4 Tips for Breastfeeding on a Plant-Based Diet
April 8, 2022
There are unique considerations when it comes to breastfeeding on a plant-based diet.
It is widely recognised amongst health professionals that human milk is the best source of nourishment available for infants born at term to healthy mothers.
If you are able to breastfeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that babies are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life. This can be continued until they are 1-2 years old or longer if you wish to alongside the introduction of solid foods.
However, in order to ensure your breastmilk is providing you and your baby with all the nourishment you both need to thrive, eating a well-balanced diet is especially important. Particularly if you are following a more restricted diet such as a plant-based diet.
How does nutrition affect breastmilk quality and supply on a plant-based diet?
Breastmilk is a rich source of all the energy (calories) and nutrients that your baby needs for healthy growth and development. Every woman’s breastmilk is unique and there are a variety of factors that can influence its nutritional makeup.
Some of these factors, such as genetics, age, and environment are largely out of our control. However, diet is one thing that we do have some control over.
A 2016 review on the impact of mothers’ diets on the nutritional quality of their breastmilk found that breastmilk content of some important nutrients such as omega-3s and vitamins A, C, B6 and B12 reflects mothers’ own dietary intake.
As producing breastmilk is an energy-demanding task, it is also important that you are consuming enough food and fluid to produce a good supply to meet your baby’s needs.
But can a plant-based diet meet your and your baby’s nutritional needs whilst breastfeeding?
In short, yes! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states:
“…appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation…”
Supporting this, a recent review into the effect of vegan/vegetarian diets on breastfeeding found that, “vegans are likely to produce as nutritionally valuable milk as omnivores”, provided that special attention is placed on ensuring a well-balanced diet with necessary supplementation. Additionally, “an appropriately planned plant-based diet (during breastfeeding) can contribute to sustainable growth of infants”.
That being said, your diet should be well planned as there are increased risks associated with breastfeeding on a plant-based diet. This includes the potential for inadequate calorie and/or nutrient intake.
To help give you peace of mind that both you and your baby are meeting all your nutritional needs to thrive, here are four tips for breastfeeding on a plant-based diet.
Tip 1: Make sure you are eating enough!
If you are feeling ravenous whilst breastfeeding, then you are not alone. Just as growing a baby requires higher energy (or calorie) intake, breastfeeding requires a significant amount of extra energy to make sure your body can keep up a steady supply.
This is about 500 extra calories (or 2000kJ) per day in the first 6 months post birth and 400 extra calories (or 1600kJ) for the second 6 months.
Similarly to pregnancy, your needs for vitamins and minerals are also increased whilst breastfeeding so it is recommended that most of these extra calories come from nutrient-rich foods such as a few extra serves of whole grains, nuts, seeds, and veg.
Although most new mothers do report feeling extra hungry whilst breastfeeding and have few issues increasing their food intake, factors such as fatigue, post-natal depression and the time demands of balancing motherhood can often impact appetite and/or the ability to sit down and eat a proper meal.
A few tips if you are struggling to eat enough include:
- Eat by the clock – setting up phone reminders to eat can be an effective strategy to help with this
- Keep nutrient-dense convenient snacks on hand such as trail mix, roasted chickpeas, fruit, crackers and hummus, bliss balls, or muesli/protein bars
- Pre-prepare some meals in bulk to freeze when you have time – asking your partner, friends or family members for a hand (if you can) can also be a big help
Tip 2: Be mindful of the nutrients at risk
You can get all your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet, however, there are a few nutrients that require a bit more planning when eliminating animal products.
Requirements: 1.2g protein per kg body weight (per day).
Protein requirements for mothers on a vegan or vegetarian diet are increased by 10%.
Importance: Provides building blocks for all the muscles, organs, hormones and other cells in the body. During lactation, protein needs are slightly higher to support milk production and ensure an adequate supply of protein to your baby without compromising your own needs.
