Building Up Nutrient Stores for the Immediate Postpartum Time

by Kathryn Davis, BS, LMT, RYT

During pregnancy it’s important to eat well, get lots of sleep, and overall care well for yourself– even more so than during other times in your life. The immediate postpartum is an extension of that time and is as equally important. Giving yourself proper nutrition, enough rest and paying attention to how you are feeling will help you to stay energized and allow you to take the best care of yourself and your baby.

Like pregnancy, nursing and taking care of a newborn bring new challenges. It may be difficult to always prepare home cooked meals, or easy to allow taking care of yourself to fall second to the demands of your new baby. Taking care of yourself is essential to providing your newborn with the best possible care and will, in the long run, give you more energy and help you feel better while you are doing it. Proper nutrition is one of the keys to staying healthy and making sure you are providing your baby with the best possible start to life.

While nursing, you will still need to eat extra calories, protein, and nutrients–even more so than when you were pregnant– to keep up with the growing demands of your baby. Some recommendations suggest needing 500 calories above pregnancy requirements while nursing. The added calories help you to build nutritious breastmilk and an excellent supply while keeping you healthy and losing pregnancy weight at a safe rate. Your baby is living off of the nutritious foods and caloric intake you are consuming. So naturally, you will need more calories and higher quantities of some vitamins and minerals.

Many women are concerned with losing pregnancy weight. Breastfeeding burns calories, so even with the additional caloric intake, you will still lose weight. It’s important to remember that it’s not healthy for you to lose weight too quickly. Restricting your diet isn’t good for you and it will prevent you from providing your baby with the nutrition it needs to grow up healthy and strong. Weight loss after pregnancy should not exceed 2 to 4 pounds per month. Weight loss at more rapid rates can effect your milk supply. If weight loss starts to occur too rapidly, you can try adding in high calorie, nutritious snacks like nuts, cheese, or granola with fruit, and, yogurt. If you are concerned about your nutrition, keep a food diary for a few days and have your lactation consultant, midwife, or nutritionist look it over.

Iron is an important mineral to pay attention to throughout your pregnancy as well as postpartum. Building up proper iron stores and preventing iron deficiency and anemia before giving birth is ideal and will help to prevent the onset of these conditions postpartum.

Iron demands are especially high during this time making women especially vulnerable to iron deficiency and anemia. Anemia is a condition of too few red blood cells, or a lowered ability of the red blood cells to carry oxygen or iron. During pregnancy, the fetus is dependent on the mother’s blood. Anemia can cause poor fetal growth, preterm birth, and low birthweight.

Anemia is more common during pregnancy and postpartum than one might think. Recent estimates suggest that iron deficiency occurs in as many as 58% of young, healthy pregnant women. And, that as many as 33% of women are anemic during pregnancy.

Due to the high incidence of anemia during pregnancy, there is a high translation of anemia postpartum– blood loss during delivery and the immediate postpartum (the average blood loss with a vaginal birth is about 500 milliliters, and about 1,000 milliliters with a cesarean delivery) and keeping up with the demands of breastfeeding make it hard to catch back up on iron stores if you were already anemic during your pregnancy. Iron deficiency and anemia can affect your milk supply and the quality of the milk you are producing.

While there are many causes for anemia, the most common reason for lactating and pregnant women is iron deficiency- iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia in women of childbearing age worldwide. Adequate iron stores during pregnancy can help a woman replace lost red blood cells more quickly and prevent anemia.

Paying attention to what you are eating, what your body is craving, and how you are feeling can help you to maintain proper nutrition and avoid iron deficiency and anemia. The following are some general nutrition guidelines to help you make more informed decisions when it comes to what you are eating. If you have additional questions, be sure to ask a healthcare professional for additional information.

Eat 2-3 servings of protein and iron rich foods per day. A serving of meat equals 3oz– a portion about the size of a deck of cards. And a serving of a meat alternative like peanut butter or legumes equals about 2 T.

Good food sources of iron include the following:
meats – beef, pork, lamb, liver, and other organ meats
poultry – chicken, duck, turkey, liver (especially dark meat)
fish – shellfish, including clams, mussels, oysters, sardines, and anchovies
leafy greens-specifically of the cabbage family, such as broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and collards
legumes-such as lima beans and green peas; dry beans and peas, such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and canned baked beans
yeast-leavened whole-wheat bread and rolls
iron-enriched bread, pasta, rice, and cereals

While animal-derived proteins have the most bioavailable forms of protein and iron, you can get all the iron you need from non-animal sources. To increase absorption of iron, include a vitamin-C rich food or drink like an orange, parsley, or other 100% fruit juice while you are eating iron-rich foods. If you are eating leafy greens, you are eating an iron-rich food that is naturally combined with vitamin-C already! If you are primarily eating vegetable sources of proteins and iron, be sure to combine foods so you are eating complete proteins. Legumes and beans should be combined with a whole grain food such as long-grained brown rice, or whole-grain bread to make up for the missing proteins. Also, if you are primarily eating vegetarian sources of proteins, you may need to add an additional serving or two to receive all of the calories, protein, and absorbable iron your body needs.

If you still feel like you may not be getting enough iron, check with your healthcare provider. They can recommend a safe iron supplement for you to take. Working on building up your iron stores before baby is born will help keep you in the best health possible.

In addition to iron, here are some other key factors to consider when making choices about what you are eating:
Drink plenty of fluids – eight to ten glasses a day, or more! Water is the best option but low-fat milk and 100% juices are good choices as well. Increase your fluid intake during exercise and hot weather. It is a good idea to carry water with you so if you feel thirsty, you have something on hand. Proper hydration during pregnancy will help your skin to stay more elastic and stretch more gracefully. While you are nursing, staying hydrated will help your baby to stay hydrated as well!
Be careful of caffeine: Caffeine is a diuretic and will dehydrate you. It can also pass through your breastmilk to the baby. Newborns cannot completely break down caffeine, and some research suggests that they can become irritable with large amounts of caffeine. Caffeine has also been known to inhibit the letdown reflex.
Limit your alcohol consumption. Alcohol interferes with nutrient absorption and excessive alcohol intake has been shown to affect the let-down reflex. Excessive intake can cause poor growth and development in your newborn.
Omega 3 fatty acids are important during pregnancy and equally important postpartum. Good food sources of Omega 3s include: low-mercury fish, whole flax seed, flax oil, walnuts and walnut oil, wheat germ, oat germ, tofu and spinach. In addition, some eggs and pastas are fortified with Omega 3.
Eat from all the food groups! Remember– this is not a time to limit your food consumption. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetable, whole grains, proteins, and calcium rich foods.
High-calorie-nutrient-dense foods are great! Avocados, nuts, cheese, full fat dairy products, coconut milk and granola are all great options and foods you should indulge in frequently. This is not the time to binge on unhealthy, nutrient-deficient snacks and foods– it is still wise to eat sweets in moderation and watch your intake of low-nutrient snacks like potato chips.

This is a special time in your life, one that may only happen this once up to few times. Taking the time to cherish and nourish yourself through the healthy foods you are eating will help you create the best possible start to life for your developing child. Enjoy eating a wide variety of foods and take extra special care of yourself from the inside out!

For personalized nutritional consultations, private or group yoga classes, contact Kathryn at

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