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What to Eat While Feeding Your Child Breast Milk

Eat Well for You and Your Little One

Eating well when you’re breastfeeding is just as important as getting proper nutrition during your pregnancy.

If you choose to breastfeed, including pumping and bottle-feeding your child breast milk, here’s what you need to know about your nutrition.

Calories Count

Most people need about 300 to 400 extra calories per day while breastfeeding.

“The postpartum period is usually full of joy at the birth of your new baby, but can also be fatiguing and stressful, which can take a toll on the body,” says Ismely F. Minaya, MD, an OB-GYN physician at Northwestern Medicine. “Ensuring that you are getting enough food to support your needs as well as your baby’s needs becomes even more important, especially when breastfeeding.”

Ensure that these extra calories are beneficial for you and your baby by selecting nutrient-rich foods that are high in vitamins, minerals and macronutrients, which will help you get enough energy. Proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates will help you feel fuller longer, and they will help both you and your baby be as healthy as possible.

Feeding More Than Yourself

“There is no magic diet to improve your milk supply or to make sure your baby is getting all of the nutrients they need," says Dr. Minaya. “All you need to do is eat a well-balanced diet and ensure that you are getting enough of the important macronutrients, vitamins and minerals.”

When breastfeeding, be sure to get enough of the following.

Protein: According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, people who are breastfeeding need about 5 to 7 ounces of protein per day, but this can vary depending on your weight and metabolism.

Good sources of protein:

  • Lean meats, such as chicken, turkey and pork.
  • Fish, but be cautious of how much mercury you consume. Here are guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on mercury, seafood and breastfeeding. Having no more than two seafood meals per week is a good way to keep mercury intake at bay.
  • Yogurt, especially Greek yogurt, which is high in protein. Avoid yogurt with added sugar.
  • Nut and nut products.
  • Legumes, beans and whole grains.
  • Eggs.

Omega-3 fatty acid: Especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid shown to support infant vision and brain development.

Good sources of omega-3:

  • Low-mercury fish, like salmon and sardines
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds

Calcium: People who are breastfeeding need the same amount of calcium as non-lactating people, which is about 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day (1,300 mg per day if they are under 18). You should try to get this from dietary sources if possible. While breastfeeding can temporarily lead to bone density loss, this has been shown to be fully reversible after weaning.

Good sources of calcium:

  • Dairy products
  • Produce, including collard greens and broccoli
  • Some seafood, like shrimp

Vitamin D: The recommendation for vitamin D intake in people who are breastfeeding is the same as for those who are not breastfeeding, about 600 international units (IU) per day. However, some people will increase vitamin D intake when breastfeeding to boost the vitamin D content of their milk and avoid having to supplement their baby’s vitamin D. One study showed that increasing maternal vitamin D intake to 6,400 IU a day was equivalent to supplementing baby with 400 IU per day, which is the recommended supplementation amount for exclusively breastfed infants.

Good sources of vitamin D:

  • Milk (or milk substitutes) fortified with vitamin D
  • Cereals and grains fortified with vitamin D

Iron: Iron is your first line of defense against fatigue while breastfeeding. You need 9 mg of iron per day while breastfeeding. Some people may require more than this, especially if they have been diagnosed with anemia in the past or had heavy bleeding during delivery.

Good sources of iron:

  • Lean meat and seafood
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fortified grains

Folic acid/folate: All lactating people should continue to consume at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day for their health, continued normal development of their baby and the health of future babies. This can usually be found in prenatal vitamins.

Good sources of folate:

  • Beef liver
  • Green leafy vegetables (like spinach)
  • Citrus fruits
  • Folic-acid fortified foods

“In addition to eating a well-balanced diet, most people who are lactating benefit from continuing to take a prenatal vitamin or a multivitamin,” says Dr. Minaya.

Lactation and Hydration

Breast milk is more than 80% water. That’s why it’s important to stay hydrated during breastfeeding.

In general, drink to quench thirst. Watch for signs of dehydration like concentrated urine or constipation.

What to Limit While Breastfeeding

Caffeine and alcohol.

If you choose to consume either, follow these guidelines to keep your breast milk safe for your baby.

Caffeine: Keep caffeine consumption less than 300 mg per day.

“Most people can drink up to three cups of coffee per day while breastfeeding, but make sure you monitor your baby for fussiness, irritability and inability to sleep as some babies are more sensitive than others to small amounts of caffeine,” says Dr. Minaya.

Preterm infants or infants with other health conditions may be more sensitive to caffeine in breast milk.

Alcohol: “I recommend waiting two hours to breastfeed your baby for each serving of alcohol you drink,” says Dr. Minaya. “This is about how long your body takes to metabolize that amount of alcohol so that it can’t get into the breast milk.”

The best time to have a drink is during or immediately after breastfeeding since it takes time for the alcohol to reach the breast milk. This will give the most time for the alcohol to clear before your next feeding. If you are intoxicated, it is not safe to breastfeed your baby.

You also cannot “pump and dump” the alcohol out of your milk. It will clear at the same rate it clears from your blood. If you feel sober, you are likely safe to breastfeed.

Note: Premature babies and newborns require a more conservative approach because they may not metabolize medication and alcohol as effectively as healthy older infants. If your child consumes alcohol-tainted breast milk frequently, they may experience developmental delays, sleep pattern interruptions and other health issues.

Remember: Breastfeeding fuels your child but can be fatiguing for you. Keep your child and yourself safe with proper nutrition during this time. Consult your physician with specific questions about what to eat and what to avoid while breastfeeding.

Resources for New Parents