Many different factors influence how a new mother feels and functions during the postnatal phase. Eating well is just one of them, but it is an important one as it supports recovery and immune system function, says Rebecca Stevens, ANutr. In her NHD Blog, Rebecca provides an overview of dietary considerations and practical advice to help new mothers eat well.
Eating well not only supports immune system function, but it has an impact on overall mood and wellbeing,1 and for mothers choosing to breastfeed, nutrition also supports milk production.1
However, my MSc research project, conducted at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and recently published in Nutrition Bulletin, found that women in this phase of life are not eating in accordance with the guidelines.2 Only 26.3% were meeting their five-a-day target and, while three quarters of women felt that eating healthily was important, only 28.5% felt that they were in fact doing so. Unsurprisingly, many women were also skipping meals, with lunch being the most frequently skipped, followed by breakfast and dinner.
Barriers to healthy eating were also explored and lack of time, feeling stressed and tiredness were identified as the most common. The impact of these barriers was greater for women with low combined household incomes and those having three or more children.2
WHAT IS A HEALTHY DIET FOR NEW MUMS?
A healthy diet for new mums is one that is similar to all adult females, but with some additional requirements for those breastfeeding, including the following:
- Increased calcium: An extra 550mg per day is required to support milk production and to replace any depletion in calcium stores as a result of the pregnancy.3 Include calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese, yoghurts and if the mother is plant-based, calcium-enriched options should be chosen.
- Increased zinc: An extra 6mg per day is required for those breastfeeding a baby under four months of age and an extra 2.5mg per day for babies over four months. Zinc plays a number of roles in the function of our immune system and is found in beef, shellfish, fish, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts and seeds.4
- Increased water/fluids: More fluids are needed, but the exact amount is difficult to quantify due to the amount of milk produced, how hot it is and levels of exercise. The European Food Safety Authority recommends around 10-12 glasses of water.5
- Increased energy: An extra 500 kcal per day is required, which should be achievable from a few healthy snacks or a small meal.6
- Omega-3s: Evidence suggests that a diet rich in omega-3s results in omega-3 rich breast milk, which is important as it supports brain development in babies.7 Sources of omega-3 include nuts,
seeds and oily fish, eg, salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO NEW MUMS?
In a phase of life where it can be information overload, particularly for first-time parents, simple and practical advice is warranted. New parents should be reminded about the importance of self-care and the role eating well plays in supporting them during a demanding phase of life. They need to try to consume enough food with a focus on healthy balanced meals, which can be very difficult with so much going on; plus, the added complication of sleep deprivation can impact on food choices.8
Some practical tips to offer new parents include:
- Stock up on the basics/essentials to make quick, easy and nutritious meals.
- Keep things simple – don’t aim for perfection in this phase of life; cutting corners is fine.
- If having more numerous smaller meals fits better with feeding baby, then that’s fine. If eating a healthy breakfast and dinner, no need to worry too much about what to have for lunch, as long something healthy is being eaten.
- Always travel with snacks and water to avoid getting overly hungry and thirsty.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family members or friends – people are always happy to help out new parents.
- In the first six months, eat for fuel and nourishment, not to lose weight. Returning to pre-pregnancy weight can be high on the priority list, but it is more important that new mums are receiving sufficient energy to get through the day.
Rebecca Stevens, MSc, ANutr
After spending 10+ years in the healthcare PR industry,
Rebecca gained her MSc in Human Nutrition from
St Mary’s University (Distinction). Her interests include
supporting women to eat healthily during pregnancy,
postnatal and beyond.
- van der Pligt P, Ball K, Crawford D et al (2016). Maternal dietary intake and physical activity habits during the postpartum period: associations with clinician advice in a sample of Australian first time mothers. BMC Pregnancy and Childcare, 16 (27). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-016-0812-4
- Stevens R, Kelaiditi E and Myrissa K (2021). Exploration of the dietary habits, lifestyle patterns and barriers to healthy eating in UK post-partum women. Nutrition Bulletin. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/nbu.12483
- Department of Health (1991). Report on Health and Social Subjects 41 Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom. London: DOH.
- Bonaventura P et al (2015). Zinc and its role in immunity and inflammation. Autoimmunity Reviews, 14(4)
- European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) (2010). Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for water. EFSA Journal 8(3): 1459
- Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2011). Dietary Reference Values for Energy. London:TSO. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/339317/SACN_Dietary_Reference_Values_for_Energy.pdf
- Innis SM (2007). Fatty acids and early human development. Early Hum Dev. 2007 Dec; 83(12): 761-6. Epub 2007 Oct 24
- St-Onge MP (2013). The Role of Sleep Duration in the Regulation of Energy Balance: Effects on Energy Intakes and Expenditure. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(1), 73-80. http://dx.doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.2348