Ah breastfeeding…. It’s such a beautiful experience, full of peace, love, connection with your baby, skin-on-skin, quiet moments of cooing and staring into one another’s eyes… a true magical moment that you get to experience with your baby multiple times a day for as long as you nurse! It’s a joy and a privilege to know we are capable of providing of our own body, the exact nutrients our babies and toddlers need to sustain them through their lives and everything about it is perfect, puffy clouds and rainbows, every woman miraculously knows how to do it from the very first, soft and perfect latch…..
Let’s cut the crap, mamas. Breastfeeding is not (always) a picnic. Sure, it’s beautiful, sure it’s amazing, a miracle even… it’s full of those quiet moments, but c’mon, let’s not kid ourselves, shall we? I’ve got more scratches on my chest from these kids grabbing for “more milk!” than I ever had taming and raising feral cats, I wake up feeling like I’m made of sand and ash and my boobs are like deflated pool toys after a long feeding session.
Believe me when I say it takes patience- not love- okay, also love- but mostly patience- to get through some of these feeding sessions and to keep going it takes a lot of energy, fuel and support. Fuel is mostly what I wanted to write about today, because I have seen a great deal of confusion out there about what a nursing mama needs to eat, drink and how much of it is necessary to stay healthy. I’ve compiled a lot of information from multiple sources for you so it’s all in one place.
Hopefully it will help you along your journey and make it easier to keep your goals and keep pushing through to nurse those little angel snowflakes until they happily wean themselves the day before kindergarten.
Okay, just kidding. Well, sort of.
I had my first baby in November, 2010. I still nurse him, and his now, 19 month old sister. So that means I’ve been breastfeeding for a total of three years, four months and 16 days. While I’m not a La Leche League counselor or a professional lactation consultant, (yet), I believe at this point I am sort of an expert in the subject as it relates to my body, personally and my own children. I also think my experiences can help other moms, so I wanted to share some things about nutrition that I’ve learned along the way.
Please keep in mind, even though I say it many times throughout this piece that I am not licensed to give advice and I am not a nutritionist. There are LOTS AND LOTS of things I know that I don’t know yet and my opinions on any number of topics relating to breastfeeding nutrition and mother health are subject to change as new information presents itself and I learn more. That being said, I’ve been through a number of issues that might be helpful for other moms to know about and could learn from.
Neither of my breast feeding experiences were easy at first. My son was born over three weeks early, via C-Section due to being breech, some blood pressure issues and he was very weak, had a hard time sucking and would often fall asleep at the breast because it was too hard for him to complete the action. I had to use nipple shields, nipple guards, I learned I had inverted nipples, I had a hindmilk/foremilk imbalance, I had plugged ducts multiple times, I had horrifically painful engorgement, had a really hard time pumping and in order to keep little lazy pant’s weight up, so I had to nurse him every two hours for the first two months or they were threatening formula supplementation and I was absolutely, 100% and completely against that at all costs. This led to a lifestyle of attachment parenting, co-sleeping and sleeping sitting up with the baby on the nursing pillow until eventually he was big enough that I could safely dream feed him and nurse while lying down.
There were lots of hours of tears, feelings of being trapped, feelings of being lost, wondering if this is really what I wanted out of my life, and then on top of it, I realized I was also dealing with full fledged postpartum anxiety and all the hell that comes with it. Yes, there was beauty in those moments, profound feelings of closeness, connection love and indescribable joy. The closeness I felt with my baby was largely what got me through the postpartum and struggle with change in lifestyle and gave me strength in a greater purpose, but it didn’t make it any less difficult. It just make the difficulty worth the effort.
