Postpartum Nutrition Challenges and Solutions
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
A lot of energy and attention goes into pregnancy, and rightfully so. There is a massive focus on prenatal nutrition, ensuring the mom has the building blocks for a healthy baby. Pregnancy can be a time of heightened motivation for healthy living: you eat your greens, take a quality prenatal, exercise, avoid toxins, and do everything within your control for a successful pregnancy.
With so much emphasis on pregnancy, you may overlook or not prepare for postpartum nutrition. Truthfully, meeting your nutrition needs is essential during the postpartum period. It’s a critical window to support the mother’s healing and rebuilding while promoting growth and health for the newborn.
In a previous article on prenatal nutrition, I covered crucial nutrition strategies, supplementation, and tips for optimizing nutrition during pregnancy. Today’s article will focus on post-pregnancy nutrition and how to support your best health as your little one grows.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Postpartum nutrition challenges
- Postpartum nutrition needs
- Postpartum nutrition and weight loss
- Postpartum supplements
- Tips for a healthy postpartum
Let’s dive into this incredibly important topic!
First, let’s define the postpartum period. Traditionally, postpartum is considered the first days and weeks after pregnancy through the first three months, considered the 4th trimester. However, the postpartum period can be a much longer transition for many women, years even, depending on recovery from labor, whether you breastfeed and how long, when your menstrual cycle returns, when your sleep improves, and many other factors.
I mention this because if you are a year or two out from giving birth (or more) and are still struggling to feel like yourself and nourish your (new) body, you are not alone, and this article is for you too.
Postpartum is a time of nutrient depletion. You used nutrient stores to grow your baby, lost blood during delivery, and have new wounds to repair. Plus, if you are nursing, your nutrition demands are at an all-time high for milk production. Some women desire and plan for another pregnancy during the postpartum time, which makes optimizing their nutrition status even more crucial.
While nutrition needs are super high, it can be hard to feed yourself properly for several reasons, including:
- Stress and adjustment from becoming a new parent or adding a child to your family
- Lack of sleep
- Limited energy, time, and free hands for preparing food
- Hormonal changes (a huge drop in estrogen and progesterone levels immediately after delivery)
- Physical recovery from childbirth
All of this makes eating nutritious food challenging during a time when doing so is necessary.
The good news is that once you give birth, many pregnancy complaints, such as food aversions, nausea, reflux, and pain, magically disappear. So, in some ways, eating becomes easier. In other ways, including those mentioned above, eating becomes more challenging.
For one, if you thought hunger was high during pregnancy, postpartum cravings and hunger can be off the charts, especially with breastfeeding. Hunger is helpful; it’s your sign to eat so you can heal and make milk.
As mentioned, nutrition demands are extremely high during this time, so it makes sense that you experience more hunger. You need both macronutrients and micronutrients to provide energy and nutrients to produce milk, facilitate healing, and rebuild nutrient stores.
Unfortunately, nutrient deficiencies are widespread during postpartum and lactation, and it can take some attention to replete nutrient status. Common deficiencies include:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
If you are wondering how many calories to eat postpartum, I first want to say it’s perfectly fine not to count calories and eat to hunger cues. If that resonates with you, please let go of the numbers.
For those who like numbers, use calorie counting to make sure you are getting enough, not to restrict food. Your personal calorie needs will depend on many factors, but most women will need at least 2000- 2200 calories daily while nursing. When your baby goes through growth spurts and is nursing more, you will need to consume more.
The best foods to eat for postpartum healing are warming, nutrient-dense foods. Build meals around:
- Protein - meat, fish, eggs, quality protein powder as needed
- Healthy fats – avocados, olive oil, coconut, nuts, seeds
- Vegetables – leafy greens, seaweed, carrots, beets, zucchini, cauliflower, etc.
- Fruit and starch - apples, bananas, peaches, beans, buckwheat, winter squash, potatoes, etc.
In addition to eating a variety of whole, unprocessed food in your diet, continuing to take your prenatal vitamin helps to fill in potential nutrition gaps.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the elephant in the room: weight. Our culture pressures women to “bounce back” to their pre-pregnancy bodies incredibly fast. We frequently see images of celebrities doing just that in a matter of weeks. Not only is this an unrealistic expectation, but it can be harmful to force weight loss during a time of such high nutrient needs.
I want to give you permission to slow down and focus on healing, nursing, and nourishment, without the pressure of weight loss. Give yourself at least six months to establish your milk supply and new routine, allowing your body to shift naturally during this time.
Of course, there are many different situations, and your healthcare provider could need to evaluate rapid weight loss or weight gain in the early postpartum. Support from a registered dietitian specializing in pregnancy and postpartum could also be highly supportive, so that you can dial in postpartum nutrition and exercise to your specific needs.
Are postnatal vitamins necessary? In my professional opinion, yes. Combine high nutrient needs with dwindling nutrients in the food supply and the many challenges to eating well during this time, and supplements are essential for filling in the gaps.
In addition to all the benefits for your baby, optimal nutrition supports your physical and mental health. For example, women with postpartum mood disorders, such as postpartum depression, tend to have lower vitamin B2, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, and other essential nutrients.
Supplementing with omega-3 fats during pregnancy and postpartum help decrease risks for postpartum mood disorders and can be combined with other treatment strategies. In addition, it provides ample DHA for your baby’s brain development.
Continue to take your prenatal vitamin and omega-3 supplement while nursing, between pregnancies, and for six months after weaning your last baby. You may also need extra vitamin D, iron, or other nutrients based on individual needs.
Action Steps for a Healthy Postpartum
Nutrition is foundational, so figure out ways to eat balanced meals and always have healthy snacks on hand. Here are some tips for prioritizing nutrition and overall health postpartum:
- Put it in perspective – Your main job in the early postpartum days is to rest, heal, eat, and nurse. Let other things go as much as possible.
- Get help with food – Eating home-prepared meals is associated with better nutrition. Luckily, we live in a time when many services can make shopping, cooking, and eating nutritious food easier. Some ideas include:
- Utilize online grocery shopping and delivery
- Enlist family and friends to help with cooking and providing nutritious meals
- Try a local meal delivery service or personal chef
- Hire a postpartum doula to help with food preparation, childcare, cleaning, or whatever serves you best
- Rely on simple, easy-to-prepare meals using quality ingredients
- Connect with other moms, batch-cook large meals, and trade
- Batch-cook and freeze meals like soups, stews, casseroles, muffins, and lactation cookies during pregnancy
- Seek postpartum healthcare – So often, new moms go to their 6-week postpartum visit but don’t have additional postpartum care during this vulnerable time. You may need extra support for mental health, nutrition, hormone imbalances, and other concerns, so please seek care if you have questions, challenges, or need support.
- Continue taking supplements – Postpartum is the time for more nutrition, not less. Let Twenty2 Nutrition Prenatal, Twenty2 Nutrition Omega-3 Fish Oil, and other personalized supplements be your postpartum nutrition insurance policy.
- Trust your body – Your body knows how to care for you postpartum. As much as you can, trust the wisdom of your body while providing healing conditions, including eating well.
It’s easy to wish for a magic pill or crash diet that will make postpartum easier, but the recovery and shifts may be slower and more gradual. It doesn’t require a fancy program, just some dedication to eating real food. Focus on nourishing your body so you can nourish your baby and enjoy this precious life phase.
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.