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Breastfeeding Nutrition 101

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An expert’s advice on how to fuel your body and set yourself up for success.

When you think about breastfeeding deeply it’s pretty crazy. There’s a little human drinking milk that you are making, literally, sucking away all the best nutrients from your own supplies. What’s left for mum? Not a lot. For me personally, in the early newborn days when I was feeding a lot and recovering, it felt as though my baby was literally sucking the marrow from my bones. I felt so empty. A good understanding of nutrition can make a big difference to how a new mum feels and functions while breastfeeding, so here, I’ve asked Vaughne Geary, Naturopath, Doula and Author of Life After Birth to provide some golden nuggets of nutritional tips for breastfeeding mothers. I wanted Geary to provide practical advice that can be easily picked up by time-poor new parents who often put their own health last.

When it comes to basic breastfeeding nutrition, what should we be fueling our bodies with to support and sustain breastmilk?

We need to spread the word about just how physically and nutritionally demanding breastfeeding is. In addition to water, breastmilk is composed of the primary macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrates, alongside a number of micronutrient vitamins and minerals.

There are specific nutrients present in breastmilk that are affected by a mother’s diet, which include the essential fatty acid omega 3, choline, B vitamins, vitamins A, C & D, iodine and selenium. Some other nutrients remain unchanged in breast milk despite dietary and supplement interventions, but they are still important for mothers to prioritise and eat in adequate amounts to support general health and ensure that you don’t become deficient. These include iron, zinc, calcium, folate and copper amongst others. Mums deserve to thrive during the postpartum - not simply survive on cold toast and tea!

Eating a healthy, well balanced diet can provide all the necessary nutrients required for your baby’s growth and wellbeing. To cover all bases, I recommend all breastfeeding mothers take a quality prenatal vitamin to fill in any gaps. Breastfeeding increases your appetite too and you need to ensure that you are getting enough good quality, nutrient rich food to support you both. I see so many mums in my Naturopathy clinic who are exhausted, and when we deep dive into their diet, it is often a lack of sufficient calories being eaten throughout the day.

Boosting quality protein and complex carbohydrates can make a world of difference and help to balance blood sugar levels, as well as improve milk supply. Don’t forget that hydration is one of THE most important aspects of milk production, so aim to drink 2-3L daily in the form of water, coconut water, herbal teas and bone broth. Ask your partner or support person to keep filling your water bottle through the day, and always have a drink and one-handed snack when your baby feeds.

Some foods to focus on:

Protein: grass-fed meat, free-range poultry, fatty fish, eggs, tempeh and tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils and legumes, organic dairy.

Starchy carbohydrates: whole grains such as rice, quinoa, spelt sourdough and root vegetables( sweet potato, potato, beetroot).

Healthy fats: ghee, grass-fed butter, whole egg mayonnaise, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.

Omega 3: oily fish, oysters, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds.

Choline: eggs, liver, beef, chicken, fish and broccoli.

B vitamins: nuts and seeds, whole grains, eggs, legumes, meat, fish and dark leafy greens.

Vitamin A: liver, eggs, oily fish, dark leafy greens, pumpkin, sweet potato and red capsicum.

Vitamin C: tomato, capsicum, berries, citrus fruit and broccoli.

Vitamin D: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, anchovies), eggs, mushrooms and safe sun exposure.

Iodine: seaweed, seafood, fish, eggs and dairy products.

Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish, legumes and oats.

Are there some easy (and fun) ways to ensure you get those extra calories and extra hydration each day?

The biggest issue I see for mums prioritising their own nutrition and wellbeing is the ever-elusive ability to find enough time. The ultimate game-changer is meal prepping. It does take some planning and effort, but cooking yourself or getting a partner/friend/family member to do some meal prep for you one day per week (instead of trying to think of what to feed yourself every single day) is game changing to ensure you eat well and fuel yourself.

