumpkin seeds, cashews, low fat dairy, almonds.23

Iodine

Iodine is essential for your and your baby’s thyroid, which plays a role in metabolism as well as skeletal, brain, and central nervous system development.24 Since iodine insufficiency / deficiency used to be fairly common, iodized salt was developed to help prevent the many issues related to low iodine intake, including hypothyroidism, goiter, and intellectual disabilities.25

Many women don’t get enough iodine because processed foods do not contain iodized salt, and many people are now using sea salt, kosher salt, or salt alternatives that are not iodized.26

The American Thyroid Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend taking a supplement that contains 150 IU potassium iodide to help meet your needs while pregnant and breastfeeding.25,27

Food sources of iodine: Iodized salt, fortified bread, dried seaweed (nori), seafood, and low-fat dairy.24

Read more: Why Does Iodine Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Tips on healthy eating while breastfeeding

Eat and drink regularly throughout the day

Keep your home stocked with easy-to-grab meals and snacks, especially things you can eat with one hand (you may find your other hand constantly occupied with your little one).

Think whole pieces of fruit, sliced veggies with hummus or guacamole, nut butter on whole grain toast or crackers, nut and dried fruit trail mix, hard boiled eggs, sliced cheese, or string cheese.

Read more: Healthy and Easy Postpartum Snacks

Pack in the protein

Eat several daily servings of high-protein foods, like low mercury fish, lean meat and poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy, beans, tempeh, tofu, and nuts.

To get the most bang for your protein buck, remember that a 3-ounce piece of meat or salmon contains a whopping 21 grams of protein, an 8-ounce container of yogurt has around 11 grams, a half-cup of cooked beans has 8 grams, and a cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein.

Read more:

Meal Plan for Meeting Your Protein Needs

Protein: Getting Enough and the Best Sources

Choose healthier fat sources

The type of fat you eat impacts the type of fat in your breastmilk.12 Choosing healthier fat sources can help impart health benefits to your baby as they grow and develop while breastfeeding.3

You can find healthier fats (mono and polyunsaturated) in fatty fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, and olive and nut oils for cooking and salad dressings.

Be sure to meet your recommended DHA (an important omega-3 fatty acid) intake by eating 8-12 ounces of omega 3-rich fish per week.30 Choose fish lower in mercury, such as wild salmon (fresh, frozen or canned) and canned sardines.

If you eat beef and dairy, choose the leaner, lower-fat varieties in order to limit your intake of saturated fats. Avoid trans fats whenever possible (found in processed foods such as baked goods).

Read more:

High Quality Dietary Fats: Good for You and Baby

Do you need a supplement while breastfeeding?

Chat with your health care provider to see if you need any supplements.

For example, a postnatal or breastfeeding supplement may be necessary while nursing to help you meet your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals.

Or if you are vegan or vegetarian, you may need extra B12 as this nutrient is only found in animal products and fortified meat alternatives.

Speak with your doctor before starting any new supplements.

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Meal Plan for Increasing Fruits and Vegetables

8 Tips for Simple, Quick, Healthy Cooking

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