6 key nutrients for breastfeeding

By Melanie McGrice, Dietitian, Nourish with Melanie

Lack of sleep, irregular hours and constantly feeling like a milk factory – while breastfeeding can be a beautiful time of bonding with your baby, there is no denying how difficult it can be. Here are the 6 key nutrients you need to pay particular interest to while breastfeeding.

While women usually strive for optimal nutrition during pregnancy, it’s easy to forget that your body also needs some extra care and sustenance during breastfeeding. Breastfeeding requires you to give a lot of energy and nutrients to your little one. If your diet is inadequate, it can put you at risk of deficiencies. The healthier you feel, the easier it will be, trust me!

While many mothers are keen to lose their pregnancy weight as quickly as possible, now is not the time to diet. A slow steady weight loss is healthier and will be of greater benefit to both you and your baby. A weight loss of up to 500g a week is safe while breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding uses up a lot of energy, and it is important to ensure your overall food intake increases slightly from what you would usually eat. According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, the main changes for breastfeeding are to increase your intake of grains from 6 to 9 servings per day and increase vegetables from 5 to 7.5 serves per day. Boosting your nutritional adequacy with grains and veggies will provide vitamins and minerals and fibre and keep both your energy and nutrient levels in tip top shape!

Let’s look at 6 key nutrients you need to pay particular interest to while breastfeeding:

1. Calcium

Your little one is growing at an enormous rate. They need plenty of calcium for healthy growth, as they store calcium in their bones and teeth as they develop. If your diet is inadequate, your calcium stores in your bones will be drawn upon, which could leave you deficient. This weakens your bones, and puts you at greater risk of fractures and osteoporosis later in life. It is important that you are meeting the requirements of 1,000mg calcium per day. An easy way to ensure you are getting enough is having the recommended 2.5 servings of dairy per day. Or if you are having a dairy alternative ensure that it contains at least 100mg calcium per 100ml.

2. Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for your baby, as it encourages the healthy development of bones, vision and immunity. It also supports cell and tissue growth, especially hair, skin and nails – so it is important that breastmilk is rich in Vitamin A. Vitamin A recommendations increase from 700 µg to 1,100 µg/day during breastfeeding. Foods you can add to your diet to get enough Vitamin A include carrots, sweet potato and dark leafy greens. Orange coloured fruits and vegetables also contain beta-carotene which can be converted to Vitamin A by your body.

3. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is vital as it plays a role in red blood cell production, DNA synthesis and promoting a healthy nervous system. Breastfeeding mothers need to increase their intake by 0.4mg/day. This is especially relevant for vegan and vegetarian mothers, as meat, eggs and dairy products are the richest dietary sources of Vitamin B12. If you are not meeting the recommended servings of meat and dairy products, you can use fortified foods to help meet requirements such as fortified grains, or other food sources such as legumes or mushrooms. Otherwise Vitamin B12 supplementation may be required.

4. Vitamin D

15-30 minutes outside on a sunny day is usually enough to reach Vitamin D requirements. This is manageable for most of the population; however, it can be hard to get out and about with a newborn when you are exhausted most of the time. While the majority of your infants vitamin D stores are transferred during pregnancy, it will only last a short while after birth. Vitamin D is passed through breastmilk so if you are deficient, your baby most likely will become deficient too. This can lead to decreased calcium. New research is also indicating Vitamin D deficiency may be associated with high blood pressure, increased risk of some cancers, osteoporosis, type 1 diabetes and autoimmune diseases later in life. Although it’s hard to get adequate Vitamin D through food, if you’re low in Vitamin D, supplements are easy and convenient to take.

5. Zinc

Zinc plays a crucial role in healthy digestion and metabolism. Less than half of zinc is absorbed during breastfeeding, so you require an additional 3.2mg/day from your diet to meet the needs of both your baby and yourself. Zinc levels in breastmilk are kept constant to ensure your baby gets enough, but it means your zinc stores will deplete unless sufficient levels are met. Zinc is found in seafood, beef and other meats, fortified cereals, oatmeal, green beans, tofu, dairy products, corn, peas, avocado, pomegranate, and nuts and seeds. Zinc from animal sources are more readily absorbed than plant sources, so vegetarians and vegans really need to focus on zinc rich plant-based or fortified foods to prevent deficiency.

6. Fluid

The majority of breastmilk is water, so if you were someone who struggled to meet the regular 8 glasses of water/day previously, you may find that you’re becoming dehydrated quickly now that you’re breastfeeding. Not only will it affect how you’re feeling (headaches, fogginess, etc) but will also affect your milk flow and may make for a grumpy bub. A good tip is to ensure you have a glass/bottle of still/sparkling water with you at all times, so you can constantly sip throughout the day. Add some lemon, lime or a few berries to enhance the flavour if you don’t enjoy plain water.

If you would like to further optimise your nutrition whilst breastfeeding, Click here.

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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