Breastfeeding Benefits, Nutrition, and Tips for Successful Breastfeeding
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
If you thought you were hungry during pregnancy, breastfeeding takes hunger to a new level! The need for nutrition is immense to support breast milk production and all the health benefits of nursing.
But breastfeeding can be challenging for many different reasons. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned.
The goal of this article is to set you up for breastfeeding success. Education is empowerment, and education around breastfeeding improves breastfeeding rates.
Keep reading to understand more about:
- The current breastfeeding guidelines
- Breast milk composition and how it’s linked to nutrition
- The benefits of breastfeeding for the infant and mother
- Barriers to breastfeeding
- Tips for breastfeeding success, including a list of foods to support breast milk production
Let’s dive in!
In 2022, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its breastfeeding recommendation from one year to two years, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, recognizing the short- and long-term health benefits for mother and baby. The new guidelines align with the World Health Organization’s recommendation of breastfeeding for two years or beyond when mutually desired by mother and child.
Breast milk is incredible! It contains all the nutrients and compounds to support infant growth and development. Breast milk is the “gold standard” in infant nutrition; infant formulas try to mimic breast milk.
Breastmilk contains all essential nutrients, including:
- Protein (whey and casein)
- Carbohydrate (lactose)
- Fat (a variety of fatty acids including EPA and DHA)
- Vitamins – vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin K, folate, vitamin B12, and the other B vitamins
- Minerals – calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, iodine, and others
In addition to nutrients, breastmilk contains several hundred to thousands of bioactive compounds to support the immune system, organ development, and a healthy microbiome. These include:
- Lactoferrin and other antimicrobial agents
- Oligosaccharides and other prebiotics
- Stem cells
- Immune cells and antibodies
- Cytokines and other chemical messengers
- IGF and other growth factors
- Beneficial bacteria
As discussed in previous articles on pregnancy and postpartum, when women begin breastfeeding, they are already nutrient depleted because of the high nutrition demands of pregnancy and healing from delivery. This fact makes nutrition during lactation even more critical to supply the baby’s needs.
The baby sends signals to the mom during nursing to adjust the amount and composition of the milk to their needs. Other factors influencing breast milk composition include the mother’s diet, the time of day, and more.
Breastfeeding Benefits for Baby
Beyond bonding with mom, there are many health benefits of breastfeeding for the infant, including:
- Cognitive development and higher IQ later in life
- Microbiome and immune development
- Decreased rates of ear, gastrointestinal, and respiratory infections
- Decreased rates of eczema
- Lower rates of childhood obesity
- Reduced risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)
- Reduced risk of leukemia
Breastfeeding Benefits for Mom
The infant isn’t the only one who benefits from breastfeeding; there are numerous health benefits for the mother. These include:
- Decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer
- Decreased risk of perinatal mood disorders, including depression
- Decreased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity
Plus, breastfeeding is cost-effective and good for the environment!
Barriers to Breastfeeding
Most U.S. mothers begin breastfeeding, but many challenges make it difficult to maintain exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. And there are even more challenges to reaching the two-year mark. Barriers affect poor and minority women disproportionately.
Breastfeeding barriers may include:
- Pain and discomfort with initiating breastfeeding
- Perception of insufficient milk
- Lack of support from family and friends
- Financial pressure to return to work/lack of paid family leave
- Lack of support in the workplace despite laws protecting breastfeeding women
- Lack of access to lactation education and lactation consultants (IBCLCs)
With all these barriers, it’s no wonder that breastfeeding rates aren’t where public health experts would like them to be. Moreover, the pressure to breastfeed and be the perfect mom can leave women with guilt, shame, or depression around their experience. It’s okay if your breastfeeding journey doesn’t look like somebody else’s. Please be gentle with yourself. As parents, we are all doing our best.
Tips for Breastfeeding Success
Let’s dive into some practical ways to support yourself on your breastfeeding journey.
Get support. Breastfeeding may be uncomfortable, painful, or non-intuitive as you get started. But don’t let initial hiccups discourage you. You may need to advocate for yourself and seek support from a lactation consultant (IBCLC). You may also benefit from a lactation support group, another mom’s group, or a therapist as needed.
- Prioritize nutrition. Eat regular, balanced meals and snacks as needed. You may need more snacks than you think (even in the middle of the night). Let your hunger guide you, and choose hearty, nutrient-dense foods to sustain you.
In the early weeks of nursing and as you recover from delivery, hearty soups and stews are warming, nourishing, and easy to digest. You can even prepare them before the baby comes and freeze them for easy meals.
Foods that support milk production include:
- Quality meat and poultry
- Wild salmon and other low-mercury fish and seafood
- Bone broth and mineral broth
- Sweet potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, plantains, and other starchy veggies
- Beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and other root veggies
- Quinoa, oats, brown rice, and other whole grains
- Lentils and beans
- Leafy green and colorful vegetables
- Berries, apples, melon, and other fruit
- Coconut, olive oil, avocados, and other healthy fats
- Almonds, walnuts, cashews, and other nuts
- Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and other seeds
- Nettles, fennel seed, fenugreek, ginger, and other nourishing or galactagogue (milk-boosting) herbs
- Collagen protein, whey protein, and plant-based protein powders
Food preparation can be challenging, to say the least, with a newborn in your arms, so enlist help from your family, friends, postpartum doula, or other willing volunteer. Having nourishing food in arm’s reach is immensely helpful for breast milk production.
Hydrate. Water intake is essential for milk production, so ensure you drink enough. Water can include sparkling water, mother’s milk teas, and other lactation-safe herbal teas. In addition, you may benefit from electrolyte supplementation to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance. Twenty2 Nutrition Stimulant Free Electrolytes are safe for nursing moms.
- Keep taking your prenatal. A quality prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement is just as crucial after pregnancy as during pregnancy. It helps you meet your daily micronutrient needs to support lactation and heal from delivery. In addition to the Twenty2 Nutrition Prenatal, continue taking Omega 3 Fish Oil and Probiotic to support optimal nutrition for you and your baby.
You’ll have more safe supplement options while breastfeeding compared to pregnancy and might benefit from gentle support for stress, sleep, or other postpartum concerns. Please discuss supplements with your healthcare provider or dietitian to make sure they are safe for you and your baby.
With so many benefits to breastfeeding for you and your baby, it’s worth the effort trying to make it work. Nourishing your body with real food, quality supplements, and hydration helps make the milk that nourishes and sustains your baby. And a supportive community makes it all possible.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant, take medication, or have a medical condition.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.