Best Foods for Breastfeeding Parents

Healthy buddha bowl lunch with grilled chicken, quinoa, spinach, avocado, brussels sprouts, broccoli, red beans with sesame seeds

 
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What should you eat when you're breastfeeding? The good news is that as a breastfeeding parent, you can eat just about anything you want. There is no reason to avoid any foods while nursing your baby.

Parents around the world breastfeed while eating diets full of spices, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables. And since the foods that you eat will make up your child's diet as well, your breastfeeding diet has the capacity to influence your baby's food preferences both in infancy and later life.

While your body will prioritize making nutritious breast milk no matter what you are eating, healthy food choices and adequate calories will ensure that you're meeting the nutrition needs of both yourself and your baby.

Changing Your Diet From Pregnancy to Breastfeeding

Many people begin making healthy changes to their diet while they're pregnant. You may have started:

  • Adding healthy snacks between meals
  • Cutting down on the amount of caffeine you drink each day
  • Eating more nutritious foods
  • Taking a prenatal vitamin

If you've already done these things, you won't have many changes to make as you transition from pregnancy to breastfeeding. One change, however, is that you will need an additional 450 to 500 calories per day to meet the increased energy needs of breastfeeding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfeeding parents should consume about 2300 to 2500 calories per day.

The increased calories needed to produce breast milk explain why breastfeeding helps your body to shed any extra pregnancy pounds. Much of this weight loss occurs as your body uses its fat stores to provide some of the fat in your breast milk.

Why Nutrition is Important While Breastfeeding

Your body takes whatever it needs to make breast milk from the nutrients you have stored up as well as those you eat. Many of the nutrients for your breast milk will come from your bones, tissues, and fat. This way, your baby gets all the nutrition they need, no matter what your diet looks like.

If your diet isn't providing enough nutrients or energy for both baby and you, your baby takes priority. So you could end up lacking essential vitamins and minerals. Over time, this could leave you feeling drained and lead to nutrient deficiencies.

By consuming a healthy, balanced diet while you're breastfeeding and eating enough to support increased hunger, you should be able to meet the nutrient needs of your baby and those of your own body. This will not only help with recovery after the birth of your baby, but can also maximize your energy level and help you feel better overall.

Components of the foods you eat travel into your breast milk and influence the composition, taste, and color of your milk. Research has also shown that breastfed babies get used to the taste of foods in their mother's diets and develop preferences for those types of foods later in life.

Eating meals full of healthy, nutritious foods—including fruits and vegetables—while you're breastfeeding helps lay the foundation for good eating habits for your child in the future.

A Healthy Breastfeeding Diet

A well-balanced meal plan that includes a variety of foods—and enough food overall—is the goal of a breastfeeding diet. A healthy diet contains foods that provide:

  • Healthy fats
  • High-fiber carbohydrates
  • Vitamin- and mineral-rich sources of protein

By listening to your body's hunger cues and responding to them with a meal or snack, you can ensure you're meeting the increased calorie needs of breastfeeding. You may find that you are hungry more often or that it takes a bit more food to satisfy your hunger.

Since breastmilk is mostly water, it's also important to drink enough fluids. While the effects of increased fluid intake on breast milk volume are still unknown, adult women are advised to drink at least nine cups of water or other noncaffeinated beverages each day, and men should drink at least 12 cups per day.

While you can get all the extra calories you need from meals and snacks, your doctor may recommend a multivitamin while breastfeeding to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals.

Eating a variety of foods every day, not skipping meals, and respecting your body's hunger cues will set you up to meet your and baby's nutrient needs. If you're concerned that you don't have a healthy diet or might need a supplement, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.

Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

The CDC notes that parents who follow a diet without animal foods should talk to their doctor about taking a vitamin B12 supplement while breastfeeding.

Vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets are typically low in this vitamin, which can put breastfed infants at risk of B12 deficiency and neurological damage.

Key Nutrients for Breastfeeding Parents

Some of the most important nutrients for supporting your baby's growth and development include:

