Breastfeeding doesn’t work out for everyone, but if you can do it, there are some wonderful bonuses.
For the baby, breastfeeding provides food in its ideal form, just as nature intended, with all macro and micronutrients in perfect ratio to one another. Besides being filled with all of these nutrients, human breast milk also contains plant chemicals that boost health and protect your baby against disease, along with powerful gut-flora and immune boosting gifts from the mother’s body such as antibodies, cytokines, anti-microbials and oligosaccharides. Breast-fed babies are less likely to develop colds, ear infections, asthma, allergies and stomach upsets, and later in life, they are less likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or childhood leukaemia. It’s amazing to think that there is this incredible symbiotic relationships between the mother’s body and the child’s, with the composition of the mother’s breast milk adjusting itself constantly in response to the babies changing needs.
For the mother, breast-feeding helps with faster postpartum weight loss, and if you can do it for 6 months of longer, you are less likely to develop diabetes, breast cancer or ovarian cancer later in life.
Vegan mothers have the advantage of being less prone to a colicky baby due to the absence of cow’s breast milk in their diet, and their milk contains much less environmental contamination (from DDT, chlordane, heptachlor, and PCB’s) because of their plant-based diet. If you are breastfeeding and your baby is colicky, try reducing or avoiding the following foods: coffee, chocolate, onions and cruciferous vegetables (e.g. brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage).
If you aren’t able to breastfeed, it’s not a good idea to try making your own formula. While I agree that there is a lack of choice when it comes to vegan commercial infant formulas, using plain non-dairy milks and homemade formulas can lead to poor child development and failure to thrive. Commercial infant formulas might not contain everything real breast milk does, but the designers do their best to replicate breast milk, ensuring adequate amounts of B12 and vitamin D. Well-designed formulas include added DHA. Soy formulas are safe so long as your baby isn’t preterm or suffering from a congenital thyroid problem, but the vitamin D content is usually sourced from lanolin in sheep’s wool. Hopefully as demand increases, better options will become available to us, Consult with a vegan dietician or naturopath if you need support with this.
Drink plenty of fluids…. more than you normally would! Keeping a water bottle by your side throughout the day so you can monitor intake is a great idea. Water is the manna-of-the-Gods choice no 1, but smoothies, soups and nut/rice/soy milks are good too. Herbal teas are another great option but keep in mind they often have a slightly stronger medicinal action than that of day-to-day foods, so keep your intake diverse, rather than drinking many cups of the same tea day in and day out. Too much black tea, for example, will reduce your iron absorption from meals eaten at the same time, while too much caffeinated tea in general may unsettle the baby and affect their sleep. I’ll write another blog soon about the medicinal use of herbal teas during breastfeeding (e.g. to improve milk flow etc), and will add a link here when done.
Avoid (or at the very least reduce) your intake of alcohol (no more than 1-2 standard servings per week), soft-drinks, cordials and commercial fruit/vegetable juices that have had all the fibre stripped from them.
A breastfeeding mother’s need for iron drops dramatically during lactation, but it’s still important. Iron-rich foods the mother can consume include legumes (esp soy), amaranth, quinoa, oats, hemp seeds, ground flaxseeds, cashews, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, spinach, olives, dandelion greens, basil, avocado.
Premature babies may need an iron supplement and this should be medically supervised. Full-term breast-fed babies are usually fine, with the iron in a mother’s breast milk being easily absorbed. But a baby’s iron stores can run low at the age of 4-6 months up until iron-rich solid foods are introduced, especially if the mother is prone to iron-deficiency.
A breastfeeding mother needs plenty of zinc, more than she needs during pregnancy. Zinc rich foods include avocado, almonds, cashews, chia seeds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, legumes, amaranth, oats, wild rice, spelt.
Breastmilk is rich in calcium not only because the mother’s body enhances absorption but also because she can draw calcium from her own bones. High calcium intake via food and/or supplementation doesn’t seem to stop this bone loss from the mother but she can restore it all after weaning. Calcium requires during lactation are the same as they are for pregnancy.
Good calcium sources include kale, cooked spinach, parsley, dandelion greens, bok choy, basil, oranges, dried mango, dried figs, pink grapefruit, almonds, chia seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, soy milk, tempeh, tofu.
If you can’t get regular access to sunlight, you may need to give your baby his/her own vitamin D drops. The dosage would be 10mcg daily up until the age of 1 year, then 600mcg from this age onwards.
Good sources include carrots, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, soy milk, rockmelon, mangos, paw paw, nectarines, apricots, broccoli, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, prunes.
Good sources include guava, black currants, grapefruit, mango, kiwifruit, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, parsley, capsicum, radish, raw peas.
Obviously B12 is the most important B that we need to focus on. You need to be taking B12 supplementation in one of the following three forms:
*Take at least 25 mcg (and no more than 250mcg) daily OR
*Take between 1000 mcg 2-3 x weekly (no more than 2500 mcg twice weekly) OR
*Eat a B12 fortified food three times daily, with each serving containing at least 1.5 mcg. And to be on the safe side, take an occasional B12 supplement.
Vit B5 (pantothenic acid) is another of the B’s that need attention during lactation. Avocados, sweet potatoes, nutritional yeast and sunflower seeds are particularly good sources of this vitamin. Other good sources include nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains in general; broccoli, and mushrooms.
Your folate needs will drop a little compared to that needed in pregnancy, but your needs will still be greater than usual. Greens, beans and oranges are your best sources, closely followed by almonds, asparagus, avocados, nutritional yeast, quinoa, sunflower seeds, peas, lentils, soy, spinach, kiwifruit, cashews, beets.
Your Vit E needs are greater during lactation. Natural sources include nuts, seeds, avocados, broccoli, kiwifruit, leafy green vegetables and whole grains. When oils are refined (think of oils used in cooking), the heat in the refining process destroys vitamin E. Vitamin E might then be added back in artificially as a preservative, but are these synthetic forms really all that healthy for us? And are they vegan?
Omega 3 fatty acids
For a healthy balance of good fats in your body, include flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, while simultaneously reducing or avoiding trans-fatty acids, processed and deep fried foods, alcohol and smoking. Premature babies may need supplemental DHA. Micro-algae sourced DHA supplements have the benefit of not only being vegan, but also being safer compared to fish oil supplements due to a lack of environmental contaminants.