General Health

Essential Nutritional Needs During Breastfeeding

Motherhood is a wonderful life-changing event, which starts from conception and continues throughout life. A mother is destined to be reborn with her baby for the second time during the birth of her child. It brings several, physical, mental and emotional changes in a mother’s life. Breastfeeding or lactation is a remarkable process during which the maternal body produces a secretion that helps nourish and sustain the newborn efficiently.

Women’s body prepare for breastfeeding from conception. The mammary gland begins its maturation process with the development of the alveolar ductal system and the lacteal cells so that the breast is ready to produce milk upon delivery of the infant. The woman’s hormonal balance during pregnancy contributes to the preparation of the breast and promotes the accumulation of energy stores, but it suppresses the production of milk until the birth of the infant. Research supports that the nutritional health of the mother, preconception, during pregnancy and lactation induces long-term effects on the baby and her health.

Why breastfeeding is mandatory?

It is the best choice for the new mother and her baby. It builds a special lovely and strong bond between both of them. It is highly recommended to breastfeed the newborn exclusively for the first six months and to continue breastfeeding for up to two years of age or beyond with complementary feeding.

Benefits to the baby

  • Provides the ideal nutrition and immunity
  • Is easier to digest so not put much load on the digestive system
  • Offers protection against ear infections, atopic dermatitis, respiratory infections and gastrointestinal problems
  • Promotes ideal growth and development
  • Lowers the risk of diseases like asthma, obesity, heart diseases and diabetes throughout the life
  • Improves and maintains suitable cognitive and brain development
  • Also promotes a healthy diet in later childhood as it is a key factor in the development of flavour preferences

 Benefits to the mother

  • Helps build a unique adorable intimate attachment with the baby
  • Lowers the risk of breast, endometrial and ovarian cancer
  • Lessens postpartum blood loss
  • Helps prevent osteoporosis in later life
  • Prevents the hassles of formula feed preparation and the risk of infection
  • Decreases the risk of postpartum depression and helps lose weight in a healthy way

Why is a mother’s nutrition so important during breastfeeding?

Lactation is one of the most complex and nutritionally demanding phases of the woman’s life cycle. The breastfed infant is dependent on the mother for nutrition while they grow slowly and steadily per week. The infant’s muscle and nervous system development during this time, allowing the newborn to quickly develop motor skills. Cognitive development also happens simultaneously, the infant’s senses begin to mature and the brain develops to process the sensory inputs.

By 3 months, an infant may be able to lift their head, track objects, and control hands and feet. By 6 months, they develop colour vision, can sit without support, and it begins the first steps of language development. All of these developmental processes require resources in the form of nutrition. Nutrients play multiple roles like regulating the body system, offering structural components to the nerve cells and taking care of the biochemical pathways within the cell.

To support normal best health for the infant and the mother, it is important to understand how nutrient needs change during lactation and the detrimental consequences of inadequate intake. In addition, it is critical to be familiar with the typical dietary intakes of lactating mothers so that awareness can be created and interventions can be promoted at the appropriate times.

Almost all nutrient requirements increase during lactation compared to pregnancy. Inadequate intake of nutrients either affects an infant’s health directly or leads to complications in the mother’s life later.

Nutrient deficiencies that mostly affect infant health 

Breastmilk concentrations of some nutrients like vitamins A, C, and D, the B vitamins, iodine, and choline can be altered by changes in maternal intakes of nutrient stores.

With these nutrients, infants who are exclusively breastfed by mothers who have deficient intakes may be at risk of inadequacy. Milk is still produced when the mother is undernourished, but concentrations of certain nutrients may not be adequate or even sufficient for the proper development of the infant.

  • Inadequate intake of Vit D: Increases the risk of developing rickets
  • Deficient intakes of iodine: Lead to abnormal irreversible brain development
  • Low intake of Vit A: Lead to the development of subclinical vitamin A deficiency, which increases the risk for infection and xerophthalmia in more severe cases
  • Insufficient intake of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid): Hampers normal cognitive and brain development
  • Inappropriate intake of Lutein: Disturbed visual acuity and vision development

Nutrients affecting maternal health 

These are the nutrients, that have breastmilk concentrations which are not altered by the nutrition status of mothers. These are primarily the nutrients associated with infant growth such as calcium, zinc, phosphorous, protein, and calories. The mother’s body will ensure there is a sufficient concentration of these nutrients in the milk at the expense of depleting maternal stores.

