Written by: Lauren Morgan Walsh
Masters Degree in Dietetics (2020)
Postgraduate Diploma in Dietetics (2018)
Bachelor of Science in Dietetics (2017)
The first 1000 days of a child’s life (from conception to 2 years of age) is the most critical period to ensure adequate nutrition and growth, which has direct links to disease and mortality later in a child’s life. Breastfeeding is nature’s best way to ensure infant and child health and survival during this critical period.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that infants “initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life – meaning no other foods or liquids are to be given, including water. Infants should be breastfed on demand (day and night). No bottles, teats or pacifiers should be used. From the age of 6 months, children should begin eating safe and adequate complementary foods while continuing to breastfeed for up to 2 years and beyond”.
There are countless benefits of breastfeeding for both mum and baby. To mention a few for babies, breastmilk provides adequate energy and nutrition (both macro-and micronutrients) for growth, contains antibodies and pre-and probiotics which promotes immunity development, prevents allergy formation and strengthens the gut lining. Strengthening the gut lining and boosting immunity means less diarrhoea, tummy bugs, cavities respiratory illnesses, meningitis and reduced hospitalisation. For mum, it promotes faster weight loss after birth, stimulates the uterus to contract back to its normal size, results in less bleeding and fewer UTIs, and can reduce the risk of postpartum depression, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and breast and ovarian cancer. There is no better feeling in the world than a mum bonding with her baby – through skin to skin and breastfeeding. Let the oxytocin and prolactin roll! Also, we cannot forget that breastfeeding is clean, safe, requires no preparation and is free.
However, it is completely normal for mums to feel overwhelmed and drained while breastfeeding. This is definitely due to all the changes that take place after having a baby, but also because breastfeeding burns about 300 – 500 extra calories a day to build and maintain a milk supply. With this in mind, maternal nutrition is just as important as infant nutrition.
Healthy mum = healthy baby.
Generally, mums do not need to limit or avoid any specific foods while breastfeeding, but should rather focus on eating a healthy and diverse diet and focusing on holistic health, while avoiding smoking and alcohol. It is always best to chat to a healthcare professional (HCP) first, especially if mum is worried about certain foods such as fish (high in mercury) or caffeine, an allergy, or if she has special dietary requirements as seen in veganism. The need for taking a multivitamin relies on just that, hence why an individualised approach should be taken with an HCP.
It’s always best to ditch the fads and myths and go back to the basics of a healthy and diverse diet that contains nutrients needed for healthy breastmilk composition. A healthy and diverse diet contains foods from all food groups, with a special emphasis on non-starchy vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates (whole grains), protein foods, dairy products and healthy fats. Examples of complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables with the skin on and minimally processed whole grains such as brown rice or wholewheat bread. Examples of protein foods include lean red meat, poultry (without skin), seafood, soya, split-peas, beans, lentils, and eggs. Examples of healthy fats include unsaturated vegetable oils such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. Foods and beverages high in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium should be avoided.
To help get in those extra calories, it is also a good idea for mum to consume an energy-dense snack (in addition to lots of water to aid milk flow and prevent constipation). Examples of an energy-dense snack include peanut butter and honey on wholewheat toast with fruit or a glass of milk, or a smoothie with dairy, oats, fruit, seeds and/or nuts.
If mum is not sure about anything, it is always best to reach out to an HCP. Some key takeaways from this post are:
- Breastfeeding is best for both mum and baby (physiologically and mentally).
- Focusing on maternal health and nutrition is just as important as infant nutrition.
- The female body is incredible as it can produce the perfect nutrition source for a baby, which also helps the baby’s immune system to develop.
- It is best to follow a healthy and diverse diet to ensure breastmilk contains all the nutrients the baby needs to grow.
- Mums should ensure they consume at least 1 energy-dense snack in addition to their 3 meals per day.
To make this information more practically sound at mealtimes, a portion plate guide can be used as seen on the MyPlate website (MyPlate | US Department of Agriculture) or mum can follow the South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines (see below) and Food Guide (see South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines 2012 | WesternCape On Wellness for more details).