Plant-based and breastfeeding. Here’s what you need to know about supplements for breastfeeding, the basics of breastfeeding nutrition, and things we wish we had known before our first breastfeeding journeys.
Being a new mother or mama-to-be comes with seemingly infinite questions.
If you follow a predominantly plant-based lifestyle, you may be wondering how to make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients critical for baby’s growth and development through pregnancy and beyond, using plant sources.
In this post, we’re covering the basics of what you need to know about supplements, nutrients, and expectations when plant-based and breastfeeding.
Supplements for Plant-Based Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
One of the most common questions we receive is: what supplements should you be taking to best support plant-based pregnancy and breastfeeding?
We recommend all new mamas continue to take their prenatal multivitamin. This will contain a variety of essential nutrients for pregnancy and beyond – such as folate, iron, zinc, selenium, and iodine – so we like to consider this somewhat of a nutritional insurance for the breastfeeding season of life.
For plant-based mamas, the daily amount of vitamin B12 should also be considered. Does your prenatal multivitamin contain enough B12?
While we know that some foods are fortified with vitamin B12, like some plant milks and nutritional yeast, these are not a reliable source and should not be the only place you get B12 (pregnant or not).
Due to changing daily intake of B12 and various fortification processes of these types of foods, the best source of vitamin B12 is a supplement.
Furthermore, studies have suggested that B12 needs are actually much higher than the RDA due to low absorption rates in the body. That’s why we recommend getting at least 150 mcg per day.
Note that vitamin B12 is a water soluble vitamin – meaning that your body doesn’t maintain stores of it and unused amounts are excreted. This also means toxicity, or overdose, of B12 is highly unlikely.
Plus, absorption rates of B12 actually decreased with larger doses taken. Therefore, it’s totally okay to take B12 in a higher amount. And if your prenatal vitamin doesn’t offer enough, we recommend that you also take another individual B12 supplement.
DHA – Docosahexaenoic Acid – is an omega 3 fatty acid especially important for fetal brain and retinol formation, as well as infant development. It’s typically found in seafood sources, like fish and algae (where fish get their DHA!).
You may have heard that another omega 3 fatty acid, ALA (Alpha-linolenic Acid), can be converted to DHA. This is true, but the conversion rate is low. Therefore, we recommend a totally separate source of DHA for pregnant and breastfeeding moms.
That being said, synthesized DHA doesn’t get transferred in utero or to baby via breast milk, and research shows vegan moms have lower levels of DHA in their breast milk.
Therefore we recommend that breastfeeding plant-based moms take a vegan algae source of DHA with at least 300 mg/day in addition to their prenatal.
Probiotics are suggested to benefit the gut microbiome, helping to balance the good, healthy bacteria in your digestive tract.
Probiotics may have a beneficial effect for new mom and baby that go beyond the gut.
In fact, some research indicates that taking a probiotic during this season may actually reduce instance of post-partum depression in mamas. Some strains of Lactobacillus may even reduce risk and incidence of mastitis.
While the research around probiotic benefits for pregnancy and breastfeeding is inconclusive, there are no stark downsides that make us advise against using them.
Rather, we think this is a personal choice if you want to add a probiotic to your supplement routine.
General Breastfeeding Nutrition Recommendations
We like to emphasize that an appropriately planned plant-based diet is safe and adequate for any stage of life, including for mom and baby while breastfeeding.
Nutrition recommendations for breastfeeding are very similar to that recommended for pregnancy. Generally, moms needs for calories, protein, and vitamin B12 are slightly higher while breastfeeding, while iron needs decrease slightly.
We recommend continuing your prenatal multivitamin while breastfeeding – as this will be your most reliable source of critical micronutrients – and regularly incorporating food sources of the nutrients below in your diet:
- Calcium: Good sources include fortified soymilk, bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, and calcium-set tofu. Other veggies like spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, and Swiss chard contain calcium, but they also contain compounds called oxalates which can inhibit calcium absorption. These can be boiled or steamed to potentially reduce oxalate content, but shouldn’t be relied upon as primary calcium sources.
- Folate: Folate is important during pregnancy to help prevent neural tube defects in babies, but needs also increase during breastfeeding. While most prenatal vitamins meet or exceed folate needs, other good whole food sources include legumes, leafy greens, asparagus, beets, oranges, bananas, and avocado.
- Iodine: Iodine-rich breast milk is important to support healthy thyroid hormone stores and neurological development of infants. The RDA for daily iodine intake is 290 mcg lactating mothers. Your prenatal vitamin should cover most of this. Other foods for mom that may contribute iodine to the diet include iodized salt, seaweed, and some fruits and veggies (though it’s impossible to determine how much you’ll get from these).
