The Art of Eating Well When Breastfeeding
You’ll find lots of advice on what to eat and not to eat when breastfeeding. But a good diet for breastfeeding is really no different than it would be for anyone. And of course, there is no perfect diet out there; it’s working out what works well for you.
Milk production takes priority when you are breastfeeding so if your diet is under par then your baby is unlikely to suffer but you will. When you don't get the nutrients you need from your diet your body draws on its reserves, which can eventually become depleted. Paying attention to what you eat really is an essential form of self-care as well a way to nourish your baby.
An undernourished mother will have less energy and experience low moods, add sleep deprivation and you’ve got the recipe for one unhappy mama. We should consider the way we interact with food as one of the most important relationships we have and one that we’ll pass on and need to teach our children.
Below are some helpful guidelines to think about:
We could all do with increasing the variety of wholefoods in our diet, in particular plant-based foods. While our ancestors ate 3,000 species of food, it is reported that 60% of our calories come from just four food crops, wheat, corn, soy and rice. While the many aisles in the supermarkets give the illusion of choice in reality it's often the same ingredients processed and packaged in different ways.
As well as providing vital micro and phytonutrients that are essential for health, a wide range of plant foods is essential for your microbiome. This is your colony of bacteria and fungi found mainly in the gut, and it is directly affected by the diversity of your diet. A study found that 30% of beneficial bacteria in a baby’s gut came directly from their mother’s milk. A healthy microbiome appears to protect against a whole host of conditions including allergies and asthma and is even indicated in mental health.
There’s another good reason to eat a varied diet. While formula-fed babies are exposed to a uniform taste at each feed, your baby will be exposed to different flavours depending on what you’ve been eating. One study showed that babies are more likely to like a flavour they have been exposed to in utero and while breastfeeding once they start weaning. So don’t shy away from strong favours such as garlic and spices, which are useful nutrients in their own right. It has been suggested that formula babies are more likely to be fussy eaters later on, as they are not exposed to the flavour variations of breast milk.
One way to eat more variety is to eat seasonally; your diet then naturally follows what is most nutritious and needed by your body at that time. If you don’t already, get a veg box or explore your local greengrocers and eat local or UK grown produce. You don’t need to overhaul your diet and learn loads of new recipes; it’s too much with a baby. Just start by picking one new vegetable, pulse or grain that you wouldn’t normally buy and take it from there. Now winter has passed it's a good idea to consume greener leafy vegetables so you could focus on that.
Eat Ingredients You Understand
If you don’t already start checking ingredient lists, not so much for fat and sugar but for those unpronounceable ingredients. While some are perfectly innocuous, such as vitamin c or d, many are chemical additives.
Recently it was revealed that half of the food brought by families in the UK is ultra-processed. The problem with these products is that they offer very little nutritional content and much in the way of refined carbohydrates seasoned with a whole host of artificial flavours, fillers, sweeteners and preservatives.
A general rule of thumb is if you don’t understand what an ingredient is, it’s probably best to avoid or keep to a minimum, especially if there are several in one product. No one really knows if our bodies are able to break down these novel substances or how the immature digestive tract and immune systems of babies are with these. Studies suggest that babies exposed to artificial sweeteners are more likely to have a preference for sweet foods in adulthood.
Having the option of pre-prepared food can be a god-send but buy the least processed and check it contains ingredients that you recognise as food rather than a long list of substances. And avoid the ‘eat smart’ or ‘be good to yourself’ ranges; these are often the worst offenders.
Eat to your appetite
There is no need to eat more when breastfeeding or worry about calories - in fact it can be a good idea to stop thinking of calories all together and think more of the quality and quantity of your food.
If you are feeling hungry it maybe that you need to change the proportions of your meals, include more quality protein and fat as these are broken down more slowly so keep you feeling fuller for longer. Also check you are not mistaking hunger for thirst. Otherwise eat to your hunger and aim to keep food to meals and the odd snack rather than grazing throughout the day.
Eat at a table
If you are used to snuggling on the sofa for your supper or often eat on the go it’s time to sit back at the table. It is a great habit to get into family meals sitting down together early on, putting all devices away and turning off the TV. It’s so much better for you to be sitting upright with a good posture to allow your digestive system to do its job sufficiently – which can be hard when compressed on the sofa. Research also shows that if we are distracted by other activity (watching TV, walking) we are less likely to feel full and may overeat later on.
Again, these are good habits to get into now. Despite the long nights, 6 months does roll around pretty fast and your baby will be watching and learning from you at all times. Do include them at the table even if they are not eating, mealtimes are not only about the food, in the busyness of everyday life it provides a good opportunity to catch up and check in with each other.
Relax and enjoy your food
This is key. Digestion is under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system often called the rest and digest system. We don’t have to make this happen, our bodies do it for us.
The sympathetic nervous system controls our stress response, which evolved so we can deal with life-threatening situations. This sets off a cascade of stress hormones to enable us to fight or flee, in doing so the digestive system gets down regulated so blood can be diverted to the limbs and brain for quick thinking and action.
The problem is we can over-react to all kinds of non-threatening stressors, such as a crying baby, being late or being unable to keep up with chores. Eating food too quickly or on the run can also be a stressor. Because the two systems can’t work simultaneously it’s very hard to digest when stressed - whether big or small – and that means food may only be partially digested or hang around for too long in the digestive tract causing gas and bloating. You certainly won’t be getting the best from your food even if you’re eating a highly nutritious meal.
About Nutritionist Anna Thomson…
Anna Thomson CNHC mBANT is a registered nutritionist and mum to three breastfed babies, now all at school. As well as working with clients one to one she is founder and director of Nourishing Families which aims to transform how parents approach food and meals leading to more enjoyable mealtimes and better family connection
Ethical & Organic
We use only GOTS Certified Organic and responsibly sourced cotton in the manufacture of Bshirt products. This means that there is no use of harmful chemicals, pesticides and dyes. Choosing to buy organic clothing is good for you, your baby and the environment. You can read about our Ethical Fashion Principles here.