You probably heard it before; muttered at the doctor’s office, on the train, at a gathering of your girlfriends: “vegetarians (or vegans) can’t breastfeed.” For those of us on the other side of mom-dom, we here to say––that’s one big myth! So, let’s put it aside, where it belongs, and get to the real facts of vegan and vegetarian breastfeeding.
Does diet affect breast milk?
In short, yes, diet can affect breast milk. Some mothers notice certain foods they eat (popular “culprits” are said to be strawberries, e-numbers, etc.) give their babies a rash, or others believe some food groups (especially cabbages) cause gas. And it’s somewhat true, although not all babies are as sensitive as others and some mothers observe no such effect at all.
Note: if you notice your baby developing a reaction to any food group, best cut it out of your diet and note it down for your next pediatrician visit.
That said, current advice from the Mayo Clinic suggests that nursing moms should stay away from, or at least cut down on, caffeine, alcohol, and certain types of fish, especially those containing mercury, such as tuna, as these are transferred through the breastmilk to baby.
The same goes for a number of prescription medications, which is why it’s vital to consult your doctor if you fall ill before taking anything.
Can I breastfeed if I’m a vegan/vegetarian?
Let’s get straight to it––YES, of course! Vegan and vegetarian women can breastfeed and do so successfully all around the world.
If you’re a non-meat-eating mama, what you really want to know is “does vegetarian or vegan breastfeeding affect the quality of my milk?” And the answer is also a yes, but unless you yourself are severely malnourished this is unlikely to cause adverse effects on your baby.
No matter how long you’ve been meat-free, you’ve probably heard the usual “but, where do you get your protein?” comments, this comes from a place of misunderstanding, and as long as you eat a healthy diet you can expect to breastfeed with no nutritional issues.
For your body, that baby of yours is a priority, just like in pregnancy, meaning you will give all it has to sustain that little life, and that (unfortunately, for you) might mean taking vital nutrients you need for yourself, especially calcium, certain vitamins and minerals, leaving you a little worn out.
And this is why it’s vital you keep yourself nourished adequately. Your body needs its own essential vitamins and minerals to repair after birth, and be able to generate breastmilk for your baby, this is no easy feat.
Breastmilk contains all the essential nutrients––fats, carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals, and 20+ amino acids––that a baby needs to grow and thrive, most are naturally available from your body, no matter your diet. Others need a little boost, and that goes for whether you’re a vegetarian or not!
Keeping Mama healthy too
When we become mothers, very often our priority shifts entirely to the newest little one in your life and we tend to neglect ourselves, just a bit. But keeping mama healthy is the key to keeping baby healthy, which is why we’ve designed these top tips to help.
1. Maintain a healthy diet
The best vegetarian breastfeeding meal plan isn’t one where we impose a specific diet, it’s one where you mindfully take the nutrients you need to feel healthy and adequately nourish your baby.
Try to eat a varied diet with a focus of key nutrients and you will do just fine. Of course, however, the usual advice on junk food applies; it’s best avoided.
2. Get plenty of rest
When we get over tired, this has a negative effect on our body and can affect our hormone and stress levels––not good for you or baby. It can also make you more hungry and likely to reach for not so nice choices.
We know it’s hard right now to get a full night’s sleep, unless you’re one of the lucky ones, but try your best whenever you can to grab a little kip and boost your body.
3. Keep hydrated
Breastfeeding can really take it out of you, water that is. Probably you’ve noticed by now that you feel a little thirsty when you nurse, that’s because your body needs that extra fluid to ensure your milk flows well.
So, keep drinking that water and you’ll be just fine.
The best vegan or vegetarian breastfeeding diet
While we won’t give you a diet to follow to the letter, for breastfeeding mothers, it’s vital you ensure you have sufficient quantities of the following vitamins and minerals, whether from natural food sources or from supplements:
Usually found in meat products, B12 is an essential nutrient for the production of red blood cells. But it can also be found in nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, fortified non-dairy milk, (for vegetarians) in dairy products, and, for those lacto-ovos among us, in eggs. Giving you plenty of variety to get your daily dose.
As you are now officially a milk factory, it’s vital you get your own sufficient dose of calcium to keep your bones and teeth (and your baby’s) in top shape. For vegetarians the usual suspects of milk, cheese and other dairy may be top of the list, but vegans may need to seek other sources such as soy products, broccoli, kale, okra, and calcium-fortified juices.
Good old sunlight juice, perfect for helping you grow and vital in the absorption of other nutrients. But it those winter months, vitamin D can also be found in mushrooms, fortified non-dairy milks, tofu, and, of course, supplements.
Your omegas are tricky characters, for vegetarians and vegans, in order to get adequate doses in the right amount you may need to look supplements to balance your diet.
Essential in providing balance in your body and regulating your metabolism, iodine (commonly found in fish) may also be consumed from seaweed, and for vegetarians through dairy and eggs.
A key ingredient in blood production, iron keeps you strong and healthy; think of yourself as the iron woman. But to get a healthy dose you’ll need to consume generous proportions of legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and dark green vegetables. Which all sounds pretty tasty to us.
The final essential nutrient on our list, zinc works to build the body’s immune system and plays a key role in growth and repair, making it one essential ingredient after you have a baby. Add cereals, lentils, oatmeal, and yoghurt to your diet and ensure you get your daily amount.
Now that you know what to take, the question is how? But let’s get real here. Once you have your little one, time flies and there’s just never enough of it for yourself.
So, right now, you need to focus on getting the nutrients into your body any way you can and not worry too much about preparing 5-star meals.
If you don’t have time to follow a strict vegan breastfeeding plan, do whatever works for you to make sure your body is nourished right. Be it 3 am breastfeeding snacks or that 2 pm beans on toast combo to boost your protein levels.
What’s really important is keeping you and baby healthy.