What to Eat When You're Breastfeeding

By: Lainey Younkin, M.S., R.D.

We explain the benefits of breastfeeding, what you should eat, and where to find support if you are having a hard time.

You have been the sole source of nutrition for your little one for the nine months leading up to birth, and that doesn't have to end now. You can continue provide nutrition for your baby through breastfeeding. It provides a plethora of benefits for your baby and some for you too. But when you're breastfeeding, you may be wondering what you can and should eat. Here, we explain the benefits, what you should eat, and where to find support if you are having a hard time.

What's Going On in Your Body

Whether or not you choose to breastfeed, your body is preparing for feeding Baby before delivery. Toward the end of pregnancy your body starts producing colostrum, the first food for your baby. Colostrum is yellow and high in fat and calories, "liquid gold" for newborns.

Don't worry if you aren't producing much. Baby's belly is only pea-sized at this point. A little bit of colostrum goes a long way. It's full of antibodies and helps Baby's digestive system develop properly, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Office on Women's Health. After four to five days of producing colostrum, moms start producing breast milk.

Related: How Much Weight Gain Is Normal During Pregnancy?

Breastfeeding Recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and breastfeeding in combination with healthy foods at least until 12 months old. After one year of age, breastfeeding is still beneficial, for as long as Mom and Baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years of age. That's easier said than done for many moms. Keep reading for advice and support.

Read More: 4 Health Tips for Planning for Pregnancy

What to Eat When Breastfeeding

Peanut-Butter Banana English Muffin

Pictured Recipe: Peanut-Butter Banana English Muffin

How many extra calories do you need?

"Breastfeeding women are advised to consume an additional 300 to 500 calories more per day than before pregnancy, but this can vary per individual," says Crystal Karges, M.S., RDN, IBCLC, a San Diego-based private practice dietitian and lactation consultant. "It is most important to tune in and listen to your own body and eat to satisfaction. Some days, you may feel hungrier than others, and it is important to honor what your body may need."

New moms often feel a lot of unrealistic pressure to bounce back to their old bodies right away, but breastfeeding is not the time to cut calories or restrict your diet. Despite the fact that breastfeeding burns more calories, you also need to eat more to keep your milk supply going. Plus, you'll likely be hungry all the time.

What can breastfeeding moms drink?

Keep a water bottle handy because breastfeeding moms report being thirsty all the time. Plus, you'll need more fluids to keep your supply flowing.

There isn't an exact recommendation for how much water you should drink, but the color of your urine can help you figure out how hydrated you are: if your pee is yellow to dark-yellow, drink up. If it's pale yellow or clear, you're good.

Unsweetened beverages like water or seltzer are best when breastfeeding. Steer clear of sodas and sugary beverages as much as possible.

Read More: 6 Tips for Healthy Hydration

Raspberry-Peach-Mango Smoothie Bowl

Featured Recipe: Raspberry-Peach-Mango Smoothie Bowl

What about coffee and alcohol?

The recommendations on these two vary quite a bit, so it's not surprising people are confused. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) says that about 200 milligrams of caffeine per day (one cup of coffee) is unlikely to have an effect on your baby. However, newborns and preterm infants could be more sensitive to caffeine's effects. The Mayo Clinic says two to three cups of coffee per day is safe (16 to 24 ounces total), so don't sweat your morning joe.

If you prefer an evening pinot to a morning java, we have good news for you: you don't have to "pump and dump." Recommendations are conservative when it comes to alcohol and breastfeeding, but the truth is there aren't enough studies to really know (which is why recommendations err on the conservative side).

For moms who enjoy an occasional drink, the ACOG recommends waiting two hours after a single drink to breastfeed. Others disagree with this, however, because the amount of alcohol passed into breast milk is a fraction of that in the mother's bloodstream. It's good to remember that breastfeeding or not, the recommendation is for women to have no more than one drink per day.

Foods to eat more of while breastfeeding

Creamy Blueberry-Pecan Oatmeal

Pictured Recipe: Creamy Blueberry-Pecan Oatmeal

When you're nursing, Baby eats what you eat, just like they did when they were on the inside, but there's no need to stress over everything that goes in your body. Instead, "aim for quality and variety, eating a balance of foods that are both nourishing and satisfying. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, healthy fats, and protein like fish, poultry, beef, eggs and nuts," Karges says.

It's important you get enough protein, calcium, iron and vitamin C. Plus, even though you're postnatal, keep taking your prenatal vitamin. You can use the boost of nutrients you might not be able to get from your food. Since your hunger will strike all day—and all night— keep healthy, easy snacks on hand like string cheese, nuts and dried fruit.

Try These: Clean-Eating Snack Recipes

Sample meal plan for a breastfeeding mother

Mediterranean Tuna-Spinach Salad

Pictured Recipe: Mediterranean Tuna-Spinach Salad

Here is what a healthy day might look like while you're breastfeeding. It's full of whole grains, healthy fats, vegetables and fruit. Note: Nothing is too difficult to prepare here, since when you're breastfeeding, you're also taking care of a baby!

Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries, peanut butter and walnuts

Nutrients: fiber, protein, iron, omega-3s

Snack: Apple with string cheese

Nutrients: fiber, protein, calcium

Lunch: Tuna salad over baby spinach, whole-wheat bread and a clementine

Nutrients: omega-3s, protein, iron, vitamin C, fiber

Snack: Roasted chickpeas or edamame (buy premade or make your own)

Nutrients: fiber, protein

Dinner: Chicken, salmon or beans with sautéed kale and quinoa

Nutrients: protein, fiber, omega-3s (in salmon)

Snack: Whole-wheat toast with banana, nut butter and chia seeds

Nutrients: protein, fiber, omega-3s

Foods to increase milk supply

The best way to boost your milk supply is to follow a well-balanced diet (like the one above), and stay hydrated. Many women report that brewer's yeast, fenugreek and milk thistle help boost their supply. Some studies back the efficacy of fenugreek, but the jury is out on most of these. Check with your doctor or lactation consultant before taking any herbs or supplements.

Remember, breast milk output is a matter of supply and demand. The fix could be as simple as having Baby nurse more or adding a pumping session.

Breastfeeding Support

More than 80 percent of American mothers start out breastfeeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But, at the end of six months, rates drop to 51 percent. Only about one-third continue breastfeeding for 12 months. If you have breastfed a baby before, this is no surprise to you. Few women have a problem-free, easy breastfeeding journey.

For most moms it is tough: Baby doesn't latch, Baby might be tongue-tied, too much milk, too little milk, mastitis, engorgement and the list goes on. Pile that on top of no sleep, and it's extra challenging to continue breastfeeding.

If you have trouble breastfeeding, ask for help, and get it from multiple places. New moms may have to chat with three to five lactation consultants before figuring out a solution. Be proactive in the hospital, and ask to speak to a lactation consultant.

Follow up with your doctor, and look for support in your city and online. Many cities have Baby Cafés—free in-person support groups for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers run by lactation consultants, nurses and/or midwives. The La Leche League also runs support groups, and many online breastfeeding support groups are available today on Facebook.

Remember: A fed baby is best. And a happy and healthy mom. If you have to supplement with formula, it is OK. At the end of the day, it is most important that your baby is gaining weight healthfully and going number one and number two. Babies feel secure and comforted through physical contact with Mom, whether that comes with her milk or not, so snuggle up and enjoy this phase. Before you know it, Baby's 1-year birthday will be here.

Related:
What a Healthy Day of Pregnancy Eating Looks Like: Third Trimester
Healthy Pregnancy Meal Plan
Quick & Easy Dinner Recipes