You spent a long nine months following a strict pregnancy diet. After avoiding raw fish, caffeine, alcohol, and more, it makes sense that you’d assume a breastfeeding diet would be more or less the same.
But good news! As a breastfeeding mom, there really isn’t a list of foods you are not allowed to eat. Everything in moderation is our mantra.
Breast milk is a pretty incredible thing that your body can produce for your child. Here is everything you need to know about how breast milk is made and how your diet can have an affect on the quality and production levels of milk.
How Is Breast Milk Made in the Body?
Before we get into the facts and myths about your diet having an affect on your breast milk, let’s break down how exactly breast milk is produced.
First off, breast milk production has nothing to do with the size of your breast or nipples. The size of your breast is an inherited trait and determined by the number of fat cells you have.
Breastfeeding works in a supply-and-demand process. The more you nurse or pump (i.e. the more you remove milk from your breasts), the more milk your body is likely to produce.
The process actually begins during your pregnancy. You likely experienced some tenderness, swelling, or darkened nipples. These are all signs that your body is preparing to produce milk.
The developing placenta will stimulate the release of estrogen and progesterone, which then signals to your biological system that the body needs to begin producing milk.
Your breasts are made up of mostly supportive tissue, milk glands, and protective fat. The female breast has been preparing for milk production since you were born; the main milk ducts, which are the network of canals designed to transport milk through your breasts, are already formed as a newborn.
Due to the increase of hormones in your body while pregnant, your glands are triggered and milk production begins. By your second trimester, your milk duct system is fully developed.
The Types of Breast Milk You Produce
Your body naturally produces two different types of milk that both have incredible benefits to your body. In the first few days of breastfeeding you produce colostrum, sometimes referred to as “liquid gold” because of how rich in nutrients it is. The high-protein, low-fat, easily digestible liquid can be either clear, white, yellow, or orange, and usually has a thick and sticky texture.
Colostrum can start to be produced about three to four months into your pregnancy, so you might have noticed your breasts leak a few times. The “first milk” is higher in protein, minerals, salt, vitamin A, nitrogen, white blood cells, and certain antibodies.
The disease-fighting antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, works to strengthen your baby’s immune system. It is lower in fat and sugar than your second milk.
After a few days, your body naturally transitions from colostrum to mature milk. As your body moves through lactation, extra blood is pumped into the breast which can make your breasts firm and full.
The extra blood, along with the swelling of your breast tissue, may cause some temporary discomfort. With your baby nursing frequently during the first few weeks, the discomfort should relieve itself.
Mature breast milk contains the perfect amount of water, fat, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids for your baby’s healthy development. It also contains white blood cells, antibodies, and enzymes that increase the strength of your baby’s immune system.
Your body naturally produces all of the exact nutritional and protective components that your baby needs throughout their growth and development.
How Your Diet Affects Your Breast Milk
Your breastfeeding diet can be fairly similar to your pregnancy diet, with just a few new changes to keep in mind. The great news is that you welcome back almost all of the foods you had to avoid during your pregnancy.
While your breast milk is not easily changed or negatively affected by the foods you eat in your diet, it’s important to maintain a healthy, nutrient-dense diet in order to care for you and your baby’s health.
Best Foods to Eat
The most important thing to focus on in your breastfeeding diet is eating a range of nutrient-dense foods that keep you healthy. To produce the best breast milk, the best thing you can do for your little one is prioritize eating a well-balanced diet.
Here is a list of foods to include in your diet as you breastfeed:
- Fish and Seafood: salmon, seaweed, shellfish, sardines
- Meat and Poultry: chicken, beef, lamb, pork, liver
- Fruits and Veggies: berries, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, kale, garlic
- Nuts and Seeds: almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax
- Healthy Fats: avocado, olive oil, coconut, eggs, yogurt
- Fiber-Rich Starches: potatoes, butternut squash, quinoa, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils
- Other: tofu, dark chocolate, kimchi, sauerkraut
Your body burns an additional 400-500 calories from breastfeeding alone. Do not stress yourself out by trying to track calories or macronutrients, but do be mindful of your body's extra nutritional needs.