Sometimes breastfeeding leaches required nutrients out of the mother’s nutritional store and silently brings several long-term nutritional deficiencies. As a result, inadequate intake of nutrients in this group will lead to health effects on the mother rather than the infant. Potential health effects would be anaemia for iron deficiency and a decrease in bone mineral density for calcium, increasing the future risk for osteoporosis and back pain.

Which are the important nutrients to be focused extra while breastfeeding?


  • It is essential for hormone production and a baby’s brain development
  • Good sources: seafood and Iodised salt

Vitamin D

  • It is needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles strong and healthy
  • Good sources: oily fish (e.g. sardines, herring, mackerel, tuna in oil), margarine and milk enriched with vitamin D, eggs and sunlight


  • Drinking extra water helps to replace the fluid used for breast milk. Drink an extra 1-2 cups of fluid every day.
  • Try to have a glass of water every time before breastfeeding

Healthy eating plan

  • Breakfast- 3 servings carbohydrates + 1 serving dairy + 1 serving fat
  • Mid-morning snack-1 serving carbohydrates + 1 and 1/2 servings vegetables + 1 serving fruit
  • Lunch- 2 servings carbohydrates + 1/2 servings proteins + 2 servings of vegetables
  • Evening snack- 1 serving carbohydrates + 1/2 serving protein + 1 serving fruit
  • Dinner- 1 serving carbohydrates + 1 and 1/2 servings proteins + 1 serving fat + 2 servings vegetables
  • Bedtime- 1 and 1/2 serving dairy

1 Serving

  1. Carbohydrates – 1 slice of whole wheat bread/ 2 medium size roti, 1/2 cooked rice/pasta/noodles, 1/2 cup porridge/ 1/4 cup muesli
  2. Proteins- 2 eggs/170 gm tofu/30 g nuts or seeds/100g fish fillet/80 g cooked chicken, 1 cup milk/ 2 slices of cheese/200g curd/1 cup custard
  3. Fats- 1 teaspoon oil/ 10 g butter/ 10 g margarine
  4. Vegetables- 1/2 cup cooked vegetables/ 1 cup raw salad, 1/2 cup corn or peas/1 medium tomato, 1/2 small potato
  5. Fruits- 1 medium-sized piece of fruit/ 1 cup grapes/berries/cherries, 1/2 cup fruit juice, 4 apricots

How a breastfeeding mother should Look after herself?

  • Eat a balanced diet including a variety of food from all the food groups
  • Try and establish a routine of eating regular meals and snacks at the same time
  • Drink plenty of water and healthy fluids
  • Have healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, reduced-fat yoghurt, wholegrain crackers
  • Limit the intake of high fat and high sugar foods such as chips, biscuits, chocolate and soft drinks
  • Take appropriate rest whenever possible and go for a 15-30 mins walk at least 4 times a week
  • In case of deficiency and food allergy consult the doctor and start supplementation
  • Do not panic and enjoy being a mother and practice destressing techniques like reading a book, listening to music, meditating and talking to loved ones
  • Limit consumption of coffee and restrict alcohol intake and smoking
  • Do not exclude any particular foods from the diet

How to Know if Baby is getting enough milk?

  • Showing steady normal progressive weight and height gain and adequate urination and bowel movement
  • Having appropriate sleep-wake cycle
  • Displays satisfaction and content after feedings

In case of discrepancy, consult the doctor


The normal physiological processes of the body are greatly changed during breastfeeding. It is normal that nutritional deficiencies appear at this time. Hence the diets of lactating women need special care attention.

Breastfeeding is a life-experienced skill which requires lots of calmness and practice. Initially, its learning stage can be frustrating, unbearable and uneasy. With passing time and the right support, it can be enjoyable and perfect. Every mother is exceptional because she has the miraculous power to nutrify her baby right after birth and all-round their life. A mother needs honest motivation to focus on building a healthy and love-filled lifelong bond with her baby. A specially designed diet is not required during breastfeeding but a balanced nutrient-appropriate lifestyle and a peaceful happy positive mindset are compulsory.


  2. Curr. Res. Nutr Food Sci Jour., Vol. 2(2), 56-72 (2014)
  4. Public Health Nutrition, 2019: 23(2), 286–294


Aparna Das Parmar

Aparna Parmar has over 8.5 years of rich experience in the field of nutrition and healthcare and is currently a corporate nutritionist.

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