New mothers are often focused on the physical recovery from childbirth and the emotional challenges that come quickly and sporadically soon after becoming a mother. Many try to care for themselves as best as they can, but this often amounts to taking their prenatal vitamin when they can remember.
Childbirth and breastfeeding can be stressful and our bodies more than ever need proper nutrition to survive the exhausting days ahead. I have yet to meet a breastfeeding woman who is not sleep-deprived, tired, struggling with hormonal changes, often forgetting to take vitamins or eat properly!
So with that in mind, here are the top five most important nutrients new moms should pay attention to. Remember to always check with your doctor before adding in any supplements into your diet:
Iron Is essential for baby's red blood cell function, immune support and nervous system development. A mother who is iron-deficient may feel tired, have more hair loss and less overall energy. Some studies have shown that low iron may even impair cognition and memory. Women may not realize that they are anemic and iron reserves can be low even if blood counts are normal. And there is a type of anemia that can develop during pregnancy that can be exacerbated after delivery.
Many women think that continuing to take a daily prenatal vitamin with about 10-18 mg of iron is sufficient. The issue is that we do not absorb all of the iron we take in. Taking iron together with Vitamin C will help with absorption. I recommend that women take a supplement that contains 18 mg of iron daily in addition to eating 1-2 servings a day of dark green veggies. Replenishing iron levels will help with postpartum fatigue and result in more nutritious breast milk.
2. Vitamin C
The role of Vitamin C is complex—it's needed to regulate fatty acids, absorb sufficient amounts of iron and other necessary minerals such as zinc, and plays an important role as an antioxidant and to decrease inflammation. Vitamin C can help treat common cold symptoms and is especially important during cold and flu season with a newborn, as mom's levels of Vitamin C will correlate directly with the amount in her breastmilk.
A breastfeeding mother should consume a minimum of 120 mg daily and we recommend 500 mg daily for nursing mothers as an optimal dose. Foods that are rich in Vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, cabbage and spinach.
3. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is important for neurodevelopment and proper nervous system function and there have also been many reported cases of low B12 contributing to anxiety and nervousness. Adequate levels of B12 are necessary for proper cell function, can help combat fatigue and are necessary for proper hair growth.
Many women have low levels of B12 for various reasons: vegans, vegetarians or those who do not eat much meat often do not consume enough B12. The absorption of B12 is affected by the acidity of the stomach and is affected by other foods. A mother who suffers from reflux and takes a lo3t of over-the-counter medications such and proton pump inhibitors, or who has had gastric bypass surgery, or who suffers from inflammatory bowel disease, may also have difficulty absorbing B12. It's typically recommended to take a supplement containing 1000 mcg of Vitamin B12 daily.
4. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is an antioxidant that is not only essential for eye development but also plays an important role in immunity and in helping us fight infections. A mother with a history of gut issues that can affect absorption may themselves be deficient leading to lower levels in her breast milk. For example, mothers with a history of Crohn's disease, who have had gastric bypass surgery, or irritable bowel syndrome may not absorb enough Vitamin A .
All dairy products in the U.S Are fortified with Vitamin A. In addition, the typical pre- or postnatal vitamin supplement contains anywhere from 50-1000 IU (international units) daily. Mothers who eat little or no dairy are at risk for having lower levels of Vitamin A. The RDA of Vitamin A for a breastfeeding mother is 2300 IU daily and in addition to taking a pre/postnatal vitamin I encourage eating foods that are rich in Vitamin A such as oranges, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, spinach and kale.
Proteins are important for immune and neurological function and are the building blocks for tissues, muscle and bones. It is important that when we're talking about a mother's recommended protein intake, we take into account a breastfeeding mother's need for protein to recover from the physiological strain of pregnancy and childbirth. Bottom line is that women of childbearing age should establish protein stores, conserve them and replenish them.
Premature infants require diets that are high in protein and the amount of protein in breastmilk steadily declines as children grow. For example, a mother nursing a 28-week-old premature infant can have almost four times as much protein in her milk as a mother nursing a 2-year-old toddler.
The USDA publishes an online tool that includes breastfeeding in calculating recommended daily nutritional intake. For example, an active 30-year old mother who is 5' 4" tall and weighs 100 lbs should consume 59 grams of protein per day during the first 6 months of breastfeeding, 13 grams more than if she were not breastfeeding, according to the USDA calculator.
The World Health Organization recommends around 17 grams of extra protein per day during the first six months of breastfeeding. We recommend erring on the side of more protein, especially as extra protein has no negative health consequences and may have some beneficial effect on milk volume and quality. Mothers should aim for a diet that includes a variety of protein sources, such as lean meat, seafood, eggs, yogurt, tofu, quinoa, nuts, and beans. We also suggest that breastfeeding mothers should avoid seafood and limit consumption of fish such as tuna and mackerel, as they can contain excessive amounts of mercury and other toxins. Breastfed babies are more vulnerable to the effects of heavy metals that can find their way into a mother's milk.