If you’re breastfeeding your infant, congratulations: you’ve made one of the best decisions for your child’s short- and long-term health. Breastfeeding has multiple benefits for your baby’s health, including better protection from common infections, lower chance of obesity at all ages, lower chance of other diseases, and possibly better developmental outcomes. If you are breastfeeding, there are certain foods you should eat to improve your baby’s health and development.
Eating (and Drinking) for Two
First of all, make sure you are getting enough calories. The CDC recommends that you get an additional 450 to 500 kilocalories (kcal) per day if you are breastfeeding. Moderately active, non-breastfeeding women who are not pregnant should get about 2,000 kcal per day, so that means that breastfeeding moms need at least 2,500 kcal per day.1 Of course, these should be healthy calories.
Breast milk typically has about 20 cal per ounce, so that’s a lot of calories leaving your body. Make sure you give your baby and yourself enough calories to make robust breast milk.
In addition, you should drink plenty of water to remain well hydrated.
Certain Fatty Acids Are Critical
But there are other nutrients that are also important for your baby’s health: omega-3 fatty acids. These used by the body to build cell membranes. One of the most important of these is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in high concentrations in the brain, retina of the eye, and sperm cells. Other omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).2
Humans can’t make ALA, so we have to get it from our diet. And although our bodies can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA, we can’t produce much of either of those, so we depend on diet for most of those fatty acids, as well.
Foods high in omega-3s include:2
- Fish and other seafood: salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, and other cold water fatty fish. But be careful: swordfish, mackerel, shark, and tilefish have high mercury levels and should be avoided. If you eat canned tuna, avoid the white or albacore tuna, which has high levels of mercury. Instead, eat the light tuna, made from the smaller, skipjack tuna.3
- Nuts and seeds: chia seeds, flaxseed, walnuts
- Fortified foods: some brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, and infant formulas are fortified with omega-3s.
Note that another source of omega-3s is plant based oils, such as soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil, but these are all high in omega-6 fatty acids, as well. The US diet is often unbalanced with too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, so avoid or limit the use of those oils. Flaxseed oil and olive oil are better options, as they have omega-3 but not a lot of omega-6.
Many prenatal vitamins are high in these omega-3 fatty acids, so if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, make sure your prenatal vitamins have these omega-3 components. If you are breastfeeding, you should still be taking your prenatal vitamins, or at least a supplement with omega-3s.
It’s best if you get omega-3 fatty acids from food rather than a supplement, but if you don’t eat enough of these foods daily, then a supplement is the next best thing.
There is no formal recommendation for amount of omega-3 that you should take, but the FDA recommends no more than 3 grams/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 grams/day as a supplement.2
Do The Omega-3 Fatty Acids Help My Child’s Health?
Multiple studies have been done to answer this question, and the results appear to be positive. Most studies show maternal diets high in omega-3 provide some benefit to brain function, such as problem solving ability, overall mental development and higher test scores.4
In adults, omega-3s help prevent heart disease, lower triglyceride levels, and may help prevent breast and colorectal cancer.
What You Shouldn’t Do
Recent research has shown that restricting your diet in order to prevent food allergies, eczema or asthma does not work. A recent meta-analysis of multiple studies have shown there is no evidence that this type of diet restriction will prevent these problems.5
If you have a strong family history of these illnesses or are worried your baby may be allergic to something in your diet, speak to your pediatrician. Certainly, there are individual cases where avoiding certain foods may help your child if she is allergic, but for most mothers, avoiding foods to prevent these allergies is not effective.
- CDC. Breastfeeding.
- National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega 3 Fatty Acids.
- Environmental Defense Fund. Mercury alert: Is canned tuna safe?
- Innis SM. Impact of maternal diet on human milk composition and neurological development of infants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar; 99(3):734S-41S.
- Kramer MS, Kakuma R. Maternal dietary antigen avoidance during pregnancy or lactation, or both, for preventing or treating atopic disease in the child. Evid Based Child Health. 2014 Jun; 9(2):447-83.