Breastfeeding is the most perfectly designed feeding system that only Mother Nature could have devised. It provides everything a new-born or infant needs to thrive up until 6 months old, and remains the main component of a baby’s diet until 12 months old, even after solids are introduced. In fact, breastmilk assists in the digestion of baby’s first solids and makes the transition easier on little tummies. And as babies start exploring their surroundings from around 6 months, when everything goes into their mouths, breastmilk also offers protection against bacteria and viruses, and stimulates their immune systems in ways that formula milk simply cannot.
Another function of this perfect system can also not be replicated with formula feeding – the calorie content and composition of breastmilk actually changes during a feed and at other times. At the start of a feed, the milk is more watery to quench the baby’s thirst. Hindmilk, the milk that comes after that, is thicker, more nutritious and has up to three times the fat content. This is why it’s important your baby empties a breast fully before switching to the other breast during a feed so he’s getting all the good stuff. Your breastmilk composition will also change depending on the age of your child, and if your child is ill, when your breastmilk will contain more antibodies. It really is magical stuff!
The World Health Organisation recommends that children are exclusively breastfed until 6 months old, but that breastfeeding should continue, where possible, until 2 years old and even beyond. Toddlers benefit from the same immune system enhancement and protection from illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, colds, ear infections, allergies and other nasties as newborns do, and they continue to benefit from the protein, calcium, fat, vitamin A, and other nutrients in breast milk.
The long-term benefits of breastfeeding are equally as compelling, with research showing that, as adults, babies who were breastfed have lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and are less likely to develop type 2 Diabetes or to be obese or overweight.
While the benefits to their baby will be a mother’s top priority, breastfeeding mothers also receive health-protecting benefits. Apart from the pure bliss, stress relief and bonding breastfeeding creates, mothers who have breastfed see reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, and this risk reduction is cumulative – meaning the longer you breastfeed the more your risk profile reduces.
YOUR DIET DURING BREASTFEEDING
Many new mothers worry that they are not getting enough nutrients to sustain breastfeeding over the long term, or that their milk may be lacking in nutrients, but the truth is that, for the majority of new mothers, the most important factor in milk production is the act of breastfeeding itself – the more you feed, the more milk you produce. And no matter what you eat, for the first 6 months your milk will contain almost all the nutrients your baby needs, except for Vitamin D (or Vitamin Free). Consider women living in 3rd world countries where their staple diet is maize or sorghum: in spite of the mothers lacking important nutrients themselves, their babies can be sustained through breastfeeding. Of course, the breastmilk produced by an undernourished mother may not be optimal but it is sufficient for the baby’s survival.
Pregnancy, birth and the first few years of your child’s life are mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. Your overall health and your nutrient intake postpartum can have a big impact on your ability to get through it all in less of a sleep-deprived and foggy haze, as well as on the quality of your milk.
During pregnancy, from around week 12 when the placenta is fully formed and begins transporting blood, oxygen and nutrients, the unborn child receives all its nutrients from the mother’s blood. If you are not getting an adequate intake of important nutrients, your body will divert these from your own stores to ensure your baby is getting what it needs for development. According to the results of a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, vitamin and mineral deficiency in pregnant women is common, specifically Magnesium, Iron, Vits D and E, and to a lesser degree Vits A, B, C, Calcium, Folate and Zinc. It is important to top-up your own levels of these and other nutrients to ensure you stay in top form during pregnancy and postpartum.
Nutrients needed to keep mother and baby in peak health while breastfeeding are split into two groups – Group 1 are the nutrients that need to be present in Mom’s blood in sufficient quantities so they can be secreted into breastmilk, and Group 2 are nutrients that will be secreted into milk regardless of how much or little the mother is taking in. Although Group 2 nutrients are not necessarily needed in a mother’s blood, it’s still a good idea to make sure you are getting enough of them to stay as healthy as possible during this time.
Some common food sources of Group 1 nutrients:
- Vitamin A: sweet potatoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, organ meats, eggs
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): fish, pork, seeds, nuts, beans
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): cheese, almonds, nuts, red meat, oily fish, eggs
- Vitamin B6: chickpeas, nuts, fish, poultry, potatoes, bananas, dried fruit
- Vitamin B12: shellfish, liver, yogurt, oily fish, nutritional yeast, eggs, crab, shrimp
- Vitamin D: cod liver oil, oily fish, some mushrooms, fortified foods
- Choline: eggs, beef liver, chicken liver, fish, peanuts
- Iodine: dried seaweed, cod, milk, iodized salt
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, seafood, turkey, whole wheat, seeds
Some common food sources for Group 2 nutrients:
- Calcium: milk, yogurt, cheese, leafy greens, legumes
- Zinc: oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, dairy
- Folate: beans, lentils, leafy greens, asparagus, avocados
- Iron: red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, beans, green vegetables, dried fruit
- Copper: shellfish, whole grains, nuts, beans, organ meats, potatoes
You will almost certainly need to up your calorie intake while breastfeeding – by between 300 and 500 calories depending on your weight and activity levels – to cope with the physical demands of producing breastmilk, but fortunately breastfeeding can also burn off up to 800 calories a day, and can also result in the loss of some pregnancy weight.