Sources: Tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), beans and legumes and mock meat products such as seitan. Nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast and protein-rich whole grains such as quinoa can also help to boost your protein intake. Protein powder can be a helpful addition if you are struggling to meet your protein requirements.
NOTE: although often used as meat alternatives, mushrooms and jackfruit are not good sources of protein!
See our guide to getting enough protein on a plant-based diet here.
Requirements: 2.8ug per day.
Importance: Critical role during infancy for neurological development and nervous system functioning.
Sources: Unfortunately, there are NO reliable plant-based sources of vitamin B12. Whilst there are some plant-based products fortified with B12, these cannot be relied on. Mushrooms, tempeh, miso and sea vegetables can also provide some vitamin B12 but there is no evidence that these are good or reliable sources. Because of this, B12 supplementation is essential for all people following a plant-based diet throughout all life stages.
Requirements: 1100ug per day.
Importance: Most children are born with low stores of vitamin A which means breastmilk serves as a rich source of the vitamin, especially in the first few weeks of life. Vitamin A is essential during early life to promote rapid growth and also plays an important role in immune support and fighting off infections. In fact, low vitamin A in infants has been associated with increased rates of infant mortality.
Sources: There are no direct sources of vitamin A in plant-based foods, however, vitamin A can be made by our bodies from beta carotene which is found in a variety of plant foods. These include orange and dark green fruits and vegetables such as carrot, sweet potato, rockmelon, apricot, spinach, broccoli, and kale.
Requirements: 270mg per day.
Importance: Iodine is an important component of our thyroid hormones which are necessary for supporting the growth and neurological development of your child.
Sources: This is another nutrient that can be tricky to obtain on a vegan diet. The two best sources currently available are iodised salt and iodine fortified bread (this extends to all commercial breads and bread-making flours in Australia except organic and gluten-free varieties). Supplementation is also strongly advised.
Note: We recommend avoiding excessive consumption of sea vegetables such as boiled seaweed and kelp products as they can contain very high levels of iodine which exceed safe levels of intake.
Requirements: 550mg per day.
Importance: Choline requirements are at their highest during lactation as breastmilk requires a high content of the nutrient. This is because choline is essential for infants to support brain development and cognition. Unfortunately, choline is another nutrient that can be tricky to get on a plant-based diet.
Sources: Small amounts of choline can be found in a variety of plant foods such as red kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, quinoa, soy milk, broccoli and shitake mushrooms. However, even our richest vegan choline foods still make it difficult to reach the required 550mg per day. Due to this a choline supplement is also often recommended alongside consuming a choline-rich diet.
Requirements: 1000mg per day.
Importance: Calcium plays an important role as a building block for the development of your baby’s bones and teeth and also has roles in maintaining a normal heart rhythm and muscle function. Although requirements do not increase during breastfeeding, getting enough calcium during this time is still very important as consuming too little can have negative and irreversible effects on your own bone health. This is especially important for vegans and anyone avoiding dairy, as traditionally, this is a major source of calcium in the diet.
Sources: Plant-based milks and dairy alternatives can be a great source of calcium as long as they have been adequately fortified. However, fortification is not mandatory so it is always best to check the label. Soy products (in particular calcium-set tofu), Asian greens and some nuts and seeds (particularly sesame seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and almonds) are also great sources.
Requirements: 250mg per day.
Importance: During lactation, omega-3 (more specifically DHA) is important both for the mother and her new baby. In mothers, DHA intake has been linked to lower rates of postpartum depression. For the developing child, DHA is necessary to support vision, brain development, memory function and immune support. Good DHA status during this time may even have long-term positive benefits on childhood learning and reduce the risk of developing atopic diseases such as eczema.
