New moms, this one’s for you. Last week we covered the top 10 questions pregnant women have when it comes to nutrition. And this week we’ll tackle some more questions about nutrition—but this time we’re talking about women in the post-pregnancy period.
You’re probably experiencing a range of emotions and experiences, from elation to exhaustion, and from sleep-deprivation to sneaking sniffs of the sweet spot on your baby’s head. You may have some fears (especially if you’ve not done this whole mom thing before) and it’s possible you could have some postpartum depression (it affects 10-15% of moms!). We’re going to focus on some simple, but important, nutrition advice focused on two nutrients in particular—in an easily digestible fashion.
Question 1. Now that I’ve given birth, should I be changing my diet?
Hopefully you were eating healthy foods during your pregnancy, and if so, you’ll want to stick with that approach. If not, now’s a good time to start. While it’s true, you’re no longer eating for two, there are still (at least) two things to consider.
First, you’re going to want to keep your energy levels up—and no, that’s not the go-ahead to start up your four-morning-cup-of-coffee routine again. Caring for your infant is hard work. You’re going to want to eat foods that will not fog your brain or make you drowsy (trust us, you’ll be drowsy enough without an abundance of carbs and saturated fats to help!).
Think fruits and vegetables, beans, eggs, whole grains and proteins like lean meat and seafood low in methylmercury. Salmon is always a good choice; it’s low in mercury and packed with omega-3 EPA and DHA. (And if you’re wondering if you need omega-3 after pregnancy—the answer is YES!) You’re also going to need iron and fiber (you want your body moving in more ways than one) and calcium.
And here’s the second thing to consider. If you’re breastfeeding, you kind of are eating for two. You’re sharing your nutrients with your baby to help her or him grow. Look for nutrient-rich food choices to give you the energy and the nutrition you need to produce milk.
While we’re on the topic of breast milk, let’s talk specifically about docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that your doctor likely suggested you take during your pregnancy, possibly with your prenatal vitamins.
A mom’s intake of omega-3 DHA can affect a baby’s brain development up to the age of 2. Making sure your DHA levels stay optimal will ensure that your baby meets proper cognitive and behavioral milestones.
Here at OmegaQuant, we offer a simple, at-home, finger-prick test to determine your blood levels of DHA. It’s called the Mother’s Milk DHA Test. Once you get your results, you can enter your information in our free Mother’s Milk DHA Calculator, which serves as a guide to let you know how much additional DHA you’ll need to get in your diet, either through foods rich in omega-3s or through nutritional supplements to meet your target goal. We recommend you test your levels at one month postpartum and again in 2-4 weeks to see if changes to your diet are working to bring your levels closer to your target goal. To learn more, click here.
Question 2. How does getting enough DHA still protect the baby?
DHA was important for your baby during your pregnancy and it’s just as important now. DHA is the nutrient that is central to the brain’s growth, structure and development. Both the brain and the retina need DHA in order to properly form and function. DHA is pulled from the mother’s blood stores and placenta during pregnancy, and postpartum breastfeeding moms transfer DHA through their breast milk.
It’s considered such an important nutrient for babies that most infant formulas now contain DHA.
It’s also necessary in adults for normal brain function in adults—another reason to test your blood levels and be sure you’re consuming enough DHA.
Question 3. Do I still need to maintain the same levels of nutrient intake now that I’m not pregnant?
Yes, and in fact, your doctor may recommend that you continue with your prenatal vitamin or take a multivitamin with minerals for as long as you are breastfeeding. Experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest that your healthcare practitioner will likely recommend a daily vitamin B12 supplement. And, they advise, if you don’t eat enough fish, you should consider talking to your doctor (or other healthcare provider) about taking an omega-3 supplement.
There’s one other vitamin that the Mayo Clinic says you should consider, especially if you’re breastfeeding. It’s vitamin D-fortified foods like cow’s milk and some cereals. In an article on its website, the Mayo Clinic said if your sun exposure is limited, you might need vitamin D supplements.
