Congratulations, your baby is on his or her way or perhaps has already arrived! You have read tons of books and articles on how to prepare for birth and the first few weeks after you baby’s arrival, but have you also thought about your own recovery?
Nutrition plays a vital role and with the right knowledge and preparation you can feel confident that you are not only taking care of your newborn but also of your own health. As a Nutritional Therapist and first-time mum I’d like to share with you my five tip tops to help you recover after birth.
1. Fuel your tank!
Caring for a newborn requires energy! From breastfeeding to broken nights, your need to make energy is greater than ever and your body requires a constant supply throughout the day (and night). Our body is most happy with energy from carbohydrates – we break them down into simple sugars, then burn these to produce energy. It is best to choose wholegrains over refined carbohydrates as they will release the energy slower to avoid blood sugar spikes. When you add a source of protein, fibre or good fat with your carbs it will slow the release of sugar even further helping you to feel energised for longer. Fibre is not only essential to regulate energy release, but also to regulate digestive function. And if you are sore down below, you certainly do not want the discomfort of constipation to deal with too! Do note though that fibre does absorb water, so make sure you drink plenty of liquids (see tip 3).
If you have had a caesarean delivery it is important to feed your body well to help promote healing. You are better off with foods that are softer and easier to digest. Good snacks include:
o Full fat Greek yoghurt
o Smoothies made with fruit, nut butter, milk, and protein powder
o Sweet potatoes with grass-fed butter
o Overnight oats with nuts or seeds
o An egg scrambled with soft cooked veggies and cheese
o Soups or stews with slow-cooked meats and bone broth
As your bowels regulate and digestion normalises, you can slowly begin to transition to foods that are higher in fibre to help promote regularity. Vitamin A, C, E and zinc are particularly key to repairing damaged tissue, as are essential fats, so make sure you eat foods rich in these nutrients – fresh vegetables and fruit, fish, nuts and seeds are all good sources.
When you are breastfeeding, you need to increase your calorie consumption by approximately 200-500 calories per day – this number slightly differs depending on your ‘regular’ calorie intake and body composition. Breast milk is generally composed of 87% water, 3.8% fat, 1% protein, and 7% lactose. It is good to know for new mums that your body will always choose the health for your little one over your own health, so even if your daily nutrient intake does not meet recommended amounts, your milk will still provide sufficient nutrition for your baby. However, to help you cope with the fatigue, recovery and milk supply it is, of course, still important to eat a balance varied diet.
Soups, stews, smoothies are all great ways to get in loads of vegetables, protein and good fats and are quick and fairly easy to make. I have shared delicious postnatal smoothie and soup recipes at the end of this article.
Most importantly, listen to your body. If you feel hungry, eat. This is not the time to think about losing your pregnancy weight as dieting will have an impact on your milk supply, general mood, and recovery.
In the last trimester your baby will accumulate most of the iron that it needs, drawing on your iron stores in preparation for the birth where he or she will use the stored iron (ferritin) to build lean tissue for the first six months of life. You may also have lost blood during the birth process which will further deplete your own iron levels. Ensuring you have adequate iron levels in store will also help to prevent hair loss after birth – a common complaint most women suffer from after pregnancy.
During pregnancy you may already have been taking iron tablets or a multi vitamin with iron and you can safely continue with this after the birth, regardless of breastfeeding or not. A good post-natal supplement is the one from Cytoplan, which you can take during and after pregnancy. But do not rely only on supplements as you can replenish your levels greatly with foods.
My advice is to eat plenty of iron rich food each day and combine this with Vitamin C for better absorption. Below you will find some examples of iron rich foods. Remember that iron from meat is easier to absorb than iron from plants and pulses. The darker the meat the more iron it contains.
o Grass fed beef
o Dried apricots
o Nettle leaf tea
o Spinach – make sure you steam (or cook) the spinach rather than eating it raw as this improves iron absorption.
It is important to keep in mind that your body’s ability to utilise iron is dependant on your gut bacteria – healthy bacteria are promoted by fermented food or you can take a probiotic. Ensuring good healthy gut bacteria is even more important if you have had any medication or medical intervention during the birth process, such as epidural, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication or an anaesthetic. Some good pro-and prebiotic foods are apples (stewed), leeks, chives, berries, water kefir, live yoghurt, sauerkraut.
Drink, drink, drink, and no, not alcohol! Although one glass of champagne to celebrate your baby’s arrival won’t hurt, in general it is best to avoid alcohol or only enjoy in very limited amounts.
Water on the other hand needs to be consumed in large quantities. It is even more important to drink enough water after birth than during pregnancy, as you will lose a lot of fluids if you are breastfeeding. There are conflicting messages on whether dehydration may or may not influence your breast milk supply, but it will certainly affect how you feel — potentially leading to increased fatigue (when you are already sleep-deprived enough), increased hunger, headaches, or nausea.
You may also experience postpartum night sweats during the days and weeks after giving birth. Our bodies are trying to eliminate the extra fluid that helped support your body and baby during pregnancy. Therefore, it is even more important to ensure adequate hydration.
Try to drink at least two full glasses of water just when you wake up. It is still important to drink throughout the day, but this first push of hydration in the morning fully re-hydrates body tissues and joints after sleeping, regulates hunger, and boosts energy for the entire day.
Some other tips to keep up with your liquid intake:
o Install a water app on your phone that sends you reminders throughout the day.
o Herbal teas are other good ways to hydrate (and may also have a therapeutic effect – for example chamomile tea gives you a relaxing, calming feeling).
o Water-rich foods such as soups, stews, yoghurts and certain fruits and vegetables can help to top up daily water intakes but should not be your main focus for hydration.