Sources: There are 3 types of omega-3s in the diet, EPA, DHA and ALA. EPA and DHA are found most abundantly in oily fish whereas plant-based foods contain omega-3 in the ALA form. The distinction between types of omega-3s is important as the body primarily uses omega-3s in the DHA. Whilst we can convert ALA to DHA in the body, the conversion rate is very inefficient and can be as low as 1-10%. Additionally, research has found that dietary ALA intake is unable to sufficiently increase DHA levels in breastmilk. Because of this, an algae-based omega-3 (DHA) supplement is also recommended alongside a diet rich in plant-based omega-3s. However, we also recommend adding in some omega-3 rich foods daily such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds and flaxseed oil, walnuts and LSA mix.
Tip 3: Drink enough fluids
Producing breastmilk uses a lot of fluid so it is important to keep up with your fluid intake whilst breastfeeding on a plant-based diet. It is recommended to aim for 2-2.5L of water per day however this amount will vary person to person depending on your activity level and climate. In general, water is the best option, however, fluids such as smoothies, fortified plant-based milks and soups can be helpful to provide a convenient source of some extra nourishment.
Tips to increase fluid intake:
- Put a big jug/bottle of water in places where you regularly spend time e.g. desk, car, bedside table
- Carry a bottle of water around with you
- Aim to have a large glass of water before/with every meal or snack
- Set regular reminder alarms in your phone until you get into the habit
- Try flavouring water with tea infusers, mint or fresh/frozen fruit or adding natural sparkling water to change it up
What about caffeine and alcohol?
Caffeine: Some caffeine does pass into your breastmilk, however, this is unlikely to cause harm in small amounts. As such, it is recommended to limit caffeine intake to less than 300mg per day. This is roughly 2-3 cups of coffee per day however, we recommend limiting it to 1-2 cups due to the variability of caffeine content in coffee.
Potential side effects that your baby may experience if you are consuming too much caffeine include increased irritability and fussiness as well as poor sleeping patterns. Common sources of caffeine to be mindful of include coffee, black teas, green tea and matcha, cola drinks, energy drinks, pre-workout, some other sports supplements and chocolate.
Alcohol: Guidelines recommend that the safest option is for breastfeeding mothers is to avoid alcohol completely. This is as alcohol passes quickly into your breast milk. However, we know it can be tough to turn down a drink after you have already been avoiding it for the past 9 months.
There are a few suggestions to allow you to enjoy a drink without worrying about harming your baby. On average, it takes roughly 2–3 hours for the body to clear alcohol from your breastmilk after 1 standard drink. However, this will vary depending on factors such as the type of alcohol consumed, your weight, and if you’ve had something to eat beforehand.
Tip 4: Supplement smart
As with pregnancy, a good supplement routine can help fill in any nutrient gaps to give you more peace of mind that you and your bub are getting everything you need. Alongside a nutrient-rich diet of course, as calorie and protein needs can’t be covered with a pill! It is commonly recommended that you continue supplementing with your prenatal whilst breastfeeding on a plant-based diet to help ensure all nutrients are accounted for.
Alongside a good prenatal, it is essential that ALL mothers following a plant-based diet supplement with B12 whilst breastfeeding even if blood tests show that maternal B12 stores are sufficient.This extends to all varieties of plant-based dietary patterns from strict vegan to more of a flexitarian approach. Although many prenatal multis will contain B12, it is still strongly advised that an additional B12 supplement is consumed as the amounts contained in a prenatal are unlikely to be sufficient.
The second nutrient that is essential for all plant-based mothers to supplement with is DHA. As mentioned previously, plant-based sources of omega-3s are not able to adequately raise DHA levels in the blood alone. As such, a supplement containing at least 250mg DHA per day is recommended. Plant-based DHA supplements will usually contain omega-3s in the form of algal oil.
Other supplements such as additional choline, iron, or vitamin D may also be required if indicated. As no mother’s nutrient needs are the same, it is strongly recommended that all supplement regimes are personally tailored to you with the help of a healthcare professional such as a dietitian.
This article was written by the PNW Clinic’s expert fertility and pregnancy dietitian Georgia D’Andrea.