Postpartum Diet: What to Eat to Feel Your Best
A healthy postpartum diet can help you heal and boost your energy levels during those sleep-deprived days. Here's what a healthy postpartum diet looks like from post-delivery to later down the road, including the foods to focus on—and how to realistically and easily fit them into your diet during this busy time—plus, other helpful information about when and how to get back to exercise and weight-loss post-pregnancy.
Foods that help heal post-delivery
Whether you had a C-section or delivered vaginally, your body needs time to heal. Birthing a baby can leave you with scar tissue, tears and cramps as your uterus shrinks back down. A healthy postpartum diet plan includes protein, iron, fiber and water, according to experts. Here's a closer look at why those foods matter, plus easy ways to eat more of them.
Meghan McMillin, M.S., RDN, CSP, IBCLC, registered dietitian and lactation consultant at Mama & Sweet Pea Nutrition, says to focus on foods rich in glycine. "Glycine helps to rebuild and reinforce weakened tissues such as those of the stomach, pelvis and breasts. Glycine is mainly found in the bones and connective tissue of animals, so I recommend foods such as chicken skin, bone broth and slow-cooked meats like stew." You can also take collagen, which contains glycine, she says.
Laura Krebs-Holm, M.S., RD, LD, registered dietitian at Mama Thrived, says to include protein at every meal and snack. "Eggs, Greek yogurt, peanut butter, fish, meats and nuts are all good sources." Other plant-based protein sources include tofu, tempeh, edamame, beans and whole grains.
"It's estimated that 1 in 5 women go into pregnancy iron-deficient and may stay deficient throughout their pregnancy," says Krebs-Holm. Plus, you lose blood during delivery. So load up on iron-rich foods. "Liver, beef, legumes and spinach are all good sources," says Krebs-Holm. Remember that plant-based sources of iron, like spinach, are not absorbed as efficiently as iron from meat—but vitamin C can help increase that absorption, so add vitamin C-rich foods, like lemon juice, bell peppers or strawberries, to your meal.
You don't need us to tell you that it's a little bit harder to go number two after having a baby. Fiber and water are your friends for keeping things moving along. Fill most of your plate with high-fiber foods at meals (like fruits, vegetables and whole grains) and also focus on foods with insoluble fiber, like bran cereal, nuts, beans and potatoes. Insoluble fiber moves through the intestines intact, creating bulk and preventing constipation. Oatmeal and chia seeds, both with soluble fiber, can also help. Keep your water bottle handy too. Drinking plenty of water will help prevent all that fiber from backing you up rather than helping you go, and will help replenish fluids lost during birth.
Postpartum diet plan while breastfeeding
"There is no special diet for breastfeeding moms," says McMillin. "Like everyone else, they should try to consume a well-balanced, healthy diet including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy fats." However, you do need an extra 500 calories per day while breastfeeding to maintain a good milk supply, and both McMillin and Krebs-Holm agree that there are specific nutrients that are crucial to incorporate for your growing baby.
Read More: What to Eat When You're Breastfeeding
Omega-3 fatty acids
There are three types of omega-3s: DHA, EPA and ALA. The first two are found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, while ALA is found in nuts and seeds like walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed. "DHA is essential for the development of the infant's brain, central nervous system and eyes," says McMillin. If you don't want to eat salmon, tuna, mackerel or sardines, McMillin recommends a DHA or fish oil supplement. If you're still taking your prenatal vitamins, they may contain DHA. Check the label to be sure.
The sun is the best source of vitamin D, so take Baby outside for some walks—getting exercise will also help boost your mood and energy. "Infants rely on vitamin D for bone and dental health," says McMillin. "We know that the amount of vitamin D in breast milk is directly related to Mom's vitamin D stores. If Mom is deficient, her milk likely is too."
Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are high in vitamin D (in addition to omega-3s, win-win!). Buy them canned or in a pouch to easily add to sandwiches or salad. Other sources of vitamin D include eggs and fortified foods, like dairy products and orange juice.
Like vitamin D and omega-3s, iodine passes through breast milk to Baby, so if you're deficient in iodine, your baby could become deficient too. The Centers for Disease Control says you may be deficient if you do not consume dairy, if you smoke or if you don't use iodized salt. The recommended dietary allowance for iodine while breastfeeding is 290 mcg per day, while it's 150 mcg per day if you are not pregnant or breastfeeding. If you're still taking a prenatal vitamin, check the label for iodine. For foods high in iodine, Krebs-Holm recommends the following: "Seaweed is a really great source, so munch on some of those dried seaweed snacks or enjoy sushi again (finally!). Iodized table salt is another easy way to incorporate this into your diet." If you're currently using kosher or sea salt in everyday cooking, switch over to regular iodized table salt.
