Aug. 31. 2018
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Breastfeeding obviously isn’t a new topic, but lately, there’s been a rise in public support of women who are breastfeeding and for those who struggle.

Did you know the month of August is National Breastfeeding awareness month? The intimate mom-and-baby moments provide pivotal nutrition and health benefits for both the mother and child, but unfortunately not every woman is able to do it — which can create a lot of confusion and stigma around the practice. We always want to empower women to make the best decision for their bodies and their babies, so let’s take a look at conditions that could keep women from breastfeeding, how to fuel yourself properly for encouraging breastmilk, and the many health benefits that come with breastfeeding, for both mom and baby.

Breastfeeding Recommendations

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women exclusively breastfeed their babies’ for the first six months of life, and then continue to complement whole foods with breast milk for at least 12 months. Human milk continues to be a source of both optimal nutrition and immune protection well into the second year of life (1). Recommendations aside, mothers should only do what feels comfortable for them! Some may breastfeed for up to a year or a little over, some three months, depending on your milk supply and lifestyle and that’s okay.

While newborns might feed every two to three hours, this becomes much less frequent as the child reaches one year old. You don’t necessarily have to follow a strict schedule for breastfeeding unless that works best for you, but otherwise, go with whenever the child is hungry and ready to eat.

What Moms Should Eat for Better Breast Milk

Did you know that breastfeeding can burn an extra 450 to 500 calories a day? That’s why you need to make sure you take in adequate calories to meet your energy needs, which varies greatly with each mother, but a general recommendation from the AND is roughly 2,300 to 2,500 calories total per day. Calories and counting numbers aside, the key here is to make sure you’re nourishing your body with foods like enough healthy fats at each meal, fiber, vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, great protein and staying hydrated.

Depending on your individual blood work/labs, and whether you’re seeing a dietitian or doctor, they may give you extra supplements to take to correct for any potential deficiencies post-birth, and sometimes continuing the prenatal for several months after. Again, every woman is different and be sure to check in with your registered dietitian about which supplements, if any, are best for you during this time.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests eating fish two to three times a week to get a fill of omega-3 fatty acids, but you have to be careful which kinds you choose (2). In a nutshell, an easy way to remember the way to enjoy fish is to eat fish that mostly eat a vegetarian diet. In doing so, you’ll be avoiding those fish with high levels of mercury (like swordfish, king mackerel, and albacore tuna all of which eat other fish as a staple in their diet) and instead opt for fish like salmon, scallops, crab or shrimp. Check out this list of best choices of fish and to learn more.

You don’t have to completely rule out caffeine and alcohol when breastfeeding, but you should aim to limit both (2). The ACOG recommends keeping caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day — a cup of coffee has about 95 milligrams so that’s equal to about 2 cups of coffee a day — and waiting at least two hours after a single drink to breastfeed. Keep in mind, if you frequently drink more than two drinks a day, it could put stress on your hormones and your sleep too!

Caffeine found in coffee can exacerbate stress and increase cortisol levels, so again, if you’re a sensitive individual be mindful of this. Cortisol, in particular, has this tricky way of throwing off our delicate hormonal balance, so just be mindful of coffee and try out Herbal Infusions made with hibiscus instead, which is caffeine free. Always check with your doctor or dietitian, because some herbal teas aren’t safe when pregnant or breastfeeding.

After delivery, you’ll want to keep an eye on a few nutrients that are good for both you, the mother, as well as your baby. These essential vitamins and minerals below are important to keep you both healthy and energized, below (6).

6 Essential Nutrients After Delivery

1. Iodine

This nutrient is very important for thyroid hormones, as these hormones in the mother will help the baby grow. Healthy thyroid hormone levels also help with neurological development. Seaweed is the rockstar here when it comes to getting iodine naturally through food, but it’s also found in many animal proteins. Think seaweed sounds unappetizing, try these Raw Sushi Rolls. 

2. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 will help keep you (mom) energized and replenished, while the baby needs vitamin B12 for brain development and healthy red blood cells. You can find vitamin B12 in animal proteins such as fish, milk, and eggs. You’ll also find nutritional yeast fortified with vitamin B12, which is a great addition to any salads or foods you’re looking to add a cheesy flavor.

Because babies get B12 from breast milk, you want to make sure you have enough in your diet. If you’re strictly vegan or vegetarian, mention this to your doctor — you might want to consider taking a supplement to make sure you’re getting ample amounts to support your stamina and the baby’s brain.

3. Vitamin D

Babies actually don’t get enough vitamin D from breast milk. Because it’s so vital to healthy bones, the American Academy of Pediatrics typically recommends infants get a supplement in the first few days of life. Your doctor is likely to talk to you about this, but always feel free to ask so you can make sure you’re getting the right amount. Exposure to sunlight (for both the mom and baby) will also help you both get proper amounts of vitamin D. If you have trouble breastfeeding and are using a formula, you should talk to your doctor about looking for one fortified with vitamin D.

4. Iron

Iron helps make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body in both moms and babies, and it also supports neurological development in babies. While newborns likely have enough iron in their bodies at birth, when they reach four months old, your doctor might suggest an iron supplement if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. This is because breastmilk typically contains little iron. You can simply ask your doctor if this is necessary for your child, or if he or she is getting enough.

5. Vitamin K

Another nutrient that is typically found at low levels in breast milk, doctors recommend kids get a shot of this vitamin shortly after they’re born. It’s important to have this vitamin in order to stop bleeding and allow for blood clotting.