The second time around, I was still nursing a toddler of 22 months, gave birth to my daughter in a hospital 81 miles from home to ensure we could have a positive, baby friendly experience where I was able to implement the use of Hypnobabies, but still had the epidural drip because she was a VBAC. She nursed amazingly well from the very first breath and we were doing incredibly. Until she started to turn this beautiful shade of golden… yep, she was jaundiced and my immediate plans of baby-wearing literally until we put her in the car were dashed, as she had to spend time under the biliruben lights to get well. We discovered this was caused by our different blood types, she was B+ and I am O+. While it was a challenge, I was VERY lucky that the hospital was as pro-nursing as I was. They put the little “tanning bed” as I called it, right in our room until we had to check out and then she went to the NICU for two nights while we stayed in a hotel down the street. Luckily, my supply was massive. As one NICU nurse put it, “your boobs could feed an entire country”, so I was able to pump 10-12 oz in one sitting and she was either nursing or given my breast milk the entire time she was in the NICU, but still, it was hard because she was not with me- she was not breast feeding on demand, she was being given a bottle at times, and though it was my milk, it was still not me. I worried about nipple confusion, but the NICU nurses were amazing and made sure to mostly offer milk via syringe so she didn’t have that issue. Once we got home, breastfeeding on demand was a necessity for her body to remain healthy, which was great because I was planning on this anyway.
Her brother went through a transition period of loss, feeling anxious at someone else being given milk, and increased his demand from 3 times a day, to closer to 15. It was hard. Oh, so very, very hard… but worth it, and I pushed through, spending lots of time on Facebook distracting myself when “toddler aversion” would kick in. Eventually, it dissipated and we all fell into a fantastic rhythm and are now stronger than ever. Mostly. I mean, we are… but I got tired and sick and sore and sad and I couldn’t figure it out, because life was actually pretty great and I knew I was eating well, so I didn’t understand what was going on.
I realized that a great deal of what was making it so hard, was my lack of proper nutrition. My hair started falling out, my skin was white from dryness and my eyes would even glaze over in a blurry haze at times, my blood sugar would be off, I’d be overtired and compensate with caffeine in spite of the recommendations not do drink it, I was downing a pot of coffee a day. Still, it was 1/2 caf, but even a whole pot of 1/2 caf is still a half a pot of regular and we couldn’t afford the organic, good kind so lord knows what kind of chemicals and crap I was pouring into my body… all so I could stay awake! I started to fear sickness and I became really paranoid. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. Turned out, in addition to some hormone imbalance, I just needed to eat more. Not just “more”… but more of the right things.
To be successful at continuous and extended nursing, you need protein, good carbs, GOOD fat and water. Contrary to the popular belief that once you’re pregnant, you can “eat for two” and just eat whatever horrible bad for you thing sounds good whenever you feel like, you really only need about 200-300 more calories a day than you did pre-pregnancy. If you are not a very active person, let’s say, you work at a desk and rarely get moving outside of a walk around the building at lunch or an evening stroll around the block, you won’t need more than that 300. You would think that same rule applies when nursing, but in reality, you actually need more calories from GOOD sources when you are nursing. Unless you’re nursing two. Or three. Or four… or even five. Tandem nursers will need about 500-650 more calories than they did pre-pregnancy, according to Kellymom.com. With this logic, it stands to reason a nursing mom will need at most, 325 extra calories per day, per child. Not just calories- but GOOD calories. Good fats, good grains, legumes, lean meats (if you eat meat), low-fat milk products, and lots and lots of fruits and veg are vital for a mom who is feeding not only her own body, but one, possibly two or even more hungry mouths. Can you cheat and eat junk food? Sure… why not? I mean, I’m not a nutritionist, so I can’t tell you what not to eat, but the responsible part of me says listen to your body’s needs, be reasonable with your choices and if you eat junk food, keep it to a minimum and remember- every single thing you eat could (not will, because I don’t really know that’s the case) leach into your breast milk and go directly to the baby. This includes chemical additives, dyes and other junk you may not want them to have. Since, in order to stay healthy and have a healthy weight we only get a defined number of calories a day, I would recommend you use up those calories on good things, not things that are full of refined sugars, chemical-based food coloring, high levels of GMO’s or non-organic foods that may contain