What to Eat while Breastfeeding

You’ve heard that you are what you eat. That means that the quality of your diet also determines in part the quality of the breast milk you produce.

What constitutes a healthy diet for optimum milk production for new moms? In this article, we’ll go over the basics and give some specific recommendations for healthy foods to eat as well as some pointers regarding what to avoid.

What to eat while breastfeeding

How Important is Diet When Breastfeeding? Very! 

If you eat a diet devoid of nutrition while breastfeeding, it will have a negative impact on both you and your infant.

But, so long as you are eating a reasonably healthy diet, you probably will be producing healthy breast milk without taxing your own body too much.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) writes, “The good news is that your milk will probably be just right for your baby regardless of what you eat. Your body knows exactly what nutrition your baby needs at every stage of development.”

Still, even CHOP then spends a whole page providing recommendations for new moms regarding diet. 

So, what you eat (and don’t eat) while breastfeeding definitely is important.

Coming back to “you are what you eat,” What to Expect writes, “although you are often what you eat, your breast milk isn’t, so much. The basic fat-protein-carb combo of human milk isn’t directly dependent on what foods and drinks you put into your body. Even women who aren’t well-fed can feed their babies well, since if a mom doesn’t consume enough nutrients to produce milk, her body will tap into its own stores to fuel milk production.”

So, your body is prioritizing your baby’s nutritional needs above your own.

This is good in that you do not have to worry that your baby is going to miss out on essential nutrients because your diet one day wasn’t particularly nutrient-dense.

But it does mean that if you are eating poorly, your own reserves are going to take more of a hit, which may adversely impact your own nutritional health.

Key Point: The day-to-day fluctuations in the nutritional content of your diet won’t have much effect on your breast milk quality. Your body will pull from your own nutritional stores if necessary. 

Breastfeeding Diet Key Considerations

Given what we just discussed above, here are some of the considerations you will need to keep in mind when selecting foods and beverages while breastfeeding:

  • Calories. Your caloric needs increase when you are breastfeeding. You will spend around 500 to 600 more calories than you do otherwise. Initially, that can come off the weight you put on while you are pregnant. But afterwards, you need to eat more to compensate for those increased caloric requirements. If you didn’t retain a lot of extra weight after giving birth, then you will need to turn to your diet to get those extra calories sooner.
  • Hydration. Milk production requires extra water. You probably won’t need to think too hard about this, because the increase in your body’s production of oxytocin will cause you to feel thirsty. So long as you respond to that thirst in a timely fashion, you should stay hydrated. But if you forget to drink even when you’re thirsty (i.e. because you get over focused on work), try and remind yourself regularly throughout the day to drink extra fluids.
  • Nutrition for your own needs. Remember, if you are not getting substantial nutrition through your diet, your body will be forced to take more from your own reserves to create nutritious milk. To keep up with the demands of milk production and keep your own body running as smoothly as possible, don’t skimp on a wholesome diet.
  • Extra nutrition for your baby. There are some nutrients which may not be present in optimum amounts in your breast milk unless you do deliberately include them in your diet. This is the case even though your body is good at siphoning nutrients as needed into breast milk. We will go over these in our recommendations below.
  • Flavor. Yes, certain strong flavors in the foods you eat can transfer into your milk! Your baby may prefer some of these to others. If you make careful observations, you might figure out which are favorites and which are not. 

Key Point: Even though your body is adept at producing nutritious breast milk regardless of your day-to-day diet, it is important for your health to make sure that you are eating ample nutrition and calories as well as getting plenty of water. There are also some nutrients that you want to increase in your diet for your baby.

Breastfeeding Nutrients You Need and Foods to Eat

healthy food

Let’s talk about some of the nutrients which are particularly important to get in your diet when you are breast-feeding.

1. Vitamin D

You might be aware that one of the most common nutritional deficiencies even in First World countries is vitamin D.

Many people get insufficient vitamin D because they do not get enough exposure to the sun.

This is particularly common in climates like the Pacific Northwest with a lot of cloud cover for a large part of the year.

Many people also work jobs where they are kept indoors during daylight hours. Even in locations which receive a lot of sunlight, people who work these types of jobs may easily become deficient in vitamin D. 

If that describes you, you should know such a deficiency can impact the availability of vitamin D in breast milk.

As this article explains, “vitamin D deficiency is common in pregnant women (5-50%) and in breastfed infants (10-56%), despite the widespread use of prenatal vitamins, because these are inadequate to maintain normal vitamin D levels (>or=32 ng/mL). Adverse health outcomes such as preeclampsia, low birthweight, neonatal hypocalcemia, poor postnatal growth, bone fragility, and increased incidence of autoimmune diseases have been linked to low vitamin D levels during pregnancy and infancy.