Why do you need vitamin D after pregnancy? Your baby—like most adults—needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphorous. Vitamin D deficiencies can cause rickets, which while rare here in the U.S., can have devastating consequences from bone deformities to a failure to grow. Let your own doctor, as well as your baby’s pediatrician, know if you’re already giving your baby a vitamin D supplement.
Question 4. How do I know if I’m getting enough vitamin D for me and my baby?
This is a tricky one because while most experts agree that breastfeeding mothers and their babies need vitamin D, not everyone agrees on the dose. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), now known as The National Academy of Medicine, recommends 400 to 600 IU daily during lactation, yet this study advised historical data suggest that this level of maternal supplementation does nothing to increase the vitamin D content of her milk and/or support adequate nutritional vitamin D status in her nursing infant. Instead, those scientists conclude that “Maternal vitamin D supplementation with 6400 IU/day safely supplies breast milk with adequate vitamin D to satisfy her nursing infant’s requirement and offers an alternate strategy to direct infant supplementation.”
At OmegaQuant, we haven’t identified a specific blood level for this target demographic and highly recommend a discussion with your doctor. In the meantime, what we can tell you is that The National Academy of Medicine recommends an upper limit of 4,000 IU of Vitamin D per day. Vitamin D toxicity can occur with excessive supplementation and results in calcium levels becoming too high, but this is extremely rare.
A good starting place is to first determine how much vitamin D is in your blood. OmegaQuant offers an at-home, simple to use vitamin D test to measure the amount of this important nutrient.
The amount of vitamin D needed to raise your blood D level into the desirable range is different for everybody. Many factors—age, sex, weight, genetics, geographical location, skin pigmentation, medications, and other medical conditions—can all influence the body’s response to vitamin D. Still, we can provide an estimate, based on research, of how much vitamin D you may need to raise your level into the desirable range given your current vitamin D level.
Visit the Vitamin D Calculator on OmegaQuant.com for your personalized vitamin D recommendation. But please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, supplementation regimen, or unprotected sun exposure. If you increase your intake of vitamin D or sun exposure, your vitamin D level will begin to slowly go up within a few days but will continue to change for several months. We recommend that you re-measure your Vitamin D level every 3-4 months while adjusting your intake until you reach the desirable range. Once you reach the desirable range for vitamin D, we recommend that you re-test every 6 months and adjust your intake accordingly. Answers to commonly asked questions about your results can be found in our FAQ section.
Question 5. What if I’m not breastfeeding? How can I ensure my baby will still get the nutrients he/she needs?
Not all women are able to breastfeed and not all women choose to breastfeed. And in some cases, it’s the baby who (not consciously of course) decides breastfeeding is not what she or he is interested in doing. The subject is personal and it’s complicated, but not breastfeeding doesn’t mean that your baby can’t be well-nourished.
Today’s infant formulas (also known as baby formulas, infant milk, and a few other terms) are manufactured and packed with the nutrients that will provide adequate nutrition for your baby in the first year of life. Commercial infant formulas are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are available in cow milk protein-based formulas, soy-based formulas and protein hydrolysate formulas.
In addition to the vitamins found in infant formulas, almost all now include DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid), synthesized versions of essential fatty acids naturally found in breast milk and known to be beneficial for a baby’s brain and eye development. Most commercial infant formulas sold in the U.S. also contain low iron or fortified iron. Your doctor or your baby’s doctor, should be able to help you decide, which is the best baby formula for your child—so don’t be afraid to ask.
Question 6. Will consuming fatty acids like omega-3 EPA and DHA interfere with my ability to lose the baby weight?
No. When you’re eating foods that are rich in omega-3 EPA and DHA, you’re eating polyunsaturated fats, also known as “the good fats.” It’s the trans fats you want to avoid and the saturated fats that you should eat sparingly.
The U.S. FDA recommends eating 8 to 12 ounces a week of a variety of seafood that’s low in methylmercury while pregnant or nursing a baby.
And while we understand you want to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight quickly, give yourself a break. The combination of healthy eating and regular exercise (when your doctor says you’re ready) is best in the long run. And you want to be around to see your baby grow into an adult, so the long run is what you’re aiming for.