  • Calcium is necessary for healthy bones and teeth as well as blood clotting. It's critical to get enough calcium while breastfeeding to replace what your body provides to your baby. Dairy products, dark green vegetables, salmon (with bones), poppy seeds, tofu, and fortified nut milks and juices are good sources of calcium.
  • Folate (folic acid) is a B vitamin that helps prevent neural tube defects and promotes proper brain and nervous system development. Good sources of folate include beef liver, beans, citrus, dark green vegetables, and fortified cereals.
  • Iodine is important for proper function of the thyroid, which makes hormones that are vital to growth and brain development. Use iodized salt in your cooking and eat other high-iodine foods such as seafood and diary products.
  • Iron enables the production of new red blood cells and the transport of oxygen throughout the body. Get iron in your diet by eating meat, fish, liver, beans, tofu, leafy green vegetables, nuts, eggs, and whole grains.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA support the development of your baby's brain and eyes. Breastfeeding parents should consume at least 200 mg of DHA per day. You can find omega-3 fats in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines), eggs, and liver.
  • Protein builds and sustains all the parts of the body, including the muscles, brain, bones, heart, lungs, enzymes, hormones and antibodies. Try to include protein with every meal. Meats, dairy products, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and grains contain protein.
  • Vitamin A plays an important role in development of the eyes and skin. You can find vitamin A in red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables, dark leafy green vegetables, liver, and dairy products.
  • Vitamin C is essential for healthy bones, teeth, ligaments, and blood vessels. It also helps the body absorb iron and may prevent some infections. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, mangoes, and dark green vegetables.
  • Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. It's also important for the healthy growth of your baby's bones and teeth. While our skin can make vitamin D from sun exposure, it is also found in fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver, and foods fortified with vitamin D such as cereals, orange juice, milk, and yogurt.
  • Zinc is needed for a variety of processes in the body, including protein synthesis, wound healing, and immune function. Meat, seafood, dairy products, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans are all good sources of this mineral.

Breastfeeding Diet Shopping List

You can get all the nutrients you need every day by eating a variety of foods from the major food groups. Here's a list of foods to stock up on the next time you make a grocery run.

  • Beverages: Water, seltzer, vegetable and fruit juices with no added sugar. Coffee and tea are also good options to meet your fluid needs (but you may want to consume caffeine in moderation).
  • Dairy products: Milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products fortified with Vitamin A and D over whole milk and items made from whole milk.
  • Fats and oils: Avocado oil, canola oil, coconut oil, nut oils, and olive oil are highest in healthy fats.
  • Fruits: Apples, oranges, bananas, pears, peaches, strawberries, grapes, melons, pineapples, grapefruits, fruit juices, canned fruit, and dried fruit. Look for fruits and juices with no added sugar.
  • Meat and seafood: Beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, and seafood. Leaner cuts of meat are healthier than fried meats, hot dogs and deli meats. When possible, choose organic, grass-fed meat and wild-caught seafood to get the most omega-3 fats.
  • Nuts, seeds, and beans: Peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried beans, lentils, nuts, and nut butter.
  • Vegetables: Dark leafy greens (broccoli, spinach, kale, lettuce), carrots, peas, squash, peppers, and sweet potatoes. Vegetables should make up a large part of your diet.
  • Whole grains: Whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, brown rice, tortillas, whole grain cereals, muffins, bagels, and crackers. Whole grains provide more fiber and B vitamins than refined grain products.

Foods to Limit When You're Breastfeeding

When you decide to breastfeed, it doesn't mean you have to give up all of your favorite things. However, there are a few foods that you should limit for the health of your baby.

Alcohol

Because alcohol passes into breast milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding alcohol while breastfeeding. While some parents still have a glass of wine or beer occasionally while breastfeeding, talk to your doctor ahead of time to get their input.

The AAP also notes that contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not increase milk supply. It may also decrease the amount of milk your baby drinks because it changes the flavor of your breast milk.

If you decide to drink, finish your drink at least 2 hours before breastfeeding or pumping.

Caffeine

Very little dietary caffeine shows up in breast milk. However, some parents report noticing more irritability or fussiness in their babies when they drink more than three cups of coffee (or other caffeinated beverages) per day. If your baby was pre-term, talk with your doctor about caffeine intake, as pre-term infants can be more sensitive to it.

Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood are an excellent source of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which play a vital role in development of the brain and nervous system during pregnancy and early life. They also provide high-quality protein, iron, minerals, and more vitamin D and B12 than any other food.

The FDA recommends that breastfeeding parents consume 8 to 12 ounces of low-mercury seafood per week as part of a healthy eating plan.

However, certain types of fish contain high levels of mercury, which can build up in the body over time and cause damage to the nervous system. Infants and young children are at increased risk because of their small body size.

People who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised to include fish and seafood in their diets for its nutritional benefits while avoiding high-mercury varieties, including:

  • King mackerel
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
  • Tuna (bigeye)

Food Allergies

While there aren't any foods that you have to completely avoid as a rule, some infants may have a food sensitivity or an allergy to a certain item in your diet. If you make a connection between something that you eat and a reaction in your baby, speak with your pediatrician and/or lactation consultant.

The USDA advises breastfeeding parents that even if they have a family history of food allergies, there is no reason to avoid that food to prevent the development of allergies in their baby.

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Article Sources
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  4. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How much water do you need. November 6, 2019.

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.

  6. Nemours KidsHealth. Pregnant or breastfeeding? Nutrients you need. Updated June 2014.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Increasing calcium in your diet. Updated December 1, 2019.

  8. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020.

  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Alcohol and breast milk. July 17, 2020.

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Advice about eating fish. December 29, 2020.

Additional Reading
  • Lawrence RA, Lawrence,RM. Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession 8th ed. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2015.

  • Whitney E, Rolfes S. Understanding Nutrition. 14th edition. Cengage Learning, 2015.