Remember, the quality of the food you nourish yourself with can directly affect the quality of your breast milk, including how well hydrated you are and how nutrient-dense your main meals and snacks are. I always recommend to make protein the star of your meal (hello blood sugar balance and satiety), followed by a variety of vegetables (fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), healthy fats (breastmilk’s best friend) and starchy, low glycaemic load carbohydrates which are found in wholegrains and root vegetables.

One day a week, while your baby is sleeping (or you can ask someone to hold the baby for an hour or so between feeds), whip yourself up something that contains multiple serves, such as a roast veg and goats cheese frittata, some egg and ricotta muffins, salmon and sweet potato patties, a big pot of chicken, lentil and veg soup, or prep some staple ingredients to build yourself a nourish bowl in the days to come (eg. cook a pot of brown rice, boil half a dozen eggs, bake a tray of root veggies and wash a packet of greens), so that you can simply throw each ingredient in a bowl for lunch.

Freezable meals and snacks are also great, as you can cook, freeze and take out the night before so that all you need to do is heat and eat the next day. It can take a few weeks to get into the habit, but finding a couple of staple recipes that you can rotate will set you up for success. You will feel so much more satiated, have more time to rest or do what you need to do between feeds, and have more consistent energy if you eat a protein-rich meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When sleepless days and nights feel upside down in the early months of parenthood, meal prep is a life saver.

I also can’t recommend a meal train highly enough. This doesn’t just need to be before the baby arrives or when they are super fresh. Ask your loved ones to bring a meal or snack with them every time they visit. It can feel hard to ask for this kind of help, but people honestly want to support you and food is the ultimate love language.

Can you tell us how much water is required for producing breastmilk and some easy ways to sneakily add liquid into our daily meals without even realising it?

Breastfeeding is thirsty business! Breastmilk is approximately 90% water, and so hydration is incredibly important not only for keeping your milk flowing, but it can also help to reduce the chances of recurrent mastitis (as adequate hydration helps to improve our lymphatic system and blood flow around the body).

As a Naturopath, I love the health benefits of herbs, which are so readily available to us - both fresh from the garden and dried. Herbal teas are a wonderful way to boost hydration - you can steep or infuse the herbs, and the therapeutic properties and flavours of tea can make it easier to drink more fluids through the day and night. Individual herbs can support a number of body systems, such as fennel, which can promote breast milk production and soothe digestive bloating. Chamomile tea is also soothing for the gut, whilst supporting the nervous system, and lemon balm tea is calming for the nerves and the belly. Many herbs have multifaceted benefits, and the small amount used to make tea is often always safe to drink while breastfeeding. Make a big pot of tea or herbal infusion (Google how to do this), and serve it warm or chilled, with a few fresh mint leaves, a squeeze of lemon juice and ice for a fun and hydrating drink.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also hydrating, so try to eat two pieces of fruit daily, and keep a container of chopped cucumber, celery, carrot and capsicum in the fridge to pair with hummus or guacamole for a healthy and nourishing snack.

Are there some foods that can naturally boost supply?

Foods that may help to boost breastmilk production are known as ‘galactagogues’. The science behind how galactagogues work within the body continues to grow and although much of their use is based on the positive experience and stories of mothers from generation to generation, studies indicate their effect works on boosting the production of prolactin, which is the hormone that creates and stimulates breast milk flow. Galactagogue foods and herbs are also incredibly nutrient rich, which I encourage mothers to combine and create nourishing snacks and meals with. Some galactagogue foods and herbs I love include: oats, flaxseed, dark leafy greens, chickpeas, garlic, nettle, fennel seeds and bulb, fenugreek, cumin seeds, dill, nuts and nut butters and green papaya. Brewers yeast is a big ingredient I often see used in recipes, however it is incredibly bitter, and the amount you need to use to be therapeutically beneficial (2+ Tablespoons daily) can ruin the flavour of your cooking, and often requires large amounts of sugar to conceal the flavour. Opt for a combination of other whole food galactagogues to nourish you.

