As new mothers, often our attention shifts from caring for ourselves during pregnancy for optimal fetus growth to meeting the demands of a new baby. We’re sleep-deprived and overwhelmed as we adjust our lives during this postpartum period.
The honest fact is eating a healthy diet and meeting our own nutritional needs often falls to the bottom of the list. Our priorities are elsewhere, but to effectively recover from birth, to replenish nutrient stores, support your mental health and to optimally meet the needs of your new baby, postpartum nutrition is imperative otherwise you are at risk of postnatal depletion. And if your baby relies on breast milk, ensuring your diet includes all the important nutrients is vital.
Top postnatal nutrients to include in your diet
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in reducing inflammation – a hormonal defence response to injury or infection. Inflammation is a way the body signals to the immune system to heal and repair damaged cells and tissues as well as defend itself from unwanted foreign invaders. Acute inflammation can occur during birth, particularly in the event of a c-section or tearing. Healthy fats found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, nuts, chia seeds, olive oil and avocado, will help support the inflammation mechanism and the process of healing.
Omega 3 fatty acids are also indicated in general postpartum depression, with evidence suggesting adequate EPA & DHA levels help to reduce the symptoms. Furthermore, it’s a nutrient that’s vital for your baby’s brain development and breastmilk composition with studies linking high DHA to enhanced visual acuity maturation and cognitive function.
Water is an important nutrient that is often forgotten but is a key factor of postpartum nutrition. Keeping hydrated will help to restore the fluid lost during delivery and well as to help support the healing process. Water is particularly important to help improve bowel regularity, with constipation a common concern for many new mums, and the prevention of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs).
In addition to other important nutrients, lactation also increases the demand for water given breast milk is produced using maternal water stores. Increasing your water intake is particularly important to replenish the water lost in breast milk if you are a breastfeeding mother. Hydration is also particularly important in maintaining adequate energy levels during the sleep-deprived postpartum period.
Pregnancy and lactation increase the demand for vitamin D, so replenishing your body of this nutrient during the postpartum period is important. The vitamin D level in breastmilk is closely related to maternal vitamin D status, so preventing deficiency is prudent.
Cod liver oil, sardines, salmon, tuna and eggs are all good sources of Vitamin D, however, safe exposure to sunshine is optimal for vitamin D synthesis. If you are at high risk of a deficiency, a quality supplement is recommended.
Replenishing your iron stores is particularly important for new mothers for several reasons. Firstly, it is not uncommon for women to enter into a pregnancy with relatively low iron stores. These stores are further depleted during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. Birth can also result is some mild to significant blood loss and some new mums experience postpartum bleeding for up to a month after delivery.
Postpartum iron deficiency and postnatal anemia is surprisingly common and can increase the risk of postnatal depression as well as disrupt thyroid function. Iron stores can remain low for several months after delivery.
For many women, they will be able to replenish their lost iron through iron-rich foods such as leafy green veggies, pulses including lentils, and red meat. Pairing these foods with vitamin C-rich foods can also help to enhance the absorption of iron. However, if you have a deficiency, it is worth consulting a nutritionist for a quality iron supplement.
Zinc is another nutrient that often declines during pregnancy. As zinc is a cofactor to nearly 100 enzymes, modulates the immune response and promotes healing it’s essential to focus on increasing your intake of zinc-rich foods during the postpartum period.
Food sources of zinc include lean meat, eggs, lentils and split peas, oysters and cashew nuts.
The absorption of vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6 and B12 are all increased during pregnancy and while concentrations of these nutrients typically return to normal shortly after pregnancy, it is heavily dependant on eating a varied, healthy diet consisting of fortified whole grains and animal products.
Women consuming whole foods that aren’t fortified, are on a gluten feet diet or are vegan will typically be low in B12. This will also correlate with low concentrations of B vitamins in the breastmilk. If the variety of foods is lacking in your diet or you are vegan, it is important you are supplementing with a quality supplement to ensure you are meeting yours and your baby’s needs.
Recovering from pregnancy takes time
It’s worth remembering, recovering from pregnancy, both physically and mentally, takes time. You’ve been your baby’s sole nutrient source for 9 months and may be continuing to be if breastfeeding. Replenishing your nutrient stores is a process and may require a combination of diet and supplementation.
If you feel overwhelmed, don’t do it alone. Speak to your trusted health practitioner or book a consult to arrange a treatment plan designed to suit your individual nutrient needs and lifestyle.