4. Eat your hormones happy
The hormone rollercoaster will continue after birth and is in full swing! Everyone’s postpartum hormone timeline will vary and this is also influenced by whether you’re breastfeeding or not. Generally, between 3-6 months postpartum, your hormones begin to reset to pre-pregnancy levels.
Hormones are greatly influenced by diet, sleep patterns (or lack of sleep), and overall stress. Your cortisol levels will likely increase due to the many new stressors of having a young baby. And the lack of sleep contributes to decreased levels of melatonin. These postpartum hormone changes can sometimes have a negative impact on mood.
Healthy fats and essential fatty acids are crucial for stabilising hormones. Foods that provide healthy and essential fats include:
o extra virgin olive oil
o nuts and seeds
o grass-fed butter
o fatty fish
Be mindful that, if you are breastfeeding, you should avoid high-mercury seafood and fish like tuna, mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, or tilefish. Instead, opt for salmon, shrimp, cod, tilapia, trout, and halibut, among others.
Adequate intake of fatty acids can also be protective against postnatal depression. While postpartum depression and other maternal mental health disorders cannot necessarily be prevented, nutrition can certainly play an important role to minimise. Studies have found an association between lower vitamin D status and increased risk of depressive symptoms during and after pregnancy. Breastfeeding mothers also have increased Vitamin D needs in order to provide adequate vitamin D via her breast milk. Vitamin D is also essential to support calcium absorption in the body. Foods to eat include fortified dairy foods, egg yolks, fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), fortified orange juice, and supplementation.
5. Oral hygiene
Now you may wonder what does oral hygiene has to do with nutrition and your post-natal recovering? As a Natural Therapist I take a holistic approach to health and as such my recommendations are not limited to nutrition but will often include wellbeing and lifestyle as well. Oral hygiene is part of this, and the importance is often overlooked by most of us. I have had many women coming to my clinic who have suffered from bleeding and inflamed gums after pregnancy.
Let me explain the link. Due to hormonal changes during pregnancy your gums become more vulnerable to plaque, leading to inflammation (swollen or sore gums) and bleeding of the gums. This continues after birth and it is key that we take good care of our oral health during and after pregnancy. The mouth harbours over 700 different species of bacteria as well as being home to approximately two billion bacteria. When we swallow bacteria for example while eating, the bacteria end up in our gut where because of the stomach acid they will be killed. However, with gum disease the inflammation causes tiny leakages in your gums and the bacteria can travel to the rest of your body via the bloodstream where they can start an inflammation reaction. Growing research has shown that chronic inflammation of the gums can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease because of this inflammation cascade.
It is absolutely key that you look after your oral hygiene during and post pregnancy. While you may not feel there is any immediate benefit or effect related to your recovery, on the long term it can certainly cause some serious problems if we neglect the care for our teeth and gums.
So what can you do? Try to brush your teeth twice a day – I know this sounds very basic but believe me your newborn will ask for all your attention. Try to be efficient and multitask; while you are enjoying a warm shower, brush your teeth! Use Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) free toothpaste. SLS is a harsh foaming agent known to be destructive to the oral microbiome and the cells that line your mouth. Zendium is a good brand, plus they offer subscription boxes so you never run out of toothpaste. It’s the little things that make your new parent journey a tiny bit easier!
Clean between your teeth either with floss or interdental brushes. Nearly 30% of plaque and bacteria are found between the teeth. Scrape your tongue with a copper tongue scraper first thing in the morning (before you eat, drink, brush your teeth). What originally started as an Ayuverdic self-care ritual has now evolved into a scientifically accepted way of removing bacteria, food debris, fungi, toxins, and dead cells from the surface of the tongue. You can easily buy a tongue scraper online, just make sure it’s copper and not a plastic one.
How do I get prepared?
First of all, keep an open mind! Getting prepared with loads of homemade meals ready to chuck into your freezer should not add to your stress and or anxiety levels. My top tip here is get your partner involved. Discuss together what role he or she can play in providing nutritious meals during those first few weeks after birth and start cooking together if you are not already doing so. If you do have the energy and spare time to get all prepped up, here some tips:
o Make a big container of trail mix which will be great for snacking – Add things like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, cacao nibs, coconut pieces etc.
o Cook up various soups and freeze into single portions.
o Stock up the cupboard with rice cakes, oat cakes, nut and seed butters, quinoa, buckwheat & rice noodles, oats, tins of beans, lentils, chickpeas and even Whole Earth baked beans, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
o Stock up the freezer with frozen peas (for the super quick pea soup – recipe below), frozen berries (great for throwing into smoothies) and breads like rye/pumpernickel.
o Have easy things to grab in the fridge like carrot, celery, cucumber sticks with humus, pots of full fat yogurt and good quality cheese.
o Make sure you have a stock of good quality herbal teas like Fennel, Nettle, Rooibos
o Order groceries online and having them delivered
o Use a meal-kit service temporarily for easier postpartum meals. COOK offer new parents meal boxes, easy and delicious!
My final piece of advice is to be kind to yourself. Allow yourself some time to just enjoy the gift of being a new mom. Allow room for recovery. Move your body when it feels right. Rest when you need to. Take it slow and eat for recovering, hormone regulation, mental health, and sustained energy.
Post-natal smoothie – fatigue fighter:
o 2 carrots
o 2 slices of pineapple
o A couple of good handfuls of spinach
o 1 mango
o 1 avocado
o 1 banana
Blend all together and add coconut milk to slow down the release of sugars from the fruit to avoid blood sugar spike. Nuts and seeds are also a great source of fat to slow down the sugar release.
Easy Peasy Pea soup
o 1 large white onion
o 1 tbsp coconut oil
o 1kg bag of frozen peