4 ways to make your breast milk even healthier
Okay, it’s time for a not-so-humble brag: Moms are rock stars. We not only make tiny humans and give birth to them, we make liquid gold to feed them, too.
Breast milk is chock-full of nutrients, hormones and antibodies that support your baby’s growth and protect them from infections and illnesses. And breastfeeding can have lasting health benefits for both you and baby.
Still, it’s natural to have worries about the quality of your milk. “Is my milk good enough?” “Am I making enough milk?” “Should I supplement with formula?” It can be a lot to process on top of being sleep-deprived and covered in every fluid your newborn can possibly produce.
But here’s the good news: Your body naturally knows what your baby needs. “One of the beautiful things about breastfeeding is that the vast majority of women make milk that is perfect for their babies,” says Andrea Tran. She’s a Colorado-based nurse and international board-certified lactation consultant.
In fact, breast milk adjusts to the changing needs of your baby as they grow, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means it will have the right combination of nutrients for your little one.
You don’t have to follow a perfect diet for this to happen either. All you need to focus on is taking care of yourself. “Breastfeeding is a really well-designed system,” says Tran. “If you follow a well-balanced diet and live a healthy lifestyle, you don’t need to worry.” Having the right tools can make breastfeeding easier, too.
Here are a handful of research-backed ways to live that healthy lifestyle and get the most out of your breast milk so that both you and baby thrive.
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When you’ve been up since 2 a.m. and your nipples are sore, exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing. And that’s understandable. But you might want to consider bumping it up on the priority list.
A recent study led by researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center had 150 pregnant and postpartum women wear step trackers. They found that the women who had higher step counts had more of a compound called 3SL in their breast milk, compared with those who had lower step counts. It’s thought that 3SL may lower babies’ future risk of health problems such as heart disease and obesity.
The step trackers didn’t measure workout intensity. It was about the amount of pure movement. So think about what activities you enjoy and may be ready for. Some ideas for gentle movement include taking a walk around the block with your baby in a stroller. Or dancing to your favorite music with them in tow.
Skip the crash diets
There can be immense pressure to snap back to your pre-pregnancy body after giving birth. But don’t let that cause you to do anything rash.
“Avoiding rapid weight loss diets is important,” warns Tran. Your body needs calories to produce milk (400 to 500 calories a day if you’re exclusively breastfeeding). And eating fewer than 1,800 calories per day may reduce the amount of milk your body can make.
There’s also a chance that rapid weight loss could release not-so-great compounds into your breast milk, says Tran. For example, a study in Chemosphere found that the more weight women lost after giving birth, the more persistent organic pollutants (POPs) were in their breast milk. POPs such as DDT have been banned for their potential to harm human health.
Taking a slow approach to postpartum exercise and calorie cuts is the best way to keep you and your baby safe. And it will help keep your milk supply up, too. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends gradual weight loss of 1 pound per week, or 4 pounds per month.
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Frequent the seafood counter
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that breastfeeding moms eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood each week. That’s because fish and shellfish have healthy fats, called omega-3s, that are good for your growing baby.
“Breast milk contains omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for ensuring optimal fetal brain, eye, nervous system, immune function and cognitive development,” says Jennifer Ritchie. She’s an international board-certified lactation consultant and author of The Smart Parents Guide to Breastfeeding.
And when you eat sources of omega-3s such as fish and other seafood, you can change the amounts and kinds of fats your baby is getting. HHS says that some of the best choices are:
- Canned light tuna
You’ll just want to avoid seafood that’s high in mercury. That includes bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, shark and swordfish.
If you don’t eat fish, consider asking your doctor whether an omega-3 supplement would be right for you.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Breast milk is 90% water, says Ritchie. So if you’re breastfeeding, keep in mind that you’re also drinking water for 2. And that’s especially true if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. (After all, babies shouldn’t drink water for at least the first 6 months. It may affect the way nutrients are absorbed in their tiny bellies.)
There’s no specific volume that’s best to consume. We can get water from foods and beverages, so the amount you need will depend on your overall diet and exercise habits. Pay attention to your body’s cues. And honor your thirst.
When in doubt, HHS recommends having a glass of water every time you breastfeed.
Most new moms worry about every little thing, and breastfeeding tends to be near the top of the list. It’s important to remember that your body and your breast milk are uniquely designed to provide the best nutrition for your baby. As long as you try your best to lead a healthy lifestyle and eat a well-rounded diet, your milk will always be enough.
And in case you need to hear it: You can do this. You’re a rock star. And you are enough, just as you are.
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Breast milk facts: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Exercise and 3SL in breast milk: Nature Metabolism (2020). “Exercise-induced 3′-sialyllactose in breast milk is a critical mediator to improve metabolic health and cardiac function in mouse offspring”
Rapid weight loss releasing toxins into breast milk: Chemosphere (2016). “Environmental organic pollutants in human milk before and after weight loss”
Quick tips for eating healthily while breastfeeding: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services