SHOULD I BE TAKING SUPPLEMENTS?
If you are eating a healthy, well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet with plenty of the foods listed above, there should be no need to take supplements. But depending on your individual circumstances, the following might be recommended:
Omega-3 is a fatty acid that is essential for the healthy growth and development of your baby’s brain, as well as for maintaining a normal brain function as an adult. Its primary food source is seafood, including fatty fish and algae. An omega-3 deficiency in a child’s early years has been linked to several behavioural problems such as ADHD and learning disabilities. Since the amount of omega-3 acids in breastmilk depends on the mother’s intake, it is recommended that breastfeeding mothers supplement their intake if their diet is not providing it.
Vitamin D is essential for overall health, especially for bone health and immune function. Its primary sources are fatty fish and fish liver oils, eggs, as well as foods fortified with Vit D like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals. Breastmilk usually contains low levels of Vitamin D, especially if you are not getting regular exposure to the sun. A Vitamin D deficiency in early childhood may cause seizures, rickets, and muscle weakness, and as adults it is also linked to the development of diseases and conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, dementia, and cognitive decline.
Multivitamins: Due to a very poor diet, pregnancy-related nausea, or your own food aversions, some women may be lacking a number of key nutrients and may benefit from taking a good multivitamin.
Always use a trusted brand of supplement, and make sure it is suitable for breastfeeding – some supplements have added herbs or other ingredients which may not be suitable during this time. It’s always best to consult your pharmacist or doctor before using any supplements.
SHOULD I AVOID ANY FOOD OR DRINKS WHILE BREASTFEEDING?
While you are pregnant, potentially harmful food or drinks can easily pass on to your baby via your placenta, but during breastfeeding these substances are not as readily get passed into your milk supply, so the list of “no-go’s” or “proceed with caution” foods is much less restrictive and most things can be consumed in moderation. Let your baby’s reaction to what you eat and drink guide you.
- Chocolate: This is a tough one, but chocolate contains caffeine which can make your baby restless and affect his sleep, as well as give him diarrhoea in extreme cases. Its best to limit your favourite treat to a just couple of blocks a day.
- Coffee/tea: another hard one, but the good news is you can drink up to two cups a day if your baby’s sleep isn’t affected by it. Watch out for hidden caffeine in soft drinks.
- Spices like cinnamon, curry powder, chilli and garlic won’t harm your baby but may change the taste of your milk and she may refuse to drink – let her guide you.
- Fish: Some fish have a high mercury content and are not advised, such as sword-fish, mackerel and big-eye tuna. Limit yourself to two portions a week of fish and seafood such as haddock, hake, anchovies, sardines, squid and shellfish.
- Citrus fruits and juices with high acid content may give your baby an upset tummy, so start with small amounts to see if he tolerates it.
- Allergens: if you or any member of your family are allergic to any foods it is best to avoid eating these while breastfeeding. To check if your baby has inherited any family member’s allergies, start with mixing a very small amount of this food in her cereal or pureed fruit or vegetables from about 6 months old. If she is allergic the reaction will happen in around 30 minutes, so watch carefully for swelling lips, eyelids or face, hives on the skin. It’s best not to wait too long and you should introduce these foods before your child is a year old, as this has been shown to increase the chance she may also develop an allergy.
- Alcohol: while this is dangerous during pregnancy because it crosses the placenta, during breastfeeding the amount that passes into the milk is negligible and unlikely to cause harm when consumed in moderation. Limit yourself to one drink a day, and if you are concerned, you could wait for two hours after drinking before you feed.
ENSURE ADEQUATE HYDRATION WHILE BREASTFEEDING
We all know that drinking enough water is good for us and that we should be aiming for 8 glasses (or two litres) a day. Because breastmilk is 90% water, it’s advisable to increase your intake by 3 glasses a day to replace the fluids that are being lost through feeding.
Mother Nature has given us a helping hand to ensure we get enough fluids during breastfeeding. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” which generates feelings of love, empathy, generosity and trust, and that allows breastmilk to be released into the breast, can also make us feel thirsty. A good way to work more water into your diet during this time is to sip on water while you are feeding.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Breastfeeding is the perfect feeding system for your baby. There is no need to radically change your diet while breastfeeding unless your diet is seriously unhealthy, in which case it’s a good idea to change it regardless of whether you are breastfeeding or not. If you look after yourself, you will be looking after your baby. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this precious time.