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Post-partum nutrition: What to eat after your baby arrives

Most articles that appear in this nutrition column are designed to meet the interests and needs of the general public.

The topic for this month, however, is a little more specific: something for pregnant and post-partum mommas. Truth be told, I am the last of six of my friends who will be having babies this year! One by one, each momma has had her precious bundle and now I am the last in line.

While I wait another three months before our precious baby No. 2 arrives, I am acutely aware of the startling lack of nutrition guidance for my recently post-partum (post birth) friends.

Considering how important nutrition is during pregnancy, it actually receives very little attention during standard prenatal checkups. And of the little prenatal nutrition advice a woman receives, much is focused on what women should not eat while pregnant. Even worse, next to nothing is said about what a woman should eat after her baby is born.

Perhaps this information gap might be due to a false, modern understanding that once that baby is “out,” the difficult work of growing a baby is done for the mommy’s body. Another unfortunate notion is that a mother’s body doesn’t need much time or different nutrients to “bounce back.”

These ideas couldn’t be further from the truth. That is why the silence regarding post-partum nutrition is a gap we ought to close. Let’s close some of it now.

Post-partum or post-birth nutrition is JUST as essential as when the baby was developing in utero for several reasons.

First, if a mother chooses to nurse, the demands on her body increase even more than they did during pregnancy. That’s right! While in the last trimester of pregnancy a woman may only need up to 250-300 extra calories a day (a shockingly low number for growing an new little person), a nursing mother will likely expend an extra 500 calories a day.

This makes sense when you consider that the rate of growth a newborn experiences outside of the womb is actually greater than that of inside the womb. After all, a newborn can triple its body weight in the first year of life. This rapid growth requires an intense supply of nutrients from the mom, more when Baby is in her arms than when Baby was in her belly.

Post-partum nutrition is important also because of the need to recover from the birthing process. Regardless of whether a woman had a “natural” birth or a surgical one (c-section), certain nutrients are necessary for healing. There must be a recovery from blood loss, a relining of the uterus after the placenta detached and a shrinking of the uterus itself. This all requires nutrients.

Nutrition is also important if a woman is going to not just provide for her baby and recover from birth, but if she wants to thrive under the demands of an infant and growing family!
If her thyroid and adrenal glands, brain and muscles are to perform so she can sleep, handle stress, lose weight and lift a growing baby then she needs to be fueled – well.

Here are some of the top nutritional factors a post partum mom should be aware of as she recovers and fuels herself and baby:

Hydration: We all think we know this but do we, really? Staying properly hydrated post birth will help with many things: flushing out all those drugs (including those hard-to-detox pain killers a c-section mom has to take), healing muscles and tissues, establishment and maintenance of milk supply and regulation of appetite and improved weight loss.

Traditional cultures focused on warm beverages – soups and teas, especially. These are easy to digest and provide nutrients and anti-inflammatory compounds. Aim for 1 oounce of water per pound of bodyweight. For instance, a 150-pound mom would want to drink 150 ounces. Divide that by 8 ounces (one cup) and that makes for 18 cups of water.

Yes it’s a lot, but if you drink water every time you sit and nurse, you can do it! Specific beverages to limit or avoid include herbal teas that contain peppermint, spearmint and lemon balm. These suppress milk production.

Collagen-Building Foods: As the body shrinks back to size and incisions heal, the body needs some extra support from foods that repair. Real broths and soups made from bones are a great way to get extra support. Collagen protein powders can be a wonderful option as well. Add these powders to smoothies or coffee.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C is often touted as helpful for the immune system, but it also aids in the rebuilding tissue and connective tissue. This is a must in healing! In addition, vitamin C supports the adrenal glands and aids in the absorption of iron from plant foods (more on that in the next section).

Almost any fruit contains vitamin C, including citrus and pineapple, and berries. Vegetables do too, especially winter squash such as butternut, acorn, delicata, etc. You can also try baobab powder. This is a natural, superfruit powder that is extremely high in vitamin C. (It can cause loose stools in some nursing infants whose mothers take this, so be forewarned).

Iron-Rich Foods: While iron is especially needful during pregnancy, as the mother and baby’s blood supply increases, it is also important after birth. Not only will it replenish blood supply after blood loss during birth, but it can help with energy levels, post baby.

Foods that are higher in iron include lentils, spinach (as long as it is paired with vitamin C-rich foods), liver and animal meats. It is interesting to note that many traditional cultures saved meats for new moms during the immediate post-partum time. While 100-percent plant-based diets are really “in” right now, it might be worthy of a new mom’s consideriation to add some well-chosen animal meats to boost iron stores.

Cooked Veggies: Cooked veggies are easier to digest and absorb, plain and simple. While some nutrients are lost by cooking, others become more available. Make it easier for your body to get all it can from your food by eating most of your vegetables cooked in the weeks immediately post-partum.

Enough Calories, the Right Kind: Two extremes can occur post baby: overeating or undereating. Overeating is easy to do, especially in the first month when sleep deprivation and wild hormones are at their peak/climax. A post-partum mom understands hunger in a whole new way. It is hard not to stuff your face when you lack time, energy and feel like you’re “starving.” Eating too much (and too much processed junk) is a real problem for new moms.

The other extreme is undereating. Moms who want to cut the baby weight rapidly might be tempted to cut out carbs or reduce portion sizes. Immediately post partum is NOT the time for restriction or portion sizes or carbs. Remember, you actually may need 500 extra calories a day.

Restriction will likely result in a drop in milk supply, slower overall recovery and a moody mom whose thyroid and adrenal glands can’t keep up with the pace. You could be causing your body damage.

Instead of restriction or thoughtless bingeing, purpose to do a few things: Stay hydrated first, make half your plate cooked veggies, include protein or fat with all meals/snacks and eat healthy carbs (don’t avoid them but don’t make them your main portion).

Don’t get stuck on a calorie goal. Rather, think about quality and what will nourish and repair your body – a body that is extraordinary in all that it did in creating new life, and in nourishing it in the first year of life.

Never forget how amazing your mom body is!

Cathryn Arndt is a registered dietitian nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her husband and daughter. To learn more about Cathryn, and her nutrition counseling business, find her blog at thepantrylab.com. Also visit her at her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”