You were going to be an abundant milk goddess, with strapping baby suckling at your breast, as you adeptly juggled all that life threw your way. At least this is how you’d envisioned your first few months as a new mom. Well, fast forward to now: You’re stressed out and under-supported, you’re on your way back to work already, and you can barely keep the milk flowing.
So what’s a nursing mom to do? When all else fails, there’s food to fall back on. These nutrition tips will support your lactating body and reactivate your supply. With a little fortification, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying the experience of nursing your baby without worrying about how much milk you’re producing. Try these eight nutritional tips:
You feel like a fountain in Rome, so many fluids have been pouring in and out of your vessel. Yet even though it seems you’ve been guzzling liquids every chance you get, make sure the liquids you guzzle add up. “Fluids are the No. 1 thing a new mom needs to have,” says Dr. Sheila Kingsbury, a lactation consultant who teaches botanical medicine, pediatrics, and lactation management at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. “Most moms will drink almost a liter to a liter and a half a day—if someone brings it to them.” (This amount is about the equivalent of 48 ounces.) For those lacking a servant to bring us water and monitor intake, fill up your water bottles at the beginning of the day so you know how much you need and how much you’ve had. Try to sip throughout the day, so you don’t end up drinking a lot before bed. (You don’t want to be up all night hitting the bathroom when sleep is precious.)
EFAs a Big Kahuna
Another key way to support your body is to supplement with essential fatty acids found in fish. “The number two thing you need (after fluids) is EFAs and omega-3s,” says Kingsbury. “This is because the primary constituents of milk are the lactose sugars and the fatty acids and the protein. When the milk is produced in the milk glands, it makes the proteins and sugars and pinches them off in a nice little droplet which is surrounded by fatty acids.” Your body takes the EFAs it needs in order to make milk, no matter how much you supplement, but Kingsbury suggests you support your system during lactation by supplying extra EFAs so your natural stores aren’t depleted. Eating fish three times a week will do it. Avoid fish high in mercury, she adds—so go with salmon and halibut instead of tuna, for example. If you can’t eat fish this frequently, Kingsbury suggests taking a daily tablespoon of cod liver oil.
Eat More (500 Calories More, In Fact)
Just as a sports car wouldn’t run efficiently on fumes, a lactating body doesn’t function well on nutritional dredges. Lactating women need extra calories each day—beyond their original caloric intake—in order to adequately support both the mother and the breast milk supply. “You can have a woman in an impoverished environment and she is going to produce good-quality breast milk for her baby,” says Stephanie Moore, a board-certified lactation consultant. “If she is not nourished, her body is going to take it from her body.” This means the needs of the milk supply trump the needs of your body, leaving you feeling depleted and malnourished. “Every new mom needs 500 extra calories to produce milk,” Kingsbury says. “This is a starting point to ensure you are getting enough variety. Are you getting enough protein? Enough fruits and vegetables? You need extra calories in order to make that milk.”
Stimulating your milk supply may be as simple as making yourself a bowl of oats in the morning. Always considered a nourishing breakfast, oatmeal also helps you relax; that creates oxytocin, a key hormone for lactation. “Oats provide a lot of minerals and they are relaxing,” says Kingsbury, who recommends you skip the instant oatmeal and instead choose a less processed oat. “Use the pods or the steel cut oats. The more whole they are, the more protein and minerals they contain, the more helpful they are for relaxing.”
Toss a little brewer’s yeast on your popcorn, rice or pasta. It’s another lactation booster that has anecdotal, rather than scientific, support. “Many cultures have traditionally used brewer’s yeast to increase milk,” says Kingsbury. “It is probably the vitamin B. We don’t know the connection for sure.”
Nettles, often taken as a tea, are high in minerals and supply calcium. Kingsbury says nettles are not a direct stimulant for your milk supply, rather another supportive nutritional piece. “It is high in minerals and every hormonal process in our body requires minerals to function well,” says Kingsbury.
Some of the milk-supporting remedies are anecdotal, but fenugreek’s effect on improving a mother’s milk supply has scientific support. “Studies consistently show that it does effectively increase breast milk,” says Kingsbury. “In many cultures it is used as a food, not an herb. Here, we use the seed.” Kingsbury says you’d need a high dose, and ideally you’d take fenugreek the first two weeks after birth as your milk supplies are revving up in order for it to work. However, often this window is missed because many mothers start having trouble with their supply later than two weeks postpartum.
Sit and sip some chamomile tea and solve three problems with one cup. Chamomile tea helps you relax, it helps you hydrate, and it can help a baby with colic calm down, once it makes it into your milk supply. “Chamomile tea is not directly stimulating to milk,” says Kingsbury. “So it is again a relaxing herb, similar to hops, and it is not harmful.”
Foods That Are Effective, But Not Advised
- Raspberry Leaf Tea: Enjoy your raspberry leaf tea if you want to support the uterus, but not if you are having problems with your milk. Raspberry leaf tea is astringent, says Kingsbury, and can be drying to your body. “It’s not a bad thing; it is high in minerals,” Kingsbury says, “but I generally only recommend it for the first week after birth.”
- Beer: If you really crave a cold one, go ahead and indulge. Then pump and dump. The hops in beer are mildly sedating and do indeed help you relax, but the resulting alcohol in your milk will make it to your baby. Beer makes your milk taste bitter and could result in your child drinking less. “Babies don’t like the taste of alcohol and generally will have less breast milk when the mother has been drinking alcohol,” says Moore. So if you’re drinking beer just because you’ve heard it helps stimulate your supply, go for oats instead.
- Caffeine: Ah, the complexities of caffeine, even post-childbirth. You love it, and it stimulates your milk production, but it also stimulates your baby. Most experts agree the cons outweigh the pros. “A lot of things that have caffeine in them are drying,” Kingsbury says. “With that said, I have never seen it interfere with milk production.” Moore suggests if you want to drink caffeinated beverages, stick to one cup a day and don’t rely on it as a lactation booster.
Lifestyle Tips to Optimize Your Milk
- Reduce Stress: The pressure to chill may be stressing you out, but it is true: Relaxation is the key to better milk production. When you are relaxed, or feel taken care of, or experience intimacy, you produce oxytocin, one of two hormones key to the production of milk (the second hormone is prolactin). “The more happy and supported a woman feels, the more likely she is to produce oxytocin,” says Kingsbury. “But if you are stressed out and having a lot of trouble—which a lot of moms are—then it can interfere with that process.”
- Use it or you’ll lose it: Your body operates very similarly to the basic business principal of supply and demand. What your baby asks for one day, your body supplies the next. This is regulated by the hormone prolactin, which kicks in during the first weeks after birth, ready to monitor how much your body needs. “Prolactin resets at a new higher level after birth, based on supply and demand from the baby,” says Kingsbury. “When the level is set lower, it is much harder to increase.”
- Repurpose your fat: The pounds you gained to support the baby in-utero come in handy again during breast feeding. If you lose weight too quickly after childbirth, you may diminish your milk supply. “Keep an extra 10 pounds on after birth,” Kingsbury recommends. “That is helpful for milk production. Keep it on for at least the first six months. After that, it is not as big of an issue because the baby starts eating solid foods.”
Jean Weiss is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo. She writes regularly about nutrition and healthy living.
Daniel McNeive, MD, is board certified in obstetrics/gynecology and in private practice at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
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