chemicals. The best rule of thumb I’ve found and use myself, is- if I wouldn’t hand the item to my child to eat themselves, I won’t eat it, either. That seems pretty reasonable, right? I don’t let them eat Red 40 or anything with the “yellows”, so why would I allow myself to consume it when my body is creating the milk they drink? Logical… Now, did I give up junk food? No, not entirely. Would I announce that eat junk food? Yep. I just ate a marshmallow today for the sheer joy of doing so and no one can take that moment of bliss away from me. I just don’t make the crap food one of my five food groups. I think by keeping things at a minimum, you’re pretty safe. Exchange ice cream for plain, low fat (not non-fat) yogurt with no added sugar and top it with dried fruit, nuts, or healthy cereal instead and some raw, local honey for some awesome sweetness without the guilt. Remember, you’re building people with your milk and you’re doing your best to strengthen your own body while you do it. Those little angels are literally siphoning out your available resources like an Exon oil rig and you have to do all you can to replenish before they steal all of it and leave you with nothing. So make your meals count. A cheat every now and then, to me, isn’t a big deal. A cheat that takes place instead of lunch, or a lunch that has nothing but saturated fat, salt and refined carbs… not such a good thing for you, or baby. There is also a lot of buzz these days about how much protein our bodies actually need. Many vegan studies have revealed that those living a plant-based life are actually far healthier when they do the diet the right way, knowing how much of what they need is in each item they are eating. Those who eat meat, are found, on the whole, to not really have a clue how much their bodies actually need and usually overdo it substantially. When you’re nursing, a good rule of thumb to use is protein should count for about 25% of your total calories for the day which would be giving you about 2 protein rich meals a day. If you’re tandem feeding, although I couldn’t find any reference to a specific number, I’m going to assume it’s probably safe to double that, but do it throughout the day, not all at once. Protein, while vital for our existence, can be hard on the body to process if we give it too much at a time. Much of the nutrients will just wash out as a result. By rationing and staggering protein and other important nutrients, we allow our bodies to take in all they have to offer. Like, say you’re not into eating meat- try munching on a handful of raw almonds or walnuts throughout the day instead. You’ll get both the fiber you need, AND the protein and you won’t have to kill a cow to do it.
Now, I personally, am getting more into the vegetarian thing (not vegan – eggs and dairy are still a huge part of my diet) because I believe it’s healthier and easier on your body to process and I can’t afford the good meat that is only fed non-GMO/organic diets and certified humane slaughter. Many people are seriously against a meat-free diet for pregnant and/or nursing moms, but I am moving that direction because unless you can find a farmer you can trust to raise their animals for food production fed only organic, good grasses and grains so their muscles aren’t infused with chemicals and killed humanely so their body isn’t flooded with fear toxins at a REASONABLE price (and reasonable does not mean $1.50 PER SLICE of turkey)… I’m pretty sure it’s just safer not to eat it at all.
You also need to be careful of supermarket and butcher policy, because many use a dye/preservative in the meat that makes it appear to last longer- keeps it pink, so you don’t realize it’s about to go bad. That stuff creeps me out and it can waste your money by getting home to find that your meat was bad before it even reached the date of expiration. You also have a greater chance of getting sick because of food-borne illness with meat products and honestly, that’s all just too much stress and trouble for me- I’d rather not have to worry about whether my food can kill me or even just make me sick for a day or mess up my baby’s digestive tract, just because I took it off the grill 3 minutes too soon. But that’s just me. If none of that bothers you, the standard recommendation is 2 to 3 servings of lean meat a day. Just keep in mind, red meat takes the body longer to process because it takes more energy and eating it can actually deplete your body of resources while it works to break it down for use. Foul and fish are much easier for your body to process, but stay away from large fish that can carry a lot of metals, like swordfish, shark and basically, anything that lives a really long time, collecting metals in it’s body as it grows.
Also, just an aside- sushi during pregnancy is NOT a big deal. If your doctor says it is, they are not up to date on their homework. Do your own research and decide for yourself. What about that feeling of being made of ash and sand? Do you wake up feeling like tiny camels are going to climb out of your mouth and that your eyes are sewn shut because your body is so dry? Well.. that’s all about water, ladies. How much do YOU drink?