In addition to your meal prepping advice above, are there some tips for women who are pregnant and preparing - what would you suggest they stock their freezer with?

My first tip is to ask your friends or family over for a working bee day of cooking! It’s a beautiful way to spend the last days of your pregnancy with people you love, and they will feel like they are genuinely contributing to your wellbeing. Lighten the load and let many hands make light work. There are lots of main meals and snacks that are easy to freeze: stews, curries, soups, muffins, frittata, meatballs, lentil patties, bliss balls, slices. Prepare yourself a few litres of bone broth and veggie stock that you can use as the base of fresh soups, or to sip in a mug when you need a boost of nutrients.

Could you please provide some guidance on foods to avoid while feeding?

There are no food groups that you should absolutely avoid while breastfeeding - every mother and baby has their own digestive capacity and potential reactivity to certain foods, so it is often a process of elimination if your baby begins to show signs or symptoms of a sensitivity. Ensuring that you eat a wide variety of whole foods is essential to health, however, there are some that are the main culprits when it comes to causing gassiness in babies, and that can exacerbate health concerns for the mother. When it comes to supplements, herbs and medication - always consult with your healthcare provider to confirm if it is safe to take while breastfeeding.

Refined carbohydrates and sugar: It is so easy to reach for packaged, sugary, baked goods when you are sleep deprived, but the issue with eating things like cakes, pastries, cookies and fried foods on a regular basis is that they are high in processed sugars and oils, and often contain little to no protein or nutritional value. This increases the risk of blood sugar imbalance, having low energy (after the initial speedy sugar rush), and also increases the risk of nipple thrush and mastitis due to sugar fuelling bacteria and suppressing the immune system.

Caffeine: I’m not here to tell you not to drink coffee, but it is important to remember that caffeine is a major stimulant, and for both baby and mum can affect stress response, sleep and mood. Caffeine also increases nutrient excretion from the body, so be mindful of this as it can exacerbate deficiencies. Relying on multiple cups of coffee to get you through the day can make things worse than they already are (hello crippling anxiety on top of exhaustion!), so always make sure that you eat a protein-rich breakfast before drinking your cup of coffee, stick to one shot per day, consider drinking decaf and look at lower-caffeine alternatives that won’t send your nervous system sky-high. Some options include green tea, matcha, cacao and herbal tea. For many of the mums I support - drinking coffee is more about the taste or the ritual of having a hot drink than the caffeine hit itself, so swap things up from time to time.

Gassy baby culprits: Some babies will show occasional signs of discomfort after a mother eats a certain type of food, whereas others will develop a series of symptoms that can indicate a true sensitivity or allergy. Foods that can increase gassiness in babies include unsoaked lentils and legumes, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts), garlic, onion and spicy food, dairy and fibrous fruit. Some of the main allergens include soy, cow’s milk, egg, nuts and wheat, which often cause a number of symptoms including digestive upset, nappy rash and eczema amongst others. The quality and colour of your baby’s poo can indicate something isn’t sitting quite right, and if it contains mucous or blood, you should speak immediately with a trusted health practitioner.

Alcohol: I can’t not mention this one, because it causes mothers SO much stress on their breastfeeding journey. Having an occasional glass of wine or gin and tonic while breastfeeding is considered safe - in fact a recent Australian study confirmed that there are no known adverse effects in babies under 12 months exposed to low levels of alcohol via breast milk. Caveats to this are that alcohol can make you tipsy, which can reduce your ability to respond in a timely manner to your baby’s needs. No parent should ever co-sleep if they have drunk alcohol (this is unsafe practice which could cause risk to your baby), and alcohol inhibits your ability to absorb nutrients - which can undo a lot of good work done with diet and supplements, or exacerbate postnatal depletion. Most importantly, if you are drinking alcohol to cope, I highly recommend reaching out to someone you trust, as this can indicate that you need more support and community help.

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