We all know that eating well is a good thing. During the postpartum period, your body needs time and energy to heal. Nutrition helps in the healing process. And, if you’ve chosen to breastfeed, your diet also affects your baby.
OB-GYN Melissa Mathes, MD, says breastfeeding is a rewarding but sometimes difficult part of the postpartum period. “Breastfeeding alone requires 300 to 400 extra calories per day,” says Dr. Mathes. “That’s more calories than women need during pregnancy.”
A healthy postpartum diet includes lean protein, whole grains, low-mercury fish, and plenty of fruits, vegetables, and water. Find out why these vitamins and nutrients can help you and your baby feel better.
1. Your prenatal vitamin is also a postnatal vitamin
“After giving birth, keep taking your prenatal vitamin, which contains the extra vitamins you need,” says Dr. Mathes.
How long can you continue taking prenatal vitamins? “I would say to continue taking your prenatal vitamin at least while you are breastfeeding,” advises Dr. Mathes. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to keep taking it. If you want to get pregnant again, a prenatal vitamin is basically a good multivitamin for women of childbearing age.”
2. Make calcium part of your day
“In the United States, most women don’t get enough calcium,” says Dr. Mathes. “Calcium is important for your baby’s bone development during pregnancy and after delivery.”
For postpartum women, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium per day. Look for calcium citrate, rather than calcium carbonate, in vitamin ingredients, says Dr. Mathes. “Calcium citrate is more easily absorbed than calcium carbonate.”
3. Take a daily iron supplement
Anemia during pregnancy is common. Blood loss during childbirth further depletes hemoglobin levels, which can exacerbate an already existing anemia. Often anemia is the product of low iron levels. Take extra iron for six to eight weeks after giving birth to replenish your iron stores. Look for at least 27 mg of iron each day.
Hemoglobin helps your red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout your body. An important part of the hemoglobin molecule is iron. Without high iron stores or by consuming enough iron, you could develop iron deficiency anemia. If anemia is diagnosed, your doctor or midwife may prescribe an iron supplement to take daily. In severe cases, iron can be given intravenously. It takes several weeks, sometimes months, to build up iron stores in your body, so it’s important to take iron regularly as prescribed.
Most gummy and chewy vitamins do not contain iron (for safety). If you are taking a gummy or chewable prenatal, you will also need an iron supplement.
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4. Get enough fatty acids from seafood
“DHA is an essential fatty acid, which means we can’t make it ourselves,” says Dr. Mathes. “Research shows that infants have improved motor, cognitive and visual development if their mother consumes DHA. It is found in most prenatal vitamins.”
ACOG recommends that women eat at least two servings of fish or shellfish each week during breastfeeding. Fish and shellfish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development before and after meals.
Sources of omega-3 fatty acids in seafood:
- Anchovies and sardines (herring)
- Clams, mussels, scallops and oysters (molluscs)
- Crab, shrimp and lobster (shellfish)
There is, however, a caveat. Dr. Mathes says to avoid fish with lots of mercury, which can harm infant development. Fish with high mercury content are usually large fish, such as bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish and tilefish.
Drink plenty of water to speed recovery and produce enough milk. “If you’re dehydrated, your milk supply may decrease,” says Dr. Mathes. Breast milk is about 90% water.
Aim for 16 cups or 1,024 ounces of water each day. If that sounds like a lot of water, it is. One tip is to keep a bottle of water with you throughout the day. Another is to drink a glass of water before and after each meal.
Dark yellow urine usually signals dehydration, which means you need to increase your water intake.
6. Can certain vitamins prevent hair loss?
Hair loss after childbirth is common. “Research on vitamins that can prevent hair loss after childbirth is lacking,” says Dr. Mathes. “Although the products may claim to support hair growth, there are no randomized controlled trials to support their use. A prenatal vitamin is your best bet. Hair loss products are unlikely to be harmful, but can be very costly.”
For women concerned about hair loss, Dr. Mathes suggests being more gentle with their hair. “Avoid heat, styling, and things that will thin your hair or break it, whether you’re pregnant or not. For example, try using silk hair ties instead of rubber bands.”