Take careful note of those statistics. Up to half of pregnant women may not have enough vitamin D, and up to half of breastfed infants might be low on vitamin D. That means that there is around a fifty percent chance that any baby you see could potentially be vitamin D deficient. 

It is interesting to note that even the use of prenatal vitamins is not adequate to prevent vitamin D deficiency in infants.

According to this research, “Maternal vitamin D supplementation with 6400 IU/day safely supplies breast milk with adequate vitamin D to satisfy her nursing infant’s requirement and offers an alternate strategy to direct infant supplementation.”

What is potentially problematic about this recommendation is that 6400 IU/day exceeds the RDA for vitamin D by quite a bit.

So, if you want to keep vitamin D levels for your infant optimal, you may want to consider doing your own supplementation and also giving your infant suitable vitamin D supplements. From birth to 12 months of age, infants require 400 IU of vitamin D daily going by the recommendations of the NIH.

The NIH reports that these foods are good sources of vitamin D:

  • Fatty fish like tuna and salmon (also great for getting omega-3 fatty acids)*
  • Mushrooms 
  • Cheese
  • Egg yolks
  • Beef liver 
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Fortified milk
  • Other fortified foods 

So, consider adding more of these vitamin D-rich foods to your diet while you are breastfeeding.

But keep in mind that even if you were not breastfeeding, you would have a difficult time meeting your vitamin D requirements through these foods alone.

That is why it is important to get as much sunlight as you can, and also to make sure that you are supplementing appropriately for both yourself and your infant.

One more question you might have is, “Is that 6400 IU/day too much vitamin D?”

Well, maybe not.

Here are the NIH upper limit recommendations for vitamin D:

  • Infants: 1,000-1,500 IU
  • Children aged 1-8: 2,500-3,000 IU
  • Children age 9 and older along with all adults: 4,000 IU

Where do these limits come from? They are specifically set by the Food and Nutrition Board.

But what happens above 4,000 IU? As the Food and Nutrition Board states, nothing adverse, at least based on our current knowledge.

The board mentions a “No Observed Adverse Effects Level (NOAEL)” of 10,000 IU/day for adults

A NOAEL for a substance can only be posted if there are zero published studies to date which show adverse effects for that level.

Sun exposure alone can actually give you more than 4,000 IU of vitamin D per day, as described here.

So, considering both that and the NOAEL, it seems safe to say that if you want to supplement up to 6400 IU per day of vitamin D, you probably can do so safely.

If you have any questions about it, you can ask your healthcare provider.

Studies like this, this and this indicate that the danger zone for vitamin D toxicity appears to range between 40,000 and 100,000 IU.

Needless to say, that is quite a lot more than you would be taking to reach the levels which can nourish your baby through your breast milk. 

*Regarding eating fish when pregnant or breastfeeding, there are certain types of fish you need to avoid. More on that in the next section. 

Key Point: Vitamin D can be deficient in breast milk if you are not getting enough of it. So, eat foods which are rich in vitamin D and take a supplement. Also, give your infant a vitamin D supplement as well.

2. Omega-3 (DHA)

You may be somewhat familiar with omega-3 fatty acids and their health benefits. They receive a lot of press these days, and quite a few studies back up their effects.

These anti-inflammatory fatty acids are important for optimal functioning of numerous body systems.

In the West, we tend to eat too many foods which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and not enough of those which contain the omega-3 fatty acids that fight inflammation.

If you are lacking DHA omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, your breast milk will also be low in DHA.

But thankfully, if you supplement with DHA, you can increase DHA in your breast milk.

According to this study, “The women enrolled in this study had low dietary DHA intake. Supplementation with preformed DHA at 1 g/day resulted in increased DHA concentrations in the donor milk with no adverse outcomes. Infants fed donor milk from supplemented women receive dietary DHA levels that closely mimic normal intrauterine accretion during the third trimester.”

CHOP writes, “DocasaHexanenoic Acid (DHA) is an important omega 3 fatty acid needed by babies for brain development. You can boost the DHA in your milk by eating fish 2-3 times per week. The best sources of DHA are: salmon, bluefish, bass, trout, flounder and tuna. Do not eat tile fish, swordfish, shark and king mackerel. They contain high levels of mercury.”

Along with being necessary for infant brain development, DHA also can support healthy vision in infants.

When children do not get sufficient DHA during infancy, it can lead to problems later in terms of learning and regulating attention and emotion. Read more here and here.

How much DHA do you need? This research suggests, “It is recommended that the pregnant and nursing woman should take at least 2.6 g of omega-3 fatty acids and 100-300 mg of DHA daily to look after the needs of her fetus and suckling infant. The follow-up studies have shown that infants of mothers supplemented with EFAs and DHA had higher mental processing scores, psychomotor development, eye-hand coordination and stereo acuity at 4 years of age.”