A generally healthy diet will help promote health in your baby and likely provide most of the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy, and your baby needs to grow healthfully. If you ever want to talk through what you should eat and what to avoid, I’m here to help. We can always set up a time to chat and figure out a health-promoting meal plan for you and your baby. Don’t panic if your doctor recommends a supplement, as sometimes the breastmilk just doesn’t provide the right dosage of nutrients that the baby needs.

The Macronutrients Found In Breast Milk

While the nutrition of a mom’s breast milk can widely vary from person to person, one study found that 100 milliliters of breast milk contains about 62 calories, 2.6 grams fat, 8.6 grams carbohydrates, and 1.2 grams of protein (9).

After delivery, the mom produces a fluid known as colostrum, which is typically produced in lower quantities than later on in breastfeeding when milk production is more abundant. Colostrum has low levels of lactose, which likely means it’s meant to build immunity rather than provide nutritional benefits, according to research (10). It also contains more sodium, chloride, and magnesium, while potassium and calcium are lower than in milk produced later.

When the sodium to potassium ratio drops and lactose increases, that means the milk has progressed to transitional milk. This likely occurs a few days after delivery (10). Moms will produce more milk during this time, which lasts about five days to two weeks postpartum. After that, the milk is considered mature and then fully mature at four to six weeks after delivery.

There are two types of mature milk, which contains high amounts of water your keep your baby hydrated, too. Fore-milk is the milk that comes out at the beginning of a feeding, and it contains water, vitamins, and protein. Hind-milk then gets produced after the initial release of milk, and it has more fat to help the baby gain weight (11).

You might find that your breasts start to produce more milk whenever you smell your baby or even just hear him or her cry, and that’s totally normal. It might even happen when you hear another baby cry. Anything that reminds you of your child triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that starts the lactation process. Don’t be alarmed if this happens to you and you experience your breasts leaking, it’s all completely normal!

Breastfeeding and Gut Health

The health of your gut, including the mix of bacteria, has been linked to many areas of health, from your mental state to your immune system to overall digestion. According to research, breastfeeding can influence this in a child right from the first year of life.

In fact, studies show that breastfeeding influences gut microbiota (the mix of good and bad bacteria), helping to develop the child’s immune system (7). Breast milk has also been shown to reduce gut inflammation in infants, keeping their systems healthier (8).

Breastfeeding and the Immune System

There are countless pay-offs for mom and baby after breastfeeding—particularly when it comes to fighting off illnesses and diseases. Studies show breast milk can reduce the risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections in the first year by 72%, and the risk of pneumonia goes down if moms breastfeed for longer than six months (3).

It also lowers the chances of the baby experiencing gastrointestinal tract infections, no matter how long you breastfeed, and it has also been linked to a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome. It doesn’t stop there: Breastfeeding may also reduce the chances of your child experiencing food allergies, asthma, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and diabetes.

In terms of the mom’s health, those that breastfeed are actually less likely to develop breast and ovarian cancers (4). It can also help with weight loss post-baby thanks to that extra calorie burn.

Why Breastfeeding Can Be Difficult for Some Women

While many health experts recommend breastfeeding, it’s not for everyone. Some diseases might keep a mom from breastfeedings, such as a genetic metabolic disorder known as galactosemia, HIV, T-cell lymphotropic virus (type I or II), and Ebola, according to the CDC.

Breast infections, plugged ducts, and low or high milk supply might also make it difficult or uncomfortable to consistently breastfeed. It’s best to talk to your doctor if you’re having any issues, especially pain when breastfeeding, so you can explore possible solutions together.

Resources for New Moms

Whether you’re having trouble breastfeeding, just want to chat with like-minded people about the issues that come up, or you want some support from professionals, there are tons of resources out there to help support you. It can be a special time, but can also be a difficult one to navigate, so be comforted by the fact that there are plenty of peers and experts to turn to. Here are some resources that might help:

Let’s Chat!

What was your experience with breastfeeding like? Do you have any words of advice for new moms? Share below or start the convo on social using #nutritionstripped.

  1. Promoting and Supporting Breastfeeding.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  2. Frequently Asked Questions Labor, Delivery, and Postpartum Care.” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
  3. Arthur I. Eidelman, MD and Richard J. Schanler, MD. (2012, March.) Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.
  4. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  5. Contraindications to Breastfeeding or Feeding Expressed Breast Milk to Infants.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. Diet and Micronutrients.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  7. Jost T, Lacroix C, Braegger CP, Rochat F, Chassard C. (2014, September.) Vertical mother-neonate transfer of maternal gut bacteria via breastfeeding.
  8. Moodley-Govender E, Mulol H, Stauber J, Manary M, Coutsoudis A. (2015, December.) Increased Exclusivity of Breastfeeding Associated with Reduced Gut Inflammation in Infants.
  9. Philippa Prentice, Ken K. Ong, Marieke H. Schoemaker, Eric A. F. van Tol, Jacques Vervoort, Ieuan A. Hughes, Carlo L. Acerini, David B. Dunger. (2016, February.) Breast milk nutrient content and infancy growth.
  10. Olivia Ballard, JD, PhD and Ardythe L. Morrow, PhD, MSc. (2014, February.) Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors.
  11. Breastfeeding: Overview. American Pregnancy Association.