So you have finally let go of the pregnancy diet guidelines; perhaps you are celebrating with a soft boiled egg with some soft cheeses and paté? These kinds of foods can be a worry during pregnancy due to the increased risk of miscarriage, but now that your baby has been safely brought into the world, you can put your mind at rest. As your newborn will be longing for a constant supply of breast milk at this time, let’s concentrate on getting this as good as it can be.
Breast milk can be the perfect concoction of nutrition for your baby, however the quality of your breast milk really depends on the foods you eat. No longer do you need to be so vigilant on a huge number of specific foods you should be avoiding, although the obvious culprits including coffee and alcohol don’t fare too well with your little one just quite yet (tips for getting around this are included below, so don’t you worry)!
When breastfeeding, your efforts should ideally be on eating an all-round healthy balanced diet to provide your baby with the nutrients they need, and of course a time for your body to recuperate after pregnancy. Now is not the time to follow any extreme diets, but to nourish your body to keep up with high demands from your growing baby.
Allow natural weight loss instead of dieting
Breastfeeding burns the equivalent calories to running for about an hour each day; at 500 calories, this is certainly a highlight to breastfeeding. Ready to eat for two yet? Well of course you are, but why not use this time to gradually lose the weight you have recently put on instead of eating those extra calories you are burning.
A sudden drop in calorie intake may actually reduce your production of milk, and I’m guessing that you don’t want a hungry crying baby at this stage while trying to lose weight. Let the baby weight naturally fall off you. It is completely normal for it to take up to a year to reach your pre-pregnancy weight, so don’t have high expectations of your body bouncing back in six weeks, as the glossy mags like to portray is realistic. Your baby will most likely suffer if you lose weight this quickly.
Your diet and the composition of your breast milk
There is a direct link between the foods you are eating and the nutritional content of your breast milk. Even the flavour of your breast milk can be significantly different for your baby, depending on what you have recently eaten. Chocolate milk anyone? Of course, in reality this does not mean that eating chocolate produces chocolate flavoured breast milk! It simply means that the consistency, acidity and other flavours may be subtly affected by your foods. You may even notice that your baby rejects your milk after you have eaten foods that you would not normally eat. They may have sensed something unusual, and may be a little wary. Keep your foods varied all the time and if you are lucky, your baby may develop a taste for most flavours!
The types of fats found in breast milk
The levels of fats found in breast milk can also be altered significantly depending on the types of fats you consume. Oily fish, for example, can actually increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your breast milk, with studies showing that vegan mothers have significantly lower levels of omega-3 DHA in breast milk (1). DHA is essential for optimal development of your baby, particularly brain and eye health. So, if you want to optimise your baby’s intelligence and eyesight later on in life, be sure to eat plenty of oily fish. If you are worried about the high levels of mercury, opt for smaller fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon and anchovies. Larger fish including tuna and swordfish should be limited. A concentrated fish oil such as Pharmepa MAINTAIN can deliver the perfect daily amount of fish oil to keep your omega-3 levels healthy, derived from sustainable wild anchovy oil and certified free from contaminants and combined with organic evening primrose oil.
Go organic and eat natural
If you haven’t already gone organic during pregnancy, now is a good time to start. Studies (2;3) have shown that pesticides and herbicides make their way into breast milk, and with limited research available on their effects, it may be wise to stay on the safe side and give these nasty chemicals a miss.
Artificial sweeteners also lack long-term studies to back up their safety during breastfeeding. Although considered safe, many scientists are questioning this with reasonable cause, due to increased risk of cancer as a possibility (4). Even though evidence on the effects of artificial sweeteners is inconclusive, you may wish to consider sticking with natural sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol. Sweeteners were, at one point, believed to increase your desire to eat more sweet foods, however review studies conclude that there is no evidence to support this hypothesis and show that replacing sugar with sweeteners can in fact reduce body weight (5). If in doubt, the most natural way to sweeten your foods would actually be to use dried fruit, which can be chopped or blended into some of your meals such as smoothies.
Foods to reintroduce after pregnancy
Now that there is no worry of miscarriage and your immune system should be getting back to normal, you can start to introduce those foods you have been longing for, such as soft cheeses, soft boiled eggs and pates that you were missing out on during pregnancy.
