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Nutrition for Successful Breastfeeding

Image Credits: UNICEF India Stories

"Breastfeeding is a natural "safety net" against the worst effects of poverty. If the child survives the first month of life (the most dangerous period of childhood) then for the next four months or so, exclusive breastfeeding goes a long way toward canceling out the health difference between being born into poverty and being born into affluence." - James P. Grant

Maternal undernutrition does not affect the quality & quantity of breast milk significantly, as long as it’s not severe. However, it will deteriorate the mother’s health further.

But on the other hand, it must be understood that the undernutrition of the mother at any stage in the reproductive age affects the child as well as the health status of the mother. Maternal nutrition affects both fetal programming and genomic imprinting.

Fetal programming refers to the concept that the conditions and experiences a foetus is exposed to, during the initial stages of pregnancy, can have a lasting impact on the child's growth. This could occur during the initial stage of pregnancy when tissues and organs are created. Undernutrition, infection and stress of the mother during this period create long time/permanent effects on the infant’s life.

Genomic imprinting is a condition that refers to the expression of a specific gene inherited from only one parent i.e., either the mother or father, in the baby. This leads to several problems such as unusual growth and diseases throughout life.

This is why it is to be remembered that, “Mother and child dyad” is one unit.

In India, there are no cultural barriers that hinder or discourage the practice of breastfeeding and it is widely embraced. As per the National Health Family Survey-5 (NHFS-5) conducted between 2019-21, 63.7% of the infants are exclusively breastfed until 6 months.


Lactation is a normal physiological process of production and secretion of milk in mammary glands, enabled by hormone changes. During lactation, there are no specific food restrictions.

Latching refers to the mechanism by which newborns attach to the breast. Baby must latch properly, by taking the nipple and major parts of the areola in the mouth while the baby’s lips are curled outward without leaving any gap. A baby must be made to latch properly in order to maximize sucking and gain nutrition.

  • Proper latching takes some time for most newborns

  • Tickling the baby’s mouth with nipple is a good way to make the baby open its mouth

  • Proper latching makes the belly button of the baby less visible

  • Proper latching lets the mother move her hands and converse easily

Why the health mandates for women are high during breastfeeding?

  • The stored nutrition in the body could have depleted due to pregnancy or loss of blood during labour

  • They need to recover and feel strong and healthy

  • They have to produce breastmilk

At every postnatal visit, the diet of the mother should be discussed. The fat content of breast milk can vary, but the levels of carbohydrates, protein, iron, and calcium are generally unaffected by the mother's diet. However, a deficiency in vitamins A, B, D, and iodine can impact the composition of the mother's milk. Any cultural and social influences might be respected while dispelling myths.

All lactating mothers simply need to eat a good diet.

Key points to be known by all breastfeeding women:

  • Women should include a variety of foods

  • Drinking water should be as per thirst, excessive consumption is not required

  • Food should be consumed only when feeling hungry

  • Commonly extra consumption of 500 Calories/Day is recommended during the first 6 months

  • Calories stored in the body as fat during pregnancy, also help in lactation

By and large, breastfeeding mothers should include

  • At least 4 servings of milk, meat, legumes and pulses

  • 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables

  • Carbohydrates are seldom a concern, yet 4-6 servings should include some whole grains


  • The average requirement of Protein is 65 g/day in the first 6 months. After that, it is 62 g/day while breastfeeding

  • Adequate protein intake is important as it helps to support immune function, maintain muscle mass, and promote tissue repair

Sources of Protein:

  • Lean meat, Poultry, Dals, Legumes, Dairy etc.,are important sources of protein


  • Maternal undernutrition is associated with a lower volume of lipids in the milk

  • Adequate consumption of fats is about 20-35% of total calories

  • Fat plays a crucial role in the composition and quality of breast milk

Sources of fat:

  • Avocados, Cheese, Dark chocolate, Ghee, and Oil are important sources of good fats

Essential Nutrients:

  • 1.3g of Docosahexaenoic acid(DHA) is recommended for women every day

  • Omega 3 acid intake is important for the growth of the brain, ears and retina

Vitamins and minerals:

  • An increase in intake of Thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, cobalamine, vitamin A and Vitamin D is recommended during pregnancy

  • The deficiency of vitamins and minerals in the mother affects the composition of vitamins and minerals in breast milk

Vitamin A:

Vitamin A is a crucial and determinant factor of an infant’s health and photochemical reactions of the retina. Therefore, Vitamin A supplementation is essential for the mother to improve the health status of an infant. Maternal supplements enhance the quality of breast milk. In developing countries, women are recommended to take 2,00,000 IU of Vitamin A, as soon as possible, after delivery. Vitamin A is antioxidant and has anti-microbial properties.

