Self-Care for the Breastfeeding Mother

Tips for Nutrition, Weight Loss, Exercise, Breast Care, and Emotional Health

Mother breastfeeding with television
Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy / Getty Images

Breastfeeding mothers tend to forget that they need to care for themselves as well as the baby. There's so much to think about with remembering when the baby's last feeding was, making sure the baby's positioning and latch are correct and counting dirty diapers, you can easily leave your own well-being at the doorstep. However, it's essential to take charge of your needs as well as your child's. Here are some guidelines for nutrition, weight loss, exercise, hygiene, and emotional health for breastfeeding moms.

Nutrition

You can pretty much eat anything and everything that you want while you're breastfeeding. There are so many myths and wive's tales that circulate about what breastfeeding mothers should not eat, but you can pretty much ignore all of them. It's OK to eat broccoli, garlic, onions, spicy food, citrus, and even chocolate as long as you don't overdo it. But, it's still important to get the nutrients that your body needs while you're breastfeeding. So, to fuel your body, you can:  

Now, no matter what you eat, your breast milk will still be good for your baby. But, if you eat poorly, you will be sacrificing the nutrients in your own body since your body will take what it needs to make healthy breast milk out of its stores. That could leave you feeling depleted and exhausted. Instead, by eating a variety of foods and making some better food and snack choices, you can to keep your body healthy and strong while you're making breast milk. And, as mentioned above, that doesn't mean that you can't have junk food. You certainly can. Just enjoy it in moderation along with your balanced diet. 

Weight Loss

As a new breastfeeding mother, you may crave carbs, but you may also crave non-maternity wear. Breastfeeding may help you to lose weight, but it depends on your body and your diet. Here are some tips for watching your weight while you're breastfeeding. 

  • If you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, you should lose weight gradually. 
  • It's better to lose weight slowly. The safe limit is no more than one pound a week. But, if you're desperate to drop more than that, be sure to discuss it with your doctor and wait until your child is at least two months old. By two months, your milk supply has time to become established, and the weight loss won't be such a shock to your body. 
  • What you eat can affect your ability to lose weight. If you eat large portions of high-fat foods, fried food, and junk food, it can prevent you from losing weight. You may even gain weight. Choose lower fat options, pick grilled and baked foods over fried, swap some fresh vegetables and fruits for some junk food snacks, and eat smaller portions.  
  • Adding exercise to healthy eating can help with weight loss. Talk to your doctor about starting some light to moderate exercise.
  • Be careful about losing too much weight too quickly. It can cause a decrease in your milk supply
  • While you're breastfeeding, it's not safe to go on a strict calorie reducing diet, and you shouldn't use weight loss pills. Your supply of breast milk and your health can be drastically affected.
  • If you do decide to begin a weight loss program, make sure you're getting enough calories each day and that your doctor is following your progress. 

All women are different. Some lose weight quickly while others struggle even when they eat right and exercise. While it's normal to want to lose your pregnancy weight and get your body back after you have a baby, it's important to be patient and give yourself time.

Physical Exercise

After you have your baby, it may feel like it will be years before you can hit the gym again. But, exercise is an important part your well-being as a breastfeeding mother. Of course, with exhaustion levels reaching a new high, running a 5K is probably out of the question. However, you can take a nice, brisk walk every day. That's an easy, doable action that will increase your cardiovascular fitness. Here are some of the guidelines to follow for exercising as a breastfeeding mom

  • Breastfeed your baby (or pump) before you start to exercise. Your workout will be more comfortable if you're breasts aren't too full of breast milk. 
  • Wear the right bra. You want support, but you don't want the bra to be too tight or have an underwire. Anything too restrictive that puts excessive pressure on your breast tissue can cause plugged milk ducts or mastitis.
  • Stay well hydrated, especially in hot weather. Remember to drink at least 64 ounces of water a day. And, if you're sweating a great deal during your exercise routine, drink even more. 
  • Wash up after working out. Take a shower or wash your breasts after you exercise and before you breastfeed to remove the sweat from your breasts and nipples. Many women have heard stories about babies refusing to breastfeed after their mom has worked out. The reason has nothing to do with the composition of the breast milk, but more with the fact that sweat is salty, and some babies are turned off by the taste.
  • Enjoy your workout and your YOU-time. Take in every moment. And while you're doing so, the mood-boosting chemical, serotonin, will be released into your body. So, even if this is the only outing you get on a particular day, you'll still feel like a million bucks.

