How Much Protein Does a Breastfeeding Mom Need?

This is a guest post from Stephanie Canale, M.D., a family physician at UCLA and co-founder of Lactation Lab. Canale is a mom of two young kids and currently resides in Los Angeleswhere her practice focuses on young families.

As hungry breastfeeding moms know, nursing requires extra energy! What you may not know is how important it is to think about the types of food you’re consuming in order to make sure your baby is getting what they need from your milk. One of the critical components of breastmilk for young babies is protein.

Protein is important for immune and neurological function and are the building blocks for tissues, muscles and bones. It is important that when we’re talking about a mother’s recommended protein intake, we take into account a breastfeeding mother’s need for protein to recover from the physiological strain of pregnancy and childbirth. Both of those events can deplete your protein stores!

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Premature infants have the highest need for protein, but even for babies born at term, protein is an important component of what they need from breastmilk. As baby grows and begins to eat solid foods and get nutrients from sources other than breastmilk, the amount of protein in breastmilk begins to steadily decline. For example, a mother nursing a 28-week-old premature infant can have almost four times as much protein in her milk as a mother nursing a 2-year-old toddler. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes an online tool that includes breastfeeding in calculating recommended daily nutritional intake. For example, an active 30-year old mother who is 5’ 4” tall and weighs 100 lbs should consume 59 grams of protein per day during the first six months of breastfeeding, 13 grams more than if she were not breastfeeding, according to the USDA calculator.  

Ohio State University and the World Health Organization both recommend around 17 grams of extra protein per day during the first six months of breastfeeding. That’s not hard to get: one cup of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese easily nets you the extra protein.

There is some research in animals that shows that higher protein diets are related to increased milk volume. While this is hardly conclusive (and has not been studied in humans), if you’re worried about milk supply I recommend erring on the side of a little more protein as it may have some beneficial effect on milk volume and quality.

Consumer Reports says most adults should aim for a diet that includes a variety of protein sources, such as lean meat, seafood, eggs, yogurt, tofu, quinoa, nuts, and beans. I also suggest that breastfeeding mothers should avoid seafood and limit consumption of fish such as tuna and mackerel, as they can contain excessive amounts of mercury and other toxins. Breastfed babies are more vulnerable to the effects of heavy metals that can find their way into a mother’s milk. 

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