Many breastfeeding mums are so busy feeding their babies that they forget about their own diet, energy and health. All that milk production puts an extra load on your body, so eating smart is one of the keys to successful breastfeeding.

Getting enough variety

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends breastfeeding women eat a range of healthy food:

  • Between five and seven servings of bread, cereals, rice, pasta or noodles. One serve is: two slices of bread; one medium bread roll; one cup of cooked rice, pasta or noodles; or one and a third cups of cereal. There is an allowance of about 20g a day for poly or monounsaturated fats and oils that can be used to spread on breads or rolls or used elsewhere in your diet.
  • Seven servings of vegetables and legumes. A serve is: 75g of cooked vegetables; a half cup of cooked dried beans, peas, lentils or canned beans; a cup of salad vegetables; or one small potato.
  • Five servings of fruit. A serve is: a medium apple; two small pieces (150g) of fruit; a cup of diced fruit pieces or canned fruit; a half cup of fruit juice; or 1.5 tablespoons of sultanas.
  • Two servings of milk, yoghurt or cheese. A serve is: 250ml of milk; 250ml of soy milk; 40g (two slices) of cheese or 200g (a small carton) of yoghurt.
  • Two servings of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts or legumes. A serve is: 65–100g cooked meat or chicken; two small chops; two slices of roast meat; a half cup of cooked dried beans; 80–120g of fish fillet; a third of a cup of peanuts (or almonds); or two small eggs.

Your nutrition needs

Protein

Growing babies use a lot of protein, so you'll need to eat additional dietary protein to meet their needs. Protein is vital for the growth, maintenance and repair of cells. The average protein needed for breastfeeding is 54g per day, but, you may need 67g a day or more.

Good sources of protein include:

  • meat (including fish and poultry)
  • eggs
  • dairy
  • legumes (such as beans, pulses and soy products)
  • nuts.

Folate

Folate is a B-group vitamin that's needed for healthy growth and development. On average, breastfeeding mums require 450µg (micrograms) per day of folate, but you may need much as 500µg a day or more. Good sources of folate include:

  • leafy vegetables
  • whole grains
  • peas
  • nuts
  • avocado
  • yeast extract spreads like Vegemite, Promite or Marmite.

Iodine

Iodine is an essential mineral needed for the production of the thyroid hormone, and to ensure your baby's brain and nervous system develop properly. Breastfeeding mothers need an average 190µg per day of iodine, but you may need up to 270µg a day.

Good sources of iodine include:

Zinc

Zinc is important for your baby's cell development and immune system. Breastfeeding mothers need an average 10mg per day of zinc, but you may need 12mg a day or more. Good sources of zinc include:

  • wholegrain cereals
  • milk
  • seafood
  • legumes
  • nuts.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is vital for normal growth and helps your baby resist infections. Breastfeeding mothers require on average 800 µg per day of vitamin A, but you may need up to 1100 µg a day or more.

Good sources of vitamin A include:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • eggs
  • fatty fish species
  • yellow-orange vegetables
  • fruits like pumpkin, mango, apricots
  • vegetables like carrots, spinach and broccoli.

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 helps your baby metabolise protein and form new red blood cells. Breastfeeding mothers need an average 1.7mg per day of vitamin B6, but you may need 2mg a day or more.

Good sources of vitamin B6 include:

  • muscle and organ meats
  • poultry
  • fish
  • whole grains
  • Brussels sprouts
  • green peas
  • beans.

How much energy do I need?

Producing all that milk increases your energy needs. In fact, daily energy requirements for breastfeeding mothers are around 2000 kJ (478 Cal) more than what an average adult woman needs. These figures are based on full breastfeeding in the first six months. Partial breastfeeding after that time may mean you need less.

While it's normal for mums to put on weight while pregnant, you're not recommended to follow a weight-loss diet while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding helps you lose weight naturally and safely. If you gain weight after birth, you may be eating too much, or choosing foods that are too high in energy. 

What if I hit the gym?

Exercise changes your energy requirements when breastfeeding. The following is a guide to how much you'll need, based on activity levels.
  • At rest, exclusively sedentary or lying, for example in bed or a chair all day – 8800 kJ/day
  • Exclusively sedentary activity with little or no strenuous leisure activity, such as an office employee – 10,000–10,550 kJ/day
  • Sedentary activity with some requirement for occasional walking or standing, but no strenuous leisure activity – 11,100–11,700 kJ/day
  • A lifestyle that involves mainly standing or walking, or one with some leisure exercise – 12,300–12,850 kJ/day
  • Heavy physical work, or a highly active leisure time – 13,400–14,500+ kJ/day

Staying well hydrated

Breastfeeding is thirsty work. You'll need to drink at least 700ml a day more than your non-lactating friends to replace fluids used by breastfeeding. This equals nine cups of fluids daily, and can be in the form of water, milk, juice and other drinks. Avoid alcohol, and limit caffeine-containing drinks like tea, coffee and colas. As with all of us, pure H2O is your best source of liquids.

What foods should I avoid?

Alcohol

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, not drinking is the safest option for breastfeeding mums. The level of alcohol in breast milk is almost the same as a mother's blood alcohol level. An occasional drink of alcohol is generally not considered too harmful. But if you choose this option, you're advised to drink minimally, especially in the first three months when your baby's liver is still immature. You can limit baby's exposure to alcohol by choosing low alcohol drinks, eating before and while drinking, avoiding breastfeeding for two to three hours after drinking, or choosing to have an alcoholic drink immediately after breastfeeding.

Importantly:

  • Drinking alcohol in large amounts or very often can be dangerous for your breastfed baby.
  • Large quantities of alcohol can displace other sources of nutrition in your breast milk.

Caffeine

Some breastfeeding mothers report their baby is unsettled, irritable, or even constipated if they drink large volumes of coffee, strong tea, or cola. But there seems to be individual variation in how much caffeine is found in breast milk after drinking a cuppa. And if you're having issues with poor milk supply, caffeine may be the culprit. 

Caffeine can also affect the nutrient make-up of breast milk. The iron levels in the breast milk of a woman who drinks more than three cups of coffee a day in the early phases of breastfeeding are one-third less than that of a mum who doesn't drink any.

Importantly:

  • Limit caffeine consumption to no more than four cups of coffee, tea or cola per day. Ideally two or less.
  • Cigarette smoking compounds the effects of caffeine in breastfed babies. 

Spicy foods

Many infant specialists dispute that spicy foods cause any problems, but plenty of mothers blame unsettled behaviour on spicy or irritating foods. If you suspect a food you eat is affecting your baby, stop eating it for a few days. If the baby settles down, try the food again to see how it affects the baby. If you find they're unsettled again, you may want to cut out the food permanently. But speak to a dietitian or nutritionist for further advice if you're finding you need to avoid a lot of different foods to keep your baby happy.

Tips to help you eat right 

Breastfeeding in the early days can feel like an exhausting cycle of on-again, off-again routines. It's important to take any help available when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet. 

Here are some ideas to help.

  • Enlist family and friends – suggest they cook you some meals in the early days instead of giving baby a present.
  • Buy frozen vegetables – you'll save preparation time and CHOICE tests have found frozen vegies can be as, or more, nutritious than fresh vegies.
  • Cook meals which can be eaten over a couple of days like spaghetti, lasagne or stews.
  • Try a meal delivery service as a temporary stopgap if things get really difficult.