While there is still a very slim chance you could get food poisoning from these foods, the risk is significantly lower and this would not impact your baby via breast milk.
Herbs to avoid
Well known herbal teas such as peppermint and chamomile are considered safe to drink when breastfeeding, however there are some herbs which have unknown effects at this time, so it is generally recommended to stay clear of these.
It may be that there are no issues with many herbs, but the lack of studies and inability to carry out trials on lactating women, leaves us in the blind on this one, so you may wish to avoid strong herbs such as buckthorn and ginseng.
The not-so-good drinks
Ready to get back on your favourite coffee and wine? Although pregnancy is over, you may still need to watch out for drinks containing caffeine or alcohol, as these will make their way into your breast milk. You wouldn’t feed your baby an espresso would you?
Luckily, there is a way around drinking during breastfeeding if you are craving a drink or two. If you have a couple of small glasses of wine straight after feeding, you may give your body enough time to metabolise the alcohol before your next feed, which would ensure the alcohol is out of your system. If you are unsure how long it takes to break down alcohol, ‘milkscreen alcohol test strips’ are a great way to check your breast milk alcohol levels rather than worrying about the guessing game while still feeling a bit tipsy – there’s certainly not enough alcohol in breast milk to make a white Russian though. The weight adjusted alcohol content of breast milk is approximately 5-6% of that drunk by the mother (6), so a couple of glasses is unlikely to do any harm. Saying that, alcohol consumption can reduce milk production (6) and long term effects of drinking while breastfeeding are still unknown. Note that levels of alcohol in breast milk correlate with levels in the mother’s blood, so once alcohol has cleared out of your body, your breast milk will have cleared too. This explains why there is no need to express and discard any breast milk, unless of course you have been drinking for a while and your breasts are overfull.
Caffeine containing drinks are theorised to make your baby feel un-rested, finding it difficult to sleep when breastfed; in reality, however, a study looking at over 800 babies showed that consuming caffeine only very slightly (and non-significantly) disturbs sleep in 3 month old babies when consuming more than 300mg caffeine per day (approx. 3-5 coffees) (7). Other possible negative effects of caffeine are not well known, so again it’s best to stay on the safe side and have your cup of coffee just after feeding, and hopefully it will be mostly broken down before your next feed.
Keeping it real
At the end of the day, your instincts on what you should or shouldn’t be eating when breastfeeding are probably on par with all the nutrition advice out there. If in doubt, go for real foods. This means wholesome food prepared from scratch, chemical free and full of nutrients. Brightly coloured vegetables, plenty of fibre, good quality protein and healthy fats are all your baby needs you to eat to produce top quality breast milk.
(1) Brenna JT, Carlson SE. Docosahexaenoic acid and human brain development: evidence that a dietary supply is needed for optimal development. J Hum Evol 2014 Dec;77:99-106.
(2) Lu D, Wang D, Ni R, Lin Y, Feng C, Xu Q, et al. Organochlorine pesticides and their metabolites in human breast milk from Shanghai, China. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int 2015 Jun;22(12):9293-306.
(3) Tai PT, Nishijo M, Kido T, Nakagawa H, Maruzeni S, Naganuma R, et al. Dioxin concentrations in breast milk of Vietnamese nursing mothers: a survey four decades after the herbicide spraying. Environ Sci Technol 2011 Aug 1;45(15):6625-32.
(4) Soffritti M, Padovani M, Tibaldi E, Falcioni L, Manservisi F, Belpoggi F. The carcinogenic effects of aspartame: The urgent need for regulatory re-evaluation. Am J Ind Med 2014 Apr;57(4):383-97.
(5) Fernstrom JD. Non-nutritive sweeteners and obesity. Annu Rev Food Sci Technol 2015;6:119-36.
(6) Haastrup MB, Pottegard A, Damkier P. Alcohol and breastfeeding. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol 2014 Feb;114(2):168-73.
(7) Santos IS, Matijasevich A, Domingues MR. Maternal caffeine consumption and infant nighttime waking: prospective cohort study. Pediatrics 2012 May;129(5):860-8.