Try to stick to a regular eating schedule so that you can make sure you are getting enough food throughout the day to support your body. Keeping quick and healthy snacks around the house makes it easier to choose the right foods while managing your new parent routine. Some ideas for foods to have in your kitchen include:
- Oatmeal topped with berries and nut butter
- Veggies and dip (hummus or cottage cheese)
- Low-fat yogurt and granola
- Trail mix
- Dark chocolate
How To Increase Breast Milk Production
If you are noticing that your body is having a more difficult time producing milk for your baby, here are a few tools and techniques to try:
Removing milk from your breasts is an essential way to increase your milk supply. Breastfeeding is based on a supply and demand cycle—the more milk is removed from your breasts, the more milk you will produce. There are two important steps you can take to ensure proper milk removal:
- Latching Correctly - Your baby latching correctly is the most efficient way of increasing your milk supply; make sure your baby is opening wide to latch onto both the nipple and breast. They should then use their mouth to massage milk out of the nipple.
- Pumping - If you are going to be away from your baby, try to pump as many (or more) times that you would normally be nursing. Even if you are nursing, you can also pump after the feeding to ensure your breast has completely emptied.
Keep the Faith!
The more you continue to try and breastfeed or pump milk, the more you are telling your body to continue producing milk. Keep trying and your body will listen to what you are telling it to do. Know that there are experts ready to help. The work you put in today, you may see the benefits in a week!
Massage Your Breasts
After breastfeeding, continue to stimulate the breasts by using a breast pump or a hand expression technique. This extra stimulation tells your body to continue to make more breast milk. Most moms prefer using a hand expression technique because it is more comfortable and does not require an extra tool.
If you are having trouble producing enough milk for your baby, try increasing the amount of calories you are eating throughout the day. Additionally, you can introduce a few foods into your diet that are known to increase lactation production.
Oatmeal, fennel, or fenugreek seeds are just a few examples of these foods. Online, you can find tons of yummy recipes that use these stimulating ingredients to help increase your lactation levels.
Breast milk is made up of 90% water, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get dehydrated in the process. Make sure to take care of yourself because ultimately, your health is just as important as your baby’s. Always have a bottle of water handy! especially when pumping and breastfeeding remember to drink up and hydrate!
Foods to Avoid
You spent the last nine months avoiding everything from deli meat, to sushi, to unpasteurized cheese so that you could make sure your baby was safe and healthy. While it’s normal to continue avoiding certain foods after giving birth, there’s no harm in enjoying many of the foods you avoided while pregnant; just remember, everything in moderation.
There are only a few foods that you should still limit your overall intake of just to help keep milk production levels up and to make sure your baby is as happy and healthy as can be.
High Mercury Fish
Fish like salmon, bluefish, bass, tuna, and trout are all great options to help boost the DHA levels in your breast milk and help with your baby's brain development. But limit the amount of fish that are high in mercury levels, like tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel that you eat because the mercury is dangerous for both you and your baby.
It is completely safe to drink alcohol from time-to-time in your diet. Just remember that you should wait at least 2 hours before breastfeeding to allow for the alcohol to leave your bloodstream and not have an affect on your breast milk. If necessary, you can “pump and dump” shortly after drinking to “clean out” your breast milk.
If you find that your baby is irritable or not sleeping well, you may need to consider cutting back the amount of caffeine you are drinking. It is recommended to drink no more than 300 milligrams per day (this equals about three 8 oz. cups of coffee.)
Newborns are more sensitive to caffeine so as your little one grows older, you should be able to increase the amount of caffeine you have per day.
Things to Keep in Mind About Your Diet
If you follow a special diet, such as vegetarian or vegan, try to still get enough protein, iron, and zinc into your diet with foods like beans, nuts, and seeds. You may want to consider taking extra vitamin B-12 supplements to help support your body with this vitamin intake.
When possible, try to buy and eat organic foods - especially when consuming meat and dairy products. A lot of non-organic meat and dairy products can include antibiotics and growth hormones that you should try to avoid while breastfeeding your baby.
As a breastfeeding mom, you deserve to enjoy some of your favorite treats! However, you should try to avoid eating too many processed foods and stick to eating a majority of nutrient-dense foods that boost you and your baby’s health. But do not stress about being perfect with your diet and trust that your body will naturally take care of itself and your little one.
There is not enough evidence to support that consuming allergenic foods during pregnancy or while breastfeeding helps prevent food allergies for your baby. However, introducing allergenic foods early and often can help prevent up to 80% of food allergies. Don’t know where to start? We recommend subscribing to Ready, Set, Food!, an allergist-mom developed system that makes introducing the most common allergenic foods easy and safe for your baby.
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*written by Gracie Goodenough