Is breast best even when your own diet is crap?

A mother asks, “I am currently breastfeeding my 4th baby. She is 6 weeks. I have two toddlers also and I am so run off my feet I barely have time to eat. When I do, it’s what I can grab that is fast and easy so as you can imagine it’s pretty void of nutrients. I’m really struggling to get healthy meals in, I’m lacking motivation and time.

I saw an advert in Facebook going around in another country about breastfeeding and ‘your baby is what you eat’. 
With this in mind, would my baby be better off on formula since my diet is so bad?”

This is an example of a formula company undermining women who are breastfeeding. Before you get agitated or upset about formula versus breastfeeding, this isn’t about women who feed their babies formula. As an IBCLC Lactation consultant, my job is to help women breastfeed – the women who want to, the women who are facing huge challenges and women who may also be topping their babies up with formula. It’s also my role to accept and support each woman regardless of her feeding choices and to help her find a way that works for her and her baby and her unique family situation.

This is about a mother who is breastfeeding right now feeling anxious that she is depriving her baby of adequate nutrition so should she switch to formula. This is exactly what this advertising is aiming for. The campaign  is sponsored by Nestle, and based on research from Brazil showing that good maternal nutrition during a baby’s first 1000 days has a positive impact on infant health.

Of course we all want the best for our babies, and when we feel we are falling short in any way, we beat ourselves up. The womanly art of self-flagellation or ‘mother guilt’ is something that affects almost every mother at some point. And for overwhelmed, exhausted mothers with newborns, this is a peak period for confusion and self-doubt. Our hormones are in overdrive and this is exactly how nature has designed women’s brains: during the last trimester of pregnancy, you brew a veritable cocktail of chemicals that will help you bond with your newborn and protect your child from harm. By the time your baby is born, your pituitary , a pea sized gland at the base of your brain, is double its normal size.   This prepares you to release hormones of love and responsiveness, tender nurturing and pleasure and reward (so you feel good as you interact with your baby and you want to do more and more). Scientists call this the ‘chemistry of attachment’ and the state of mind that this creates in mothers has been labeled ‘the motherhood mindset’ or ‘maternal pre-occupation.’ It’s a ‘thing’ and it’s ‘the thing’ that makes women question everything they do for their baby.

So let’s bust a few myths about this advertising that is making women question whether they will be harming their babies if they happen to eat a burger or a donut or heaven forbid any junk food at all.

Yes, good nutrition will make some difference to the composition of your breastmilk– see more here.  However, if you are eating a less than optimal diet or if you have an occasion junk food binge, it’s not as though you are blending up donuts or hamburgers and feeding them to your baby. Besides, when you consider that infant formula is based on cows milk, does this mean that because cows eat grass or various commercial feeds,  if you feed formula your baby will be eating grass or grain pallets?

Regardless of your diet, your breast milk has immune factors and nutrients that are perfectly suited to your baby. These immune factors and their processes can’t be duplicated: for instance, if your baby comes in contact with a bug, the transfer of your baby’s saliva to your breast will trigger your body to make antibodies to the bugs and these immune factors will be present in your breast milk to boost your baby’s immunity and protect her from illness.

Unless you are severely malnourished, even if your diet is not optimal, your baby will still thrive on breast milk. However, if you don’t take care of yourself when you are doing such an awesome job nurturing little ones and making milk as you recover from pregnancy and birth, your own body stores of nutrients can become depleted.

The good news is that even when you are frantically busy with several children and a tiny baby, with a little bit of planning, you can feed yourself well. For inspiration, I asked the experts – real mothers – what are your quick ‘go to’ foods and snacks?

Here are some suggestions:

Fruit and nuts – these are pretty obvious but if you make up a feeding basket with some in, along with a water bottle, you can snack as you feed your baby, wherever you are – either inside or sitting outside watching toddlers play.

Smoothies – freeze ripe bananas, frozen berries, add milk (whatever ‘milk’ you like), throw in a handful of quick oats and some cinnamon and whizz up a smoothie. For extra nutrition you can add chia seeds, spirulina, flaxseeds or flaxseed oil.

