Optimum Nutrition for Breastfeeding Mums
August 1st marked the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week, an awareness campaign organised by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) to protect, support and promote breastfeeding.
As natural as breastfeeding is, it can often be challenging for new mums. Breastfeeding is an energy-intensive business, requiring an additional 300-500 calories each day. Night feeds can leave breastfeeding mums with little rest, and being the sole provider of your baby’s nutrition can feel like a huge responsibility.
The benefits of breastfeeding are widely studied. Breastfed babies are healthier all round. They have a lower risk of infection and auto-immune disease, and are less prone to allergies later in life. Studies have also found breastfed babies to have higher IQs than their formula-fed counterparts.
For mums who are able to breastfeed and choose to do so, looking after your own nutritional needs is crucial. A well-nourished mum is better able to cope with the demands of a new baby, and better positioned to support the health of their baby. Here are the top three supplements for breastfeeding mums, to support the health of both mother and baby.
Breast milk from a healthy mum contains several strains of beneficial gut flora. If mum has a healthy gut, then beneficial gut flora can actually move from her gut into her breast milk via a process called ‘vertical translocation’. Mums can encourage healthy bacteria in their breast milk by taking a probiotic supplement. Ensuring a good intake of gut-healthy prebiotic foods such as bananas, asparagus, garlic and onions is also helpful. Finally, including probiotic foods such as probiotic yoghurt, and fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut and sourdough bread is beneficial.
During breastfeeding, probiotics are beneficial both for the mother and the baby. In the mother, probiotics can aid digestion, and they are believed to speed up recovery from mastitis, and to prevent thrush which sometimes occurs after antibiotic treatment for mastitis. In babies, there is evidence that probiotics present in breast milk help to protect against colic, eczema and asthma (1).
It is believed that children who are breastfed have higher IQs than formula-fed infants. A recent long-term study of more than 3000 children found that on average, those who were breastfed had an IQ score of 7 points higher than those who weren’t (2).
The main reason for this effect appears to be the levels of essential fatty acids in breast milk. In particular, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is vital for brain development. Of course, in order for DHA to be present in breast milk, it is important for the mother to ensure that she is getting enough omega-3 fats in her diet. Two servings of oily fish each week would provide a good level of DHA. Alternatively, DHA supplements are available for breastfeeding mothers. Vegetarians may benefit from taking a DHA supplement, as breast milk from vegetarian mothers is lower in DHA (3).
3. Maternal multi-vitamin and mineral formulations
Breastfeeding can take quite a nutritional toll on mothers. If the mother’s diet is lacking in nutrients, then stores may be drawn from her own body in order to fortify her breast milk. For example, a lack of protein may result in breakdown of muscle tissue, while a calcium-deficient diet could result in loss of calcium from bones.
Other vitamins and minerals cannot simply be drawn from the mother’s body to supply breast milk. A deficiency of any vitamin in the mother’s diet will have an adverse affect on levels in breast milk. It can also, of course, affect the mother directly. For example, low levels of magnesium, zinc and iron have all been linked with postnatal depression (4).
There are currently no official guidelines for vitamin and mineral supplementation in breastfeeding mothers. The exception is for Vitamin D. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that breastfeeding mothers should supplement 10 micrograms (or 400 units) of Vitamin D each day, to ensure the baby’s healthy bone development.
However, most adults in the UK also fail in obtaining the recommended amounts of minerals such as zinc and iodine through diet alone – minerals important for babies’ growth, immune system and cognitive development. For this reason it could be a sensible measure to supplement vitamin D as part of a good quality multivitamin and mineral formula, in order to ensure that both mother and baby are meeting their nutritional needs.
1. Lara-Villoslada et al (2007) 2007 Beneficial effects of probiotic bacteria isolated from breast milk. Br J Nutr. Oct;98 Suppl 1:S96-100.
2. Caspi et al (2007) Moderation of breastfeeding effects on the IQ by genetic variation in fatty acid metabolism. PNAS; 10.1073. 0704292104
3. Brzezińska et al (2016) Vegetarian diets in the nutrition of pregnant and breastfeeding women]. Pol Merkur Lekarski. 40(238):264-8.
4. Etebary et al (2010) Postpartum depression and role of serum trace elements. Iran J Psychiatry. 5(2):40-6.