My son came into the world after an emergency c-section at 34 weeks. Unfortunately, my breast milk didn’t show up with him—the stress hormones generated by his early arrival, and the major surgery, really set my lactation back. Still, I was determined to make enough milk for him, and I dedicated myself to nursing on demand and pumping around the clock.
I was following the eating advice I got from my OB-GYN on calories—she suggested that I eat an additional 400 calories a day to support breast milk production, and that recommendation still stands today. According to the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, someone who is lactating needs to consume around 330 to 500 more calories per day than they did before becoming pregnant. But where those calories come from is just as important as how many you’re eating. And that’s where I made a big mistake.
In those bleary-eyed, no-sleep newborn days, I was reaching for foods that didn’t require much effort—mostly packaged snacks and energy bars loaded with fast-burning carbs; and as it turns out, my nutrient balance was all wrong. Those simple carbohydrates were filling my stomach, but they weren’t doing my body or my breast milk any favors. (I was literally bloated, and my milk supply wasn’t enough to satiate my baby.) I wasn’t the first new parent to make that mistake, and I certainly won’t be the last. It’s estimated in the Dietary Guidelines that 51% of lactating persons are eating too much sugar, 77% are eating too much saturated fat, and 97% are eating too much salt.
After digging through dietary studies and nutrition research, I learned that what your body really needs to make ample milk and to heal postpartum is fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods and high-quality protein. Protein is the building block of muscle and other tissues within the body, and the protein you eat is directly linked to growth and repair. In fact, studies show increasing protein intake after injury (yes, birthing counts!) can improve healing and speed up recovery time.
Protein intake is also closely tied to the amount of milk your body is able to make—especially when your breastfeeding journey extends beyond sixteen weeks postpartum.
To make breast milk in the first year after giving birth, your body needs “at least 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight—that’s 74.8 grams a day for a 150-lb. woman,” says Tracy Morris, an accredited dietitian and nutrition lead at Fitbit. “And she needs even more if she’s exercising, too.” (Morris has a handy chart with the daily values for protein and other key nutrients on Fitbit’s blog.)
When it comes to protein, the source is also important. “Everyone thinks of meat, but nuts, beans, peas, and whole grains, are also excellent,” says Morris. “Pea protein is especially good when breastfeeding, as it’s not likely to cause digestion issues for baby the way dairy-derived proteins can.”
Once I figured out my daily protein target, I added more fish, eggs, and plant proteins to my meals, and I started making smoothies with whole fruits, leafy greens, and plant-based protein powder—instead of relying on those oh-so-easy-to-grab bars.
I’m happy to report that my breast milk supply quickly ramped up and, after weeks of topping him up with formula post nursing, I was able to exclusively breastfeed my son. Getting my protein right made such a big difference—breastfeeding became easier, my mood improved, and I even had the energy to start running again.
Kim Daly Farrell is a certified health coach, former magazine editor, fitness fan, and mom to Keane and Julia. She has worked for national media outlets, including Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and Shape; and health and fitness industry leaders, including MyFitnessPal and Fitbit.
Currently, she’s calling the shots as founder and CEO of Mama Love, a plant-based nutrition company for lactating women who want to maximize their fitness gains without sabotaging breast milk safety, health, or supply.