Foods that are rich in Vitamin A:

  • carrots, pumpkins, dark orange vegetables, drumstick leaves/pod, papaya, mango, green leafy vegetables, milk/milk products, egg yolk and fish

Vitamin B:

Vitamin B supports the high energy demands of milk production and promotes the health and development of the infant.

Foods rich in Vitamin B:

  • Green leafy vegetables, milk, wholegrains, cashew nuts, almonds etc.,

  • The husk, or outer layer, of rice, contains a significant amount of Vitamin B1. Therefore, it is recommended to lightly wash rice before cooking to retain the valuable nutrients present in the husk

  • If the mother has a low amount of vitamin B12, then the child develops stunting, poor neurocognitive function, less ability to thrive and global development delays, which are irreversible. Fish, Meat, poultry and dairy products are some of the common vitamin B12-rich foods

  • As vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal-based foods, women who adhere to a strict vegan or vegetarian diet should consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement

Vitamin D:

It is essential for the formation of healthy bones and teeth.

  • Deficiency of Vitamin D is frequent in pregnant and lactating women

  • It is recommended that all infants receive a supplement of 400 IU/day of Vitamin D

  • They should expose themselves and their infants to sunlight(when safe and appropriate)

Food rich in Vitamin D:

  • Fatty fish, egg yolks, cheese, meat and fortified foods.


It plays a crucial role in the production of thyroid hormones, which are essential for proper growth and development of the infant's brain and nervous system.

  • The iodine requirement in lactating mothers is twice that of an adult woman because they are required to meet the iodine requirements of a baby to synthesise thyroid hormones

  • The iodine content in the milk depends on the mother’s diet

Foods rich in Iodine:

  • The Iodine requirement is fulfilled by including iodised salt, seafood, seaweed and dairy products


Iron is important in the production of hemoglobin.

Sources of Iron:

  • Iron supplementation is required to fulfil the iron loss due to loss of blood during delivery

  • After delivery, women don't menstruate for 6 months if they exclusively breastfeed, therefore there is no loss of iron through blood loss

  • Supplementation of 60 mg/day is recommended for 3 to 6 months, along with an iron-rich diet

  • Non-vegetarian foods, leafy vegetables, jaggery, black currant & dates are rich sources of iron

  • Cooking food using iron utensils, increases iron consumption in the body

  • Consumption of lemon(Vitamin C) increases the bioavailability of Iron


Calcium is important for maintaining a mother's own bone health, as lactation can lead to a temporary loss of bone density.

Sources of Calcium:

  • Mothers should consume calcium-rich foods such as dairy products, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, broccoli, canned fish, cabbage, tofu, sesame seeds, almonds and other dry fruits

  • If there is low calcium in the diet, a supplement of 600 mg is recommended

  • Calcium tablets should be taken separately from the iron tablets

Can a malnourished mother breastfeed?

  • Malnourishment affects the mother much more, as the baby can draw its needs from the mother

  • To avoid this, mothers need to be renourished with a proper diet

  • It is better to renourish breastfeeding mothers than to provide artificial milk

  • Though a mother who does not have sufficient nutrition in her diet can breastfeed a child successfully, good nutrition helps a mother maintain her health

Food restrictions while breastfeeding:

  • Mothers should be allowed to eat whatever they want during breastfeeding and it is important to eat a variety of foods

  • There are no food restrictions during breastfeeding as all foods can be included, from hot to cold

  • The flavour of the food and spices in the mother’s diet remains in breastmilk, which helps babies to pick up taste when they start to eat solid foods

  • There are rare chances for a baby to develop an allergy to a specific food from a mother’s diet. In the occurrence of such allergies, that specific food item should be avoided

  • Caffeine and alcohol consumption should be limited

Practices for effective management:

In Postnatal medical visits, thorough diet history should be analysed with open-ended questions. Counselling and sufficient education should be provided. That includes:

  • Assessing a lactating mother's cooking abilities and providing appropriate resources to improve her skills is recommended

  • The whole family should be involved in the process of providing her with a healthy diet

Crucial nutritional practices are

Intake of foods rich in Iron, Folate, Vitamin A, B, Calcium and Iodine
Intake of a variety of foods that includes protein, energy, vitamin and mineral
Clean, safe drinking water, personal and environmental hygiene

The nutritional content of a mother's breastmilk, including essential vitamins like Vitamin A, iodine, thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, and cobalamin, is influenced by the mother's health status and dietary intake. Hence, the nourishment a baby receives is largely dependent on the mother's intake.



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