Breastfeeding mamas are well aware that thirst goes up almost immediately when Baby latches on, so get yourself a cute water bottle and take it with you everywhere to stay hydrated and keep milk supply high. Adding fruit to create an infused water or mixing up a mocktail are fun ways to hydrate when plain water sounds boring.
Foods to boost breast milk supply
Speaking of boosting milk supply, "The best way to improve supply is by increasing the demand, so pumping in addition to nursing can help," says Krebs-Holm. When it comes to food, eating a balanced diet, in addition to staying hydrated, will help most.
Some women swear by galactagogues—substances that increase milk supply, such as fenugreek. McMillin and Krebs-Holm both agree that there isn't much evidence to prove that galactagogues boost lactation, but say many of their breastfeeding clients testify that they help.
Either way, it won't hurt to eat foods with galactagogues, but be sure to check with your doctor if you're considering taking herbs or supplements. Krebs-Holm points out, "These foods are often great sources of nutrients that breastfeeding mothers need anyway: oatmeal (also has carbohydrates, fiber and iron), brewer's yeast (also has B vitamins and iron), chia and flaxseed (also have fiber, calcium and omega-3s), barley (also has fiber, protein, B vitamins and iron) and apricots (also have iron, fiber, calcium, B vitamins and vitamin C)."
Postpartum weight loss
Your job in the "fourth trimester" is to nourish your baby, eat a balanced diet and sleep as much as you can. Fortunately, adequate sleep and a healthy diet will help you lose some weight. But this is not the time to try some type of postpartum weight-loss diet or restrict calories, which could cause your milk supply to drop if you're breastfeeding. And, whether you're breastfeeding or not, calorie restriction combined with a lack of sleep is a recipe for cravings, overeating and binge eating.
Remind yourself that it took nine months to grow your baby and your body went through some major changes birthing your beautiful child. Many moms don't start to feel themselves again until Baby is 1 year old or older. Surround yourself with other mamas in the same stage as you, whether at a breastfeeding support group, a mom-and-baby fitness class or a coffee date.
If all looks good at your six-week follow-up, your doctor will give you the go ahead to start exercising. "However, you can start with walks, light stretching and different breathing and core activations to get the ball rolling!" says Kayla Mehr, CPT, personal trainer and owner of Your Fit Mom.
Go slow and be patient with yourself, recommends Krebs-Holm. "Exercise is very different after having a baby, and things don't feel or work the same way that they did before. Exercise is great for your mood and energy levels and can give mothers a mental break and some 'me time' that they truly need. Taking the baby for a walk while listening to a podcast or audiobook can be a nice way to focus on a topic that interests you, get some fresh air and light physical activity. I personally found yoga to be a gentle way to reconnect with my body after delivery and learn about how it changed."
Mehr starts her clients with "diaphragmatic breathing and transverse abdominus activations to help heal and strengthen the core," or in other words, deep breathing (the same kind you do at the beginning of a yoga class) and simple exercises that help to stimulate the core muscles close to your uterus. "From there," says Mehr, "we focus on strengthening the back muscles, because of all the postural changes that come along with pregnancy and motherhood."
You may be eager to flatten your stomach, but don't rush that either, experts say. "It's important to give your core ample time for postpartum recovery. If you experienced diastasis recti (the separation of abdominal muscles), you could have that 'belly pooch' for a very long time if not healed properly," says Mehr. "Eating whole, real foods will be the best thing for a flat stomach," she says. "When you're ready, planks, side planks and leg lifts are great for defining your core!"
There's no one-size-fits-all postpartum diet to follow. Instead, focus on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and water. Make sure to get enough vitamin D, omega-3s, iodine, protein and fiber, especially if you're breastfeeding.
Don't rush into exercise or weight loss. "Your body just completed an amazing feat and really needs time and attention to heal, and that often gets brushed over," says Krebs-Holm. "Plus the sleep deprivation, the laundry, the dishes ... there's so much to do! Providing your body with good nutrition, gentle movement and your brain and heart with patience and attention can help you feel more at peace. Be really kind to yourself, Mama!" And sleep when the baby sleeps.