Eggs – boil and peel several eggs and keep them in the fridge, you can eat them with one hand and the protein will boost your energy. Scrambled eggs are quick and a great food for toddlers and a quiche can be easy – no pastry, just throw veges, cheese and beaten eggs together in the oven. Bake then slice and eat. Make a big batch so you have enough for a couple of days.

Left overs – cook large dinner quantities and eat the left overs for lunch next day. Mix left over veges with canned tuna or salmon. Cook a leg of lamb or chicken so you have extra cold meat for lunches. Or simply buy a cooked chicken or two and eat cold meat or make a sandwich for a quick protein dense meal to boost and maintain your energy.

Muffins – freeze muffins, then grab and thaw when hunger strikes (here’s a simple recipe that can be adapted for families with allergies)

French toast – make up a whole loaf of french toast – dip slices of wholegrain bread in egg and milk mixture and fry lightly. Then freeze with baking paper between slices. When you are hungry, grab a slice and pop it in the toaster to thaw and heat. Serve with lemon and honey or maple syrup for a sustaining energy hit.

Soups –buy ready made soups or make a big batch of soup and freeze single portions in ziplock bags or small containers, ready to heat. Or heat in the morning and keep warm in a thermos flask so you can sip through the day.

Raw veges – chop up veges and store in containers ready to grab and eat with a nutritious dip such as hommous.

Canned salmon or tuna – pop it on crackers or toast or just scoff it straight from the can. Boost your Omega 3 fatty acids – low levels have been associated with depression.

Baked potatoes – make a stack and freeze, then microwave and add toppings ready to eat or, before freezing, scoop out and mash, then pop back in the skins, ready to grab and heat.

Make a slow cooker your new best friend – start dinner early in the day or even the night before and spend time when your partner is home (or get them to cook) and do some big batch cooking, freeze quantities so on bad days you just grab and heat a meal.

Brown rice – use a rice cooker so you don’t have to watch it cook, add left over veges, cheese, canned corn, cherry tomatoes, 4 bean mix, Greek yoghurt, tuna or salmon …. whatever you have handy.

Sandwiches – if you are feeding toddlers, you can make up lunch bags for everyone and/or freeze sandwiches. If this is your first baby, make lunches just for you – or, if your partner makes their own lunches, get them to pack one for you too. Try toasting them in the sandwich press for a hot lunch.

Toast – top whole grain toast with avocado, hommus, pate or nut spreads

Cereal – muesli or granola topped with yoghurt, add some flaxseed oil and fruit or just eat handfuls of granola dry as a quick snack.

Pasta – cook a big pot of pasta then store portions in the fridge in lidded containers. Make a quick topping with cherry tomatoes, cheese, canned fish, beans, avocado, basil … whatever you have handy.

Frozen meals – yes they cost a bit more than home made foods but you can find some reasonably good stuff in the freezer section of the supermarket – fish and veges in steamer bags are easy or, as one mum suggested, Jamie Oliver fish cakes and also check out the Annabel Karmel range of frozen baby and toddler food – her chicken and apple balls are yummy and can be eaten one handed.

Boobie Bikkies – for a treat that will boost your energy and support a healthy milk supply, you can keep a pack of Boobie Bikkies handy, they are individually wrapped so a great quick snack to carry in your bag. They are safe if your kids want to share too.

Reach out – ask for help.  Family and friends love to be involved with a baby and this is one way they can help you, by making a meal or preparing some snacks. Another great resource is Mamabake – they have big batch recipes and groups of mums with little in tow can meet up and do a big batch cookup together. Then you each take home several meals – social connection and food in your freezer, bonus!

1 Comment
  1. Charlotte says

    I try to keep my diet as best as I can for my breastfed 12 month old. Even though he’s only getting a couple of feeds a day I know it’s better if I keep healthy and I have more energy if I do. My favourite go to meal is. Steak or chops…fry them and then rest them and in the same pan chuck in a hunk of butter and a heap of mixed veg and fry them up. It’s super easy and quick and if your veg got cut up with one hand and looks odd and messy. Who cares? At least it’s good healthy food for your husband you and your children 🙂

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