As I’ve argued before, it’s easy to get too worked up about what you should and shouldn’t eat during pregnancy.
The same goes for post-partum nutrition.
While ensuring a healthy diet for you and your (now larger) family is important, this is primarily a case of eating a balanced, diverse diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables and not too many sweet treats, processed foods, salt or saturated fats. In other words, you should eat pretty much what you should be eating anyway.
Having said that, there are certain dietary considerations you may want to keep in mind as you recover from labor and start establishing your new daily routine. Here are a few key points:
Nutrition for nursing mothers
From avoiding alcohol to reducing caffeine and seafood intake, there are a few items you might want to avoid in your diet while breast-feeding. In addition to what not to eat, California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) recommends a diet rich in proteins, calcium and whole grains — with a slight increase in portion sizes for mothers who nurse, versus mothers who are bottle feeding. (Visit the CPMC website for a helpful rundown on post-partum nutrition and nursing portion sizes.) An extra 500 calories the first six months and an extra 400 calories from six months onward is a good guideline figure. Also, make sure to drink at least eight cups of fluid (mostly water) per day.
And just as it is perfectly safe to raise kids as vegans, it’s also safe for new mothers to avoid all animal products too — but you should consult your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about a suitable vitamin and calcium supplement. If you are a strict vegan, be sure to supplement calcium and B12.
Recovering from blood loss or anemia
If you suffered from anemia during pregnancy and/or there was significant blood loss during labor, you may feel particularly weak or tired as a result. Make sure you eat plenty of iron-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish and leafy greens — and keep in mind that iron found in animal products is more easily absorbed than iron from vegetables, so you should either adjust your diet accordingly or, if your ethics do not allow for eating animal products, consult a registered dietitian about a suitable supplement. You can also eat vitamin C-rich foods alongside iron, and cook in a cast iron skillet, to increase your uptake of this important nutrient. (Many of the other tips on avoiding anemia during pregnancy apply equally in a post-partum setting.)
Constipation is a common complaint among new mothers, especially if you had a cesarean birth and/or you were administered drugs during labor. Drink lots of fluids — mostly water, and at least 10 cups a day – and make sure your diet is heavy in plant-based and other high-fiber foods. According to FitPregnancy’s article on constipation and new mothers, Mavis Schorn, Ph.D., C.N.M., director of the nurse-midwifery program at Vanderbilt School of Nursing, advises new mothers to use an over-the-counter stool softener if needed, but that they should consult a health care provider if stronger laxatives become necessary.
Some limited research has shown that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and/or B vitamins may increase risk of post-partum depression, but the jury is out on whether and how much proper nutrition can help avoid post-partum depression and/or reduce its severity. Certainly, a balanced, healthy diet can’t hurt. However, post-partum depression is a very serious health issue and any new mother who suspects she is suffering from it should consult her doctor as soon as possible.
Losing baby weight safely
Now that pregnancy is over, many new mothers will be focused on losing their baby weight. A steady regime of exercise and balanced eating is a great thing for overall health — and for losing excess weight. However, you should be cautious about setting unrealistic goals or taking drastic diet measures. Quoted in FitPregnancy’s feature on new mom food traps, Eileen Behan, R.D., author of "Eat Well, Lose Weight, While Breastfeeding", explains that it can take a full year to lose baby weight in a sustained, healthy fashion – and new moms should aim for losing around four pounds a month.
Remembering to eat (well)
A new baby changes everything – especially if it is your first. So finding time and energy to do all the healthy things you are supposed to be doing anyway, like eating breakfast or sitting down for family meals can be a challenge with all of the other changes that are going on.
Make sure your cupboards are stocked with healthy snacks, fresh fruits and vegetables, and easy, non- or minimally-processed meals that you can make on the fly. You can also stock your freezer with healthful, pre-made meals (we made a whole bunch of frozen meals before the birth of our first daughter), and you could also consider banking some of the offers of home cooked meals – asking folks to spread them out over a month or two. (Rather than having all of your neighbors bring you lasagna in the first few weeks!)
If you’re finding it hard to get motivated to cook, it may also be worth doing some research into healthy dinner options from local businesses. In our town, one well-known deli and coffee shop offers a Family Meal Plan – providing a week’s worth of fresh, relatively healthy meal options which are mostly pre-prepared, needing only to be warmed up or assembled before serving. We’ve called on this more than once during busy times in our lives – and yes, the arrival of a new baby counts as busy!
Post-partum nutrition need not be overly complicated or particularly stressful. But you do need to recognize that your body needs fuel to both recover from labor and to power you through the sometimes hectic days of being a new mother. If you find yourself losing energy, feeling depressed, or otherwise unwell, be sure to consult a medical professional to make sure that nothing is seriously wrong.
Welcoming a new baby into the world should be a joyous occasion. Don’t let food-related issues get in the way of the celebrations.
Jenni Grover MS RD LDN is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, NC. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.