What Your Body Does and Doesn’t Need During Breastfeeding

Bayo Ajibola

Breastfeeding starts every baby off on the right footing and sets them up for good health both in the present and in the long run. Ask any breastfeeding mother and she’ll tell you that she’s received a lot of advice on motherhood and breastfeeding, many times unsolicited and usually about what to eat. While all this information may be shared in good faith it’s not always correct.

Some will tell you to eat more of certain foods because you need the energy, others will ask you to eliminate some foods completely because they’ll get your baby all fussy and others even tell you to double your intake because you’re still ‘eating for two’.

A look at food recommendations for breastfeeding mothers gives a different story though. There are very few changes and the recommended diet looks more or less like that of a healthy person with no encumbrances. The reason for this is simple actually: the body begins preparing itself for breastfeeding when you are pregnant by putting aside some extra fat stores. You therefore already have the required energy to take you through breastfeeding by the time you give birth. It sounds a little difficult to believe, right? Let’s look at the rest of the recommendations.

Energy needs

Let’s use the assumption that a breastfeeding woman produces about 780 milliliters of milk a day using 2800 kilojoules of energy in the process. She will however only need an extra 2100 kilojoules of energy because she will get the rest from the fat stores she accumulated, another assumption.

The body will also help in energy conservation by adapting appropriately. The basal metabolic rate, heat production and activity levels drop once you have a baby. This ensures that your body is able to use energy reserves on breastfeeding. This means that your actual food needs aren’t extremely altered. The additional energy requirements translate to three servings of grain and two servings of vegetables per day. Add a little extra rice on your plate, do a vegetable sandwich or bread and a bowl of soup and you are sorted. This will take care of both energy and nutrients.

Nutritional needs

Many think that they need nutritional supplements during this time so as to remain healthy and nourished. While it sounds sensible, think about the malnourished women in countries all over the world. They are able and continue to successfully breastfeed their babies mindless of their state. That goes to prove that the body does indeed set aside some nutrient stores.

How far these nutrient stores will support breastfeeding will depend on how much weight you gained and the quality of your diet during pregnancy. The more pregnancies you have the more depleted your stores will become so put that into consideration as well.

A recent study of breast milk composition and maternal nutrition showed that increasing nutrient intake didn’t increase occurrence of the same nutrients in breast milk. The study was conducted on healthy breastfeeding mothers in developed countries. There’s a little evidence that shows the fatty acid profile of breast milk can be slightly altered by the type of fats in a woman’s diet. A long-term vegan diet will cause a vitamin B12 deficiency and this may lead to neurological problems for the baby.

Things you truly should avoid

Topping the list of things to avoid is alcohol even if you kept away during pregnancy. After the baby is a few months old you can take a glass or two but must wait a while for it to clear from your system before you breastfeed or pump. Other drinks like water, fizzy drinks and such will depend on your metabolism, milk production and the climate where you live. Caffeine can get into breast milk and takes a little longer to metabolize in babies so you might want to go a little easy on coffee and any other caffeinated drinks.

As for the other foods like cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables, tomatoes and chili, well, there’s not much evidence to support not eating them to keep your baby more settled. There is however evidence supporting elimination of dairy products. Speak to a nutritionist if your baby has any issues so that they can help you chart an appropriate way forward.


Bayo Ajibola

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