Breastfeeding Diet - Does It Matter?

Clare Carrick ANutr (BHSc)

26/04/2022

When a woman announces that she’s pregnant, all eyes are on her. She suddenly gets showered with attention and there seems to be people all around her catering to her cravings, offering back rubs and giving up seats on trains. Once the birth happens though, there’s a shift. It’s now all about the baby… There’s a whole lot more of the, ’Why is baby crying?’, ‘Have you changed their nappy?’, ’Maybe they’re hungry?’ comments than ‘What can I do for you?’ directed towards the mum.

It is easy to see why so many women stop focusing on their own health once they have babies. Firstly, this baby is the most demanding member of the family, the least understanding if things don’t go their way, and most mums would do anything for their new bundle of cuteness. On top of that, there are the sleepless nights, the ravenous hunger that comes with breastfeeding, and very little time to spend in the kitchen in-between nappy changes and snuggles.

Put this all together, and suddenly, Maccas drive-thru seems a lot more appealing, and preparing a healthy, home-cooked meal slide way down the priority list…

But there’s now good scientific evidence to show that mums shouldn’t put themselves and their own diets too far down the priority list. As it turns out, what women eat can have a significant impact on the quality and composition of their breastmilk, which may then have an impact on the health of their baby (1).

Making Milk Is Hard Work

Think about this…After 9 months on the inside, a newborn baby usually weighs around 3.3kg…In the first 9 months outside this baby will almost triple in size, with a diet of mostly your milk (if breastfed) (1). Being pregnant can feel pretty exhausting, but breastfeeding is next level (1). In fact, a mother’s nutritional needs are higher during breastfeeding than pregnancy (1). A woman’s body works incredibly hard to keep the composition of their breastmilk just right for the baby, but there are some dietary factors worth knowing about that can have an impact on the quality and composition of the breastmilk (1).

Eat the Good Fats

Perhaps one of the most important and well-studied nutrients known to impact the composition of breastmilk is dietary fat. Fats make up a major component of breastmilk, and essential fatty acids have been directly linked with healthy growth and maturation of the central nervous system, development of baby’s visual-sensory system, and healthy brain development (1, 2). 

Eating more fish has been shown to increase the levels of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), an important long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, in the breastmilk (1). An omega-3 supplement for pregnancy and breastfeeding has also been shown to improve the cognitive development of children in later life (3). 

A high intake of trans fats by the mum, mainly found in industrially processed foods, has been linked with high levels of trans fats in breastmilk (1, 2). Trans fats have a negative impact on health, with the WHO recommending that people keep their intake to below 1% of a person’s total caloric intake (2). One big concern is that high levels of trans fats in breastmilk has been shown to compete with and block the production of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, which  may be detrimental to bub’s health (2). It’s even possible that the presence of trans fats in breastmilk might lead to a deficiency of essential fatty acids in the milk (2). 

Vitamins, Minerals & Breastmilk

It’s not only the quality of fats in their diet that mums need to think about…Certain vitamins and minerals present in breastmilk are also dependent on what the mum eats (4). These include vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate, selenium, iodine, and vitamin D, and many of these need to be consumed in higher amounts during whilst breastfeeding (4). 

Look after yourself too

A well-balanced diet, focusing on lots of different fruits, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds will, in most cases, be enough to help you reach your targets for essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. In some cases, for example, if you don’t enjoy eating seafood, a supplement might be necessary, but this should be advised by a relevant healthcare professional. The most important take-home from this research is that your health and nutrition as a breastfeeding mum should remain a priority!

References

  1. García-Mantrana I, Bertua B, Martínez-Costa C, Collado MC. Perinatal nutrition: How to take care of the gut microbiota?. Clinical Nutrition Experimental. 2016 Apr 1;6:3-16.
  2. Bousset‐Alféres CM, Chávez‐Servín JL, Vázquez‐Landaverde PA, Betancourt‐López CA, Caamaño MD, Ferriz‐Martínez RA, Chávez‐Alabat EF, Lovatón‐Cabrera MG, de la Torre‐Carbot K. Content of industrially produced trans fatty acids in breast milk: An observational study. Food Science & Nutrition. 2022. 
  3. Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children’s IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan 1;111(1):e39-44. 
  4. Innis SM. Impact of maternal diet on human milk composition and neurological development of infants. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2014 Mar 1;99(3):734S-41S.
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