Breast milk provides the best nutrition for babies. A mother’s healthy balanced diet ensures the good composition of breast milk, promotes recovery from childbirth, boosts the mother’s energy levels and promotes successful breastfeeding. When the mother eats a healthy and varied diet, breastfeeding will not consume too much of the mother’s nutrient supplies. The diet recommended for the whole family is also suitable for breastfeeding mothers.
Breastfeeding is a new situation in life, and coupled with tiredness and mood changes can upset regular eating and may encourage snacking between meals. Eating regularly (about 5 meals daily) reduces unwanted food cravings and provides more energy. The recommended food plate model, with half the plate filled with vegetables, helps put together a varied and healthy meal. When shopping for groceries, choose Heart Symbol products, which indicate that the product is a better choice within its category.
There are certain high-risk foods and ingredients that may contain harmful substances which you should avoid when breastfeeding. You should also follow the general instructions for avoiding food poisoning, including thorough rinsing of vegetables, washing hands and utensils after handling raw meat or vegetables, and heating food until it is piping hot.
You should not avoid any foods with the intention of avoiding childhood allergies; in fact, unnecessary restrictions may even increase your child’s risk of developing food allergies. You should only avoid certain foods if you yourself are allergic to them. The mother’s varied diet exposes the child to foodstuffs via breastmilk to a suitable degree, and helps to develop the child’s defence mechanisms.
Adequate fluid and energy intake
It’s important to drink enough liquids when breastfeeding. A mother’s fluid requirement increases in proportion to milk output. It’s a good idea to drink a glass of water every time you breastfeed. Water is the best drink when you’re thirsty. Fat-free milk or sour milk is a good option at meals. You can drink moderate amounts of coffee (about 3dl/day). But you should avoid drinking large amounts of coffee and caffeine-containing drinks, as some of the caffeine passes into breastmilk.
Alcohol does not help lactation and, as it’s not possible to set a safety limit for alcohol use during breastfeeding, it is not recommended. The alcohol concentration in breastmilk is the same as in the mother’s blood, and alcohol is eliminated from breastmilk at a similar rate as from blood. Alcohol is not stored in the mammary glands.
A mother’s energy requirements increase somewhat during breastfeeding. A healthy way of meeting the extra energy need is to eat a little more at meals. You should avoid too much snacking between meals. Breastmilk output and the amount of fat stored before childbirth influence how much extra energy is needed. Mothers who have gained a lot of weight during pregnancy or who were overweight before pregnancy do not need to eat more than usual during breastfeeding. When the baby starts solids in addition to breast milk, the mother’s milk output and energy need decrease even though the breastfeeding continues.
Pay attention to fat quality
Nursing mothers need unsaturated fats from their diet to ensure that their breast milk contains plenty of essential fatty acids. Adequate intake of essential fatty acids is important for the development of the child’s nervous system and vision. The fat composition in the mother’s diet is reflected in breastmilk in a few hours. The change is not permanent, and therefore you should ensure your intake of good quality fats every day.
You can improve the quality of fats in your diet:
- by spreading vegetable margarine on bread
- by using an oil-based dressing on your salad
- by eating nuts, for example in salads
- by using rapeseed oil or a liquid vegetable margarine in cooking
- by eating fish (different species) 2–3 times a week
Breastfeeding and weight control
Breastfeeding helps with weight control after childbirth. Lactation consumes a lot of energy, but the new family situation, potential reduction in physical activity and irregular life may make weight control difficult. Ideally, when breastfeeding ends the mother's weight should return to normal. If the mother has gained a lot of weight during pregnancy or if the breastfeeding period is short, the mother’s weight may not return to the pre-pregnancy level during breastfeeding.
Moderate exercise does not affect breastfeeding or the quality or quantity of breastmilk, which means that it is safe to continue exercising during breastfeeding. Read more about exercising while breastfeeding (in Finnish).
Vitamins and minerals during breastfeeding
Daily vitamin D supplementation of 10 micrograms is recommended during breastfeeding. However, the nursing mother’s vitamin D intake does not affect the breast-fed child’s vitamin D requirement.
If the mother’s diet contains very little or no dairy, a calcium supplement may be necessary. One way of ensuring adequate calcium intake is by drinking 5 to 6 dl of liquid dairy products (or calcium-supplemented vegetable-based products) and eating 2 to 3 slices of cheese. Choosing Heart Symbol products helps you keep an eye on fat quality and salt quantity.
Sufficient folate intake is necessary during breastfeeding, but you do not need to continue taking pregnancy folic acid supplements. You can ensure sufficient folate intake by eating a lot of greens, other vegetables and whole-grain products. Legumes and berries are also good sources of folate.
You should ensure your diet contains sufficient iodine. Most dietary iodine comes from milk and dairy products and iodinated salt. Fish and other seafood are also good sources of iodine. Using more salt is not recommended, but you should choose iodinated salt for everyday use.
Multivitamin and mineral supplements are recommended only for mothers whose diet is not adequately varied, who donate breastmilk or who are nursing multiples. If you are worried that your diet is lacking in nutrients, please discuss your diet and the need for any nutritional supplements with the public health nurses and doctors at your child welfare clinic.