    Caring for Your Breasts

    There isn't much you have to do to care for your breasts when you're breastfeeding, but here are a few things you can do to try to stay comfortable and prevent breast issues. 

    • It's important to practice good hygiene while you're breastfeeding. Good hygiene includes taking a shower or bath every day and cleaning your breasts. For years, nursing mothers were told not to wash their breasts with soap because it would dry out the nipple area. But, if you use a moisturizing soap and rinse it off thoroughly, this shouldn't be an issue. 
    • When you're breastfeeding, natural oils secreted by the Montgomery glands (little bumps visible on your areola) clean and moisturize the nipples. They also help prevent bacteria from breeding. You don't want to disrupt these glands from doing their work, so just be careful to wash the breasts lightly. It's also beneficial to rub some of your expressed breast milk into your nipples and let it air dry since breast milk has anti-infective properties.
    • Wear a fresh, clean nursing bra every day, and change it during the day if it gets soiled or wet. If you wear breast pads to soak up leaking breast milk, be sure to change them often, as well. A wet bra or damp breast pads laying on your breasts can cause skin breakdown. Plus, the warm, moist, sugary environment is the perfect place for bacteria or yeast to grow. 
    • If you develop painful breast issues such as sore nipples or plugged milk ducts, treat them right away to prevent them from getting worse or interfering with breastfeeding.  

    Emotional and Mental Health

    New moms can go from happy to sad and back to happy in a matter of minutes. From changing hormones to exhaustion to holding your little bundle of joy, there can be a lot of unexpected emotions. It's certainly normal to experience a range of feelings. Here are some tips to care for your emotional and mental health while you're breastfeeding.  

    • Seek out a support system. Even before you have your baby, think about the people in your life you can turn to for helpful advice and support. It may be your partner, your mom, your sister, or a good friend. If you do not have a strong support system, join a local or online breastfeeding group. You never know when a breastfeeding issue will pop up and you need a little support to get you through.
    • Get help if you need it. Breastfeeding may be natural, but sometimes moms and babies need help getting started. If you're having trouble getting your baby to latch on or you have a very sleepy baby, it can be frustrating and bring up feelings of guilt or failure. But, by asking for help from the beginning, you can get breastfeeding off to a good start. It can give you confidence and put you and your baby on the path to breastfeeding success.
    • Get some rest when you can. There's so much to do when you're a mom. Your daily tasks can be overwhelming, and it's worse when you're exhausted. It may not easy to get enough rest, but you can try. If you sleep when your baby is sleeping and take every opportunity you can to put your feet up and close your eyes, you're sure to feel better and more ready to take on your responsibilities. 
    • Talk about your feelings. You don't have to keep everything bottled up inside. It's OK to feel the way you feel and talking about it can make you feel better. If can't talk to your partner, family, or friends or you don't feel comfortable talking to them, you can speak to a professional. Your doctor is a great resource and can connect you to the right person. 
    • Take time for yourself. Too often moms think they have to do it all. But, you don't have to do everything for everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Taking time for yourself is OK. Have your partner, a family member, or a friend stay with the baby for a little while and go for a walk, get a manicure, or go to lunch with a friend. Taking time for yourself to do something you enjoy will allow you to return to your responsibilities feeling refreshed, and that's good for you and your baby. 
    • Prepare for weaning. You may not be expecting a wave of sadness when it's time to wean your baby. But, the end of the breastfeeding relationship can be surprisingly difficult, even if you were planning for it or looking forward to it. By recognizing and acknowledging the loss, you can help prepare yourself for leaving that part of your life with your little one behind and begin looking toward the new adventures you will experience together as your child grows. 

      There is a wide range of normal emotions that you may experience when you're a breastfeeding mom. But, extreme sadness, guilt, or anxiety can be a sign of something more serious. You should talk to your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms of postpartum depression:

      • crying often
      • not sleeping well
      • loss of appetite
      • excessive worry or anxiety about parenthood and your baby
      • loss of interest in things you enjoy
      • you feel you want to harm yourself or your baby

      A Word from Verywell

      It's easy to forget or put off caring for yourself when you're a busy and tired new mom. But, it's not selfish to set aside some time each day to care for your physical and emotional health. It may actually be the best thing you can do for your family. You see, when you take care of your own needs by eating well, getting some rest, having some time to take a shower, and spending time with a friend, it can help you feel healthier and happier. And, when you feel good, you'll be ready and able to better care for your baby and your family.

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