So I’ve been trying to write this blog post for several weeks now. But a certain babe has kept me from having the free time and mental space to actually do it. 🙄Such is life right now…
When it comes to pregnancy and breastfeeding, there is a LOT of pressure put on moms to have the perfect diet in order to provide the best nutrition for their growing babies. But can I be honest? That’s way too much pressure for me to handle. Yes, during pregnancy and now breastfeeding I am providing all of the nutrition for my baby. But getting it “perfect” is just too much pressure for anyone and can create a lot of fear, guilt, or shame. Besides, the opinion on the optimal diet changes from one person to the next (sounds a lot like the rest of diet culture). During pregnancy I just focused on eating what I wanted, when I wanted it, and as much as I needed. I didn’t focus on certain macros or food groups. I trusted that my body would lead me towards what it needed to grow my baby.
And this is the perspective I have taken into breastfeeding. Sure, I focus on drinking enough water and eating enough food, but it’s not difficult for me since my body is constantly telling me to eat and drink. 😂 However, since I’m in this stage of life and there is a lot of well-meaning (but stressful) advice out there for breastfeeding mothers, I decided to look into the research about breast milk and how maternal diet impacts it. I hope you find this post helpful if you are in this stage of life! Also, this post is not to convince you to breastfeed your baby. I completely understand that this is not always feasible and believe that “fed is best.” Please do not let this post shame you if breastfeeding was not feasible for you or if you chose to use formula instead.
Here’s a little bit of background information on breast milk. First, it contains a variety of growth factors, hormones, enzymes, immune system factors, macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). It’s caloric content varies from the beginning of the feeding to the end of a feeding, feeding to feeding, and even day to day. Lactose (a type of carbohydrate) is the most abundant macronutrient and is the most stable between feedings and from mother-to-mother. Fat content is what creates the most variability in composition and caloric content. It is more concentrated as the feeding goes on and varies in type depending on number of pregnancies, when your baby was born, how far you are postpartum (our body uses up our reserves of a certain type of fatty acid), and the types of fats you are consuming. Although the vitamins and minerals present in breast milk are in smaller quantities than in formula, it is actually more easily absorbed and utilized in the body. Basically, breast milk is constantly changing based on a variety of factors.
How does one’s food intake impact the nutrition available in milk? Can we increase the fat or vitamin/mineral content available in our milk? Here’s what we know—mom’s diet has some effect on breast milk composition, but probably not as big of an impact as we would like to think (fortunately or unfortunately). Neither mom’s food intake nor body composition are going to impact carbohydrate or protein content in the milk. But research does show that there is a correlation between maternal fat intake and breast milk fat composition. It doesn’t impact how much fat is present, rather the type of fat present in the milk. Some people have fattier milk (and therefore more calorically rich milk) than other moms, but I didn’t find any research that definitively answered the question of why there is so much variability among moms. Fortunately, volume of milk is important for infant growth rather than amount of fat or concentration of calories. This means that if you are feeding your baby often enough, they are going to be well-fed, even if your milk is on the lower side of fat/calories. (takes off some of the pressure, right?) A major type of fat that is impacted by maternal intake is that of DHA, a type of omega-3 that is important for brain development. Because of this information, I had been focusing on eating more plant sources of omega 3s (walnuts, flax seed, etc), but found out that the conversion of omega 3s into DHA in reality is pretty poor from these sources. The best sources are actually from fatty fish or a supplement. My recommendation? Take a prenatal vitamin with DHA 😉 (and eat some seafood if you like it!).
When it comes to vitamins and minerals for milk, food intake of those nutrients obviously creates the availability of them for milk. But just as we don’t have to consume 100% of our daily needs each day for our body (nutrition status is about overall intake over several days, not just one meal or day), we don’t have to consume 100% of all the vitamins or minerals every day for it to be present in adequate amounts in our milk. Research shows that our milk is incredibly resilient despite inadequate intakes, and slowly decreases in milk if it is not readily available from our diet. If we are lacking in certain nutrients day after day, our bodies will then use our own body’s reserves to feed our babies. Once that is used up, our milk concentration of those nutrients will suffer.
I know that breastfeeding is touted as THE way to help new moms lose their baby weight. There is a lot of pressure for moms to quickly return to their pre-baby body, which often results in moms trying to reduce food intake and increase exercise along with breastfeeding to get rid of that weight. In reality, research doesn’t support this. Yes, there are some moms who lose weight breastfeeding, but there is a large majority of the population who don’t. It makes sense that our bodies would hold onto extra energy if they are having to constantly supply energy for another human. It’s self-preservation. And although our milk supply and composition are fairly resilient regardless of our food intake, if we are not consuming enough food, it IS going to impact our ability to feed our babies as well as our ability to take care of ourselves.
I find it really comforting and reassuring that I don’t have much control over my breast milk composition and nutrient quality. Let’s take the pressure off of ourselves! But that doesn’t give us the excuse to underfeed our bodies in an attempt to make them smaller. Breastfeeding takes a big toll on mother’s nutrition status and requires that we feed our bodies regularly and adequately (and again, I recommend a prenatal supplement). We want to have the energy to take care of our babes, the available nutrition for our own bodies to create proper brain chemistry (motherhood is hard enough without having a lack of serotonin from underfeeding our bodies!), and the brain space to fully be present rather than thinking/worrying about food all the time.
I’d love to hear from you what your favorite breastfeeding snacks are (the hunger is no joke…)!