- Iron: Iron is used to make hemoglobin, a molecule in red blood cells that has a pretty important purpose: moving oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency during infancy can cause long-term health issues. While breast milk is very low in iron, babies are born with approximately a 4-6-month reserve of this vital nutrient. Depending on your baby’s individual needs, your pediatrician may recommend an iron supplement from 4-6 months until your baby begins to eat iron-rich solid foods. Good iron sources include beans, lentils, tofu, and peanut butter. Boost your plant-based iron absorption by eating lots of vitamin-C rich foods, like citrus fruits, bell peppers, broccoli, leafy greens, and berries.
- Choline: Choline supports liver and nervous system function, brain development, muscle movement, and metabolism. While some prenatal vitamins contain choline, some don’t. Good food sources of choline include tofu and other soy foods like edamame, tempeh, and organic soy milk. Because many women do not meet the daily requirement for choline, we recommend that plant-based breastfeeding moms supplement with about 225 mg of choline/day (half of the RDA) to ensure they’re covering needs.
- Healthy Fats: As mentioned in the supplements section, we suggest taking an algae-based DHA omega 3 supplement while nursing. However, other food sources of beneficial fats for mom include chia, flax, and hemp seeds, and walnuts.
- Vitamin D: Breast milk is typically low in vitamin D. While it’s a good idea for nursing moms to take a vitamin D supplement for their own health, it doesn’t transfer well through milk unless mom is taking upwards of 6,400 IU per day per one study. Thus, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that all breastfed babies take a 400 IU per day vitamin D supplement starting at birth.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A supports infant growth, development, immune function, normal vision, and reproductive health. Leafy greens and orange veggies are an excellent source of vitamin A. Some of these include sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, mango, kale, and spinach.
With the combination of a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet and adequate supplementation as discussed above, you can feel confident that you’re meeting your (and your babe’s) needs while breastfeeding. Check out our free supplement guide for more info and our favorite brands.
Note that if you’re at all concerned about your nutrient intake while breastfeeding, please consult with your dietitian or healthcare practitioner for individualized advice.
What We Wish We’d Known About Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is SO much more challenging than people think it’s going to be and moms greatly lack support – physically, emotionally, socially, and financially.
Major shout-out to all the mamas out there attempting to breastfeed for the first, third, or hundredth time.
As dietitians, we know that breast milk is the ideal, perfect first food for babies, possessing almost magical benefits in regards to nourishment, disease prevention, bonding, and immune system development.
If you can breastfeed, we highly encourage it. But we also know that not all women will be able to breastfeed – no matter how much they want to.
Some women are unable to produce enough milk and others encounter issues that jeopardize their ability right from the start: having to return to work right away, lack of social support from employers, lack of emotional support from family, or mechanical issues coupled with a lack of education.
Alex had chronic low supply from IGT issues and has had to supplement her supply since day 1 for both her kids.
Whitney breastfed her son until 16 months when he was no longer interested, but faced five bouts of mastitis, chronic plugged ducts, and multiple other feeding issues along the way that nearly ended the journey many times.
Oof. There is a much-needed honest conversation to be had around breastfeeding expectations.
Here are a few things we wish we had known before our first attempt at nursing our babes:
- It will probably be hard – like really, really hard
- It will likely hurt at first
- You WILL flash a person (or entire crowd) at some point
- At times, you will feel mentally and physically depleted
- It could take weeks of even months, but for most women, you will eventually find your groove and it will be SO worth it
- You may not be able to breastfeed, no matter how hard you try, and that’s okay too
If you’re anything like us, you probably have a few questions about being plant-based and breastfeeding. The first thing we want you to know is, you’ve got this! Remember that you can refer back to this post as a basic resource when questions about supplements for breastfeeding and breastfeeding nutrition arise.
Chime In: What are some things you wish you’d known about your first pregnancy/breastfeeding that you’d share with other mamas-to-be? Comment your mom-to-mom advice below!
If you liked this post, we think you’ll enjoy these too:
- Calcium in a Plant-Based Pregnancy
- When Your OB/GYN Questions Your Plant-Based Diet
- Meat Cravings During Pregnancy
- 5 Tips for Practicing Intuitive Eating During Pregnancy
For more evidence-based nutrition guidance, supplementation and breastfeeding tips, and plant-based recipes with mamas in mind, get your copy of our Predominantly Plant-Based Pregnancy Guide and the BONUS Feeding Your Baby Guide which covers all things breastfeeding and postpartum nutrition!