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Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Pregnancy and early motherhood is a time of rapid change and growth, for both you and your baby. Like a construction worker building a house, your body is literally building a new life. More than any other choice you make, the food you eat impacts not only your health, but your baby's health. A high-quality diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding can minimize many of the discomforts commonly associated with this time. It also ensures the best possible health for your little one.

Calories

Forget the idea that you're eating for two. This old myth can lead to unhealthy weight gain, gestational diabetes, large babies and difficult deliveries. You don't need to double your calorie intake while you're pregnant or breastfeeding, and you shouldn't view pregnancy as a free card to eat anything you want. Instead, add one or two extra snacks to your daily meal plan to give you the extra nutrition your body and your baby need.

How many extra calories do you require? The number varies depending on several factors, including your weight prior to pregnancy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Very thin women may need more calories, while overweight women need fewer calories. In general, though, during the first trimester, you need no additional calories. Add about 340 additional calories every day during the second trimester and 450 calories during the third trimester. Avoid empty calories from donuts, soda, candy and chips, and eat nutrient-dense foods instead. Try low-sugar yogurt, cheese, fruit or a handful of almonds.

Protein

Your body needs plenty of protein to build tissue and muscle in your developing baby and to ensure an adequate supply of high-quality milk during breastfeeding. Every tissue in your baby's body -- including bones, muscles, skin, hair, blood, organs and connective tissues -- is made from protein. Protein even supports hormone production and sexual development.

Dr. Asela Catherine Russell, an OB/GYN and founder of the Center for Women's Health in Denver, says, "Protein intake is critically important in pregnancy and breastfeeding. We recommend at least 60 grams of protein intake a day. It's fine to get your protein from a variety of sources like Greek yogurt, beans and lean meats. But limit your fish intake to 12 ounces per week."

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Calcium

Both you and your baby need plenty of calcium every day. Calcium is necessary to build baby's bones and teeth. As a pregnant or breastfeeding mom, you need calcium to keep your own bones strong. Common pregnancy complaints like insomnia, irritability and leg cramps often signal a calcium deficiency.

If you don't like milk, or can't tolerate it, find a calcium-rich alternative, such as almond milk. Even if you like milk, it's a good idea to get calcium from a variety of sources. "A cup of milk only has 300 milligrams of calcium, and you need at leasing 1200 milligrams if you're pregnant or nursing," says Dr. Russell. "Good news, though, a cup of Greek yogurt has 300 milligrams of calcium and 13 to 15 grams of protein. Other good sources of calcium are broccoli, eggs and calcium-fortified soy milk."

Fruits and Veggies

Cheryl Heitkamp, a certified nurse-midwife from Shakopee, Minnesota, recommends five to ten whole fruits and vegetables daily. "They provide micronutrients necessary for a healthy pregnancy. They also prevent constipation and improve metabolism."

Opt for vegetables most of the time and go easy on the fruit, cautions Dr. Russell. "Fruit sugar -- fructose -- is quickly broken down to glucose and can trigger a blood-sugar surge, which may increase insulin levels leading to excess weight gain. Limit yourself to one or two fruit servings a day, and try to stick to low-sugar fruits like strawberries or blueberries."

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Hydration

During pregnancy and breastfeeding, your body's need for water increases. Your blood volume almost doubles, and your kidneys and liver are working overtime to eliminate extra waste. Your body needs extra water to produce breast milk. You may feel more thirsty than normal, but don't rely on your sense of thirst alone to gauge your need for water.

"The body often confuses hunger and thirst," says Dr. Russell. "Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily to keep well-hydrated." Skip soda and sugared drinks, which add empty calories and cause blood sugar to spike. Limit juice to about 4 ounces per day, and opt for plain water most of the time. Herbal teas like raspberry leaf or nettle are beneficial, but sweeten them sparingly.

Prenatal Vitamins

Even if you're eating an optimal diet, a prenatal supplement is usually a good idea. Some iron-containing prenatal vitamins can cause constipation or stomach upset. If yours doesn't agree with you, ask your doctor to recommend a reliable, gentle brand.

Prenatal vitamins are like an insurance policy. They fill in any gaps in your diet and can even prevent some birth defects, according to Dr. Russell. "Studies have shown a reduced rate of birth defects especially affecting brain, heart and spine development with folic acid (or folate) supplements. They're especially effective starting two to three months before you get pregnant. Other vitamins that are critical in pregnancy are Vitamin D, Vitamin B-6 and Vitamin A."

Choose a vitamin formulated specifically for pregnant women because some nutrients, such as vitamin A, can be harmful to your baby in large amounts.

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