If you’re nursing, the general easy rule is, drink a tall glass of water moderately cool (not cold) EVERY TIME you nurse your baby, even if the nursing session only lasts a few minutes. Okay, now realistically, is that actually possible? Not always. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get out of bed to get a glass of water for the 3am.4:30am/5:45am feeds. Unless it’s already on the bedside table, it’s not happening. So here’s what I do… I get the large “Smart Water” bottles that are 1 1/2 liters. I keep one near me at all times. I try my best to drink no less than 3 of them a day. When I don’t drink at LEAST that much, I feel it and I’m miserable the next day. I’ve been blessed with a strong milk production even when I don’t drink enough, but to maintain healthy and consistently strong supply, it is VITAL that you drink water. A lot of water. A lot, lot, lot, lot, lot LOOOOOOOOOOOT of water. I recently asked the question in a tandem nursing group why even though I drank about 4 liters of water a day, I still felt horrible. I let them know I nurse on demand and my kids are both toddlers, between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2. The reality of how off I was in thinking what I was doing was good… shocked me. I learned from other moms and a few moderators who are midwives, that I should be drinking substantially more than I do now. …And here I was so proud of myself… ah well. One midwife even suggested that I should be drinking my body weight in water a day. That’s about 14 gallons. Which breaks down to 15 liters. So… where I think I’m doing great drinking my 4 liters, (roughly 3 of these Smart Water bottles a day, I should be increasing this to another TWELVE full bottles on top of what I’m already doing!! Whaaaaat? Yeah, well, we’ll see if I can pull that off. Honestly, I doubt it. I could probably get it up to 5… but 15? Heh… well, I won’t rule it out just yet, y’never know.
My point is, you probably are not drinking enough water. I’ve learned that an 8oz glass of lemon or coconut water first thing when you wake up and do wonders to re-hydrate your body. It helps awaken your organs and get them working in good fashion for the day, so try one of those options instead of reaching for the coffee pot first thing and see if it helps.
Also, speaking of coffee- make sure that your’e not counteracting your water intake by drinking things that are naturally dehydrating and work as diuretics. If you’re drinking tea, make sure it’s herbal tea- black, green and red teas all work as natural diuretics and can completely undo the hard work you are doing by drinking all that water against your will. If you are drinking soda- well, just quit that. Seriously. It’s miserable bad for you in so many ways, I could write a whole blog on JUST that, so if you think you’re doing well because you drink soda and your response is; “well, there’s water in that too, right?” Ummmm…. no. That doesn’t work and don’t EVEN get me started on “diet” soda being better for you because it has no sugar. It’s not. Not even a little, in fact it’s worse than the high fructose corn syrup in the regular (in my opinion, anyway, someone might disagree with me). In this community, you’re welcome to lie to yourself all you want, but I won’t and I’m guessing you know that, so just don’t waste your energy. Soda = bad. Period.
If you drink coffee- well, most of us have a hard time with this, especially if we have to get up early and get things done after being up feeding our little snowflakes all night… but reduce it to half-caf at the very least. The more caffeine you feed your body, the more water is sucked out of it and you’re making it harder on yourself in the long run.
Caffeine can also inflame the bladder and cause your kidneys to work harder than they need to, AND it can cause your body to create cortisol (the fight or flight chemical for high-stress situations), which is a bad, bad thing and goes directly into the milk, so bear that in mind when making your choices.
So, yeah. Those are my recommendations based on my personal experience, and here are some links to find more information and my resources:
I hope this helps you out and at the very least, sparks an interest to learn more about good nutrition while nursing. Whether you are feeding one baby or six, your job is to work WITH your body to create a peaceful place where your children can feel nourished both emotionally and physically in your arms.
If you’re not taking care of the self, you can’t possibly expect to be able to take care of them, too. We all want the perfect nursing experience that will leave our children with lasting memories and feelings of warmth, comfort and peace and I believe it’s within our grasp through good health, positive attitude and remembering that it really is for a good cause. All the pain, time, effort and drama that might come with it.
Every single minute of it, is worth it…. even with a foot in your eye.
Post Edit- I should add that this little disclaimer that my, nor ANYone’s blog or online advice column should be used in the place of professional advice. If you are suffering from postpartum, health concerns or you think something is up and you just don’t feel right or milk production is down and you don’t know what to do- please, please, please see someone professional. While I appreciate the desire to fix whatever is wrong on your own, unless you can give yourself blood work and have a medical degree in your back pocket, there is only so much you can do for yourself without the assistance of a medical professional, midwife, HHP, CMP, a LLC, whatever you prefer. But don’t leave it and don’t think you have to fix the problems by yourself. There is a WHOLE WORLD of help out there just waiting to take your hand.
Also, I’ve written a piece on Postpartum, what to look for and what my experience was like, so if you feel that might be an issue for you, please roll back in the blog history and find the entry called, “What Postpartum REALLY Looks Like”.
❤ Love and light and peace through caution!