Along with fish, what other foods can you eat to increase your intake of DHA?

If you do not eat fish, you can try eating any of the following:

  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts

Again, you can also take supplements to meet your DHA needs and to ensure that your breast milk also contains adequate concentrations of these critical omega-3 fatty acids.

Key Point: Omega-3 DHA fatty acids are vital for healthy brain development in infants, and also are good for infant vision. If you do not get enough DHA in your diet, your breast milk will not contain optimal concentrations of DHA either. By eating more fish and taking omega-3 supplements, you can increase the DHA in your breast milk.

3. Any Nutrients You Have a Deficiency 

While vitamin D is a common deficiency which can decrease the quality of breast milk, there are other nutritional deficiencies which you might have.

This is something which you probably will have already talked to your healthcare provider about.

If you have identified a nutritional deficiency, it is extra important to make sure that you are fortifying your diet with foods that are rich in that nutrient and that you are supplementing as necessary to keep your stores from dropping too low.

4. Water

As discussed, you need plenty of water when your infant is breastfeeding.

If you notice that your milk supply seems to be low, it could be that your low milk production reflects insufficient hydration.

This is especially likely if you notice other symptoms of dehydration.

But note that you would have to be very dehydrated for your milk supply to decline.

But as you are expelling fluid from your body, you could find yourself needing more water to replace your lost fluids.

If you are not getting enough water, some of the common symptoms could include:

  • Low amounts of urine
  • Dark or yellow urine
  • Headaches
  • Faintness
  • Fatigue

You probably are already adept at spotting your own symptoms of dehydration.

You just need to be extra cognizant regarding those signs and symptoms when you are breastfeeding.

If you make it a point each day to drink extra water, you should not run into this problem.

Key Point: Insufficient hydration is a possible reason for decreased milk supply during breastfeeding, but only in severe cases. But you do need extra fluids to replace those you are losing. Make sure that you drink plenty of water. Your hydration needs will be higher when you are breastfeeding than when you’re not.

5. General Recommendations

Along with the special considerations outlined above, here are a few more additional recommendations from CHOP:

“Include protein foods 2-3 times per day such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, and seeds. Eat three servings of vegetables, including dark green and yellow vegetables per day. Eat two servings of fruit per day. Include whole grains such as whole wheat breads, pasta, cereal and oatmeal in your daily diet.

What if you are a vegetarian? CHOP writes:

“Vegetarian diets can be compatible with breastfeeding. If you avoid meat, make sure you eat other sources of iron and zinc such as dried beans, dried fruit, nuts, seeds and dairy. If you avoid all animal products (vegan diet) you will need to take a B12 supplement to make sure your baby does not develop a B12 deficiency.”

Key Point: Eat a nutritious, balanced diet which is rich in protein while you are breastfeeding. It is okay to be a vegetarian or vegan, but if you are, you might need to supplement with vitamin B12.

Foods and Beverages Breastfeeding Moms Should Avoid or Moderate

We have now discussed some of the important nutrients and foods which you may want to consider supplementing on when you are breastfeeding.

But are there any foods or beverages that you should try and steer clear of?

In this category, there are a few things to avoid. Let’s discuss them one by one.

1. Alcohol

While you are breastfeeding, you should moderate your consumption of alcohol. If you can stand avoiding it completely, that is preferable.

The CDC writes, “Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for breastfeeding mothers. However, moderate alcohol consumption (up to 1 drink/day) is not known to be harmful to the infant.”

How you time your intake of alcohol can make a difference. The CDC recommends a two hour gap (or more) between when you have a drink of alcohol and when you commence with a nursing session.

The CDC explains, “Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after an alcoholic beverage is consumed, and can be generally detected in breast milk for about 2-3 hours per drink after it is consumed. However, the length of time alcohol can be detected in breast milk will increase the more alcohol a mother consumes.”

You might be wondering if it is possible if you are in a hurry to “pump and dump” to try and clear alcohol content out of your breast milk. 

The answer to this question is “no.” You have to wait until the level of alcohol in your bloodstream falls in order for it to fall in your milk. 

What happens if you have too much alcohol to drink while you are breastfeeding? Possible adverse effects include:

  1. Disruptions to sleep patterns for your baby
  2. Growth and development problems
  3. Reductions in milk production
  4. It is possible that drinking while breastfeeding could compromise your judgement as a caretaker, leading to adverse outcomes.

None of these risks are worth it. So, either moderate your alcohol intake or (preferably) eliminate it entirely while you are breast-feeding.

Key Point: You should keep alcohol consumption to a minimum or nonexistent while you are breastfeeding so that you do not contaminate your milk.

2. Caffeine

Like alcohol, caffeine is a substance which can end up present in your breast milk.

According to this site, “Per Medications and Mother’s Milk (Hale 2017, p. 139-140) caffeine is in Lactation Risk Category L2 (safer); milk levels are quite low (0.06-1.5% of maternal dose) and usually peak 1-2 hours after ingestion. One study has indicated that chronic coffee drinking might decrease iron content of breastmilk (Nehlig & Debry, 1994). The American Academy of Pediatrics has classified caffeine as a “Maternal Medication Usually Compatible with Breastfeeding.” Caffeine is given directly to premature babies (as a treatment for breathing problems) in much higher levels than those generally found in the breastmilk of mothers who consume caffeine.”

Nonetheless, some babies are more likely to be over-stimulated by caffeine than others, particularly if they are infants.

Just as caffeine can keep you awake if you have too much of it, the same is true for your baby.

For this reason, while you do not need to avoid caffeine altogether when you are breastfeeding, you should probably be moderating it, especially with a younger baby.

Do not forget that coffee and tea are not the only sources of caffeine. Chocolate also contains caffeine, so you may want to not eat too much of it.

Key Point: Some caffeine while breastfeeding is probably fine, but don’t overdo it, especially if you have a sensitive infant.

3. Mercury-Rich Fish

If you eat a lot of seafood, you should be careful to avoid types of fish that are high in mercury when you are breastfeeding.

The CDC says, “Mercury can pass from a mother to her baby through the placenta during pregnancy and, in smaller amounts, through breast milk after birth. Exposure to mercury can affect the infant’s brain and nervous system development during pregnancy and after birth.”

The key to moderating your intake of mercury is to avoid eating large fish like:

  • Swordfish
  • Tuna
  • Shark
  • King mackerel 
  • Tilefish

Instead, lean toward eating smaller fish like sardines, cod, and salmon. You can also eat muscles and scallops.

Key Point: You can eat seafood while breastfeeding, but you should favor seafood which is lower in mercury levels whenever possible. It is pretty easy to do this mainly by avoiding large fish.

4. Certain Herbs

You will want to pay attention not just to the foods and beverages you’re consuming, but also the herbs and spices which you use in your recipes and supplementing regimen.

According to this page, the following herbs can all reduce breast milk supply if they are consumed in significant quantities:

  • Black Walnut
  • Chickweed
  • Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
  • Lemon Balm
  • Oregano
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)/Menthol
  • Periwinkle Herb (Vinca minor)
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis)
  • Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
  • Spearmint
  • Thyme
  • Yarrow

Along with that list, the same page also provides another list of herbs which may be generally harmful while breastfeeding:

  • Bladderwrack
  • Buckthorn
  • Chaparral
  • Coltsfoot (Farfarae folium)
  • Dong Quai (Angelica Root)
  • Elecampane
  • Ephedra / Ephedra sinica / Ma Huang
  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng)
  • Indian Snakeroot
  • Kava-kava (piper methysticum)
  • Petasites root
  • Phen-fen, herbal
  • Rhubarb
  • Star anise
  • Tiratricol (TRIAC)
  • Uva Ursi
  • Wormwood

Key Point: There are some herbs you should avoid while you are breastfeeding for reasons pertaining to safety as well as milk supply.

5. Foods that Produce Sensitivities or Allergies

For the most part, if you keep the recommendations above in mind and moderate your intake of alcohol, caffeine, certain herbs, and fish which contain significant amounts of mercury, your breastfeeding diet should be safe.

But that is general advice. On a specific level, you need to pay attention to how your baby reacts to your diet, because infants can have food sensitivities and allergies, just like older children and adults.

Some common culprits might include:

  • Citrus (sometimes an irritant with younger babies as the digestive system is still not ready for it).
  • Peanuts and other tree nuts (watch out for this if anyone in your family is allergic to nuts, as this can be genetic).
  • Garlic (it alters the taste of breast milk, and some babies love it, but others hate it).
  • Gluten (a common intolerance in babies, just as it is in older people).
  • Dairy (even babies can be sensitive to cow’s milk).

It can be difficult to pin down what food is producing a reaction. You will need to take careful notes and vary your diet to try and figure out what the issue is. Remember, while those foods mentioned above are common culprits, other foods can also produce sensitivities or behave as allergens.

Key Point: Babies can experience food sensitivities or allergies to specific foods. If you figure out that your baby is reacting to a certain food, eliminating it from your diet while breastfeeding should prevent the problem going forward.

Try Nutritious Foods Plus Supplements for the Best Results

Based on the recommendations above, you now should be able to put together a breastfeeding diet plan which moderates or eliminates problematic foods and beverages while providing your baby with dense nutrition.

For the best results, consider pairing healthy foods and beverages with a breastfeeding supplement which contains vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that your baby needs for healthy development. Do that, and you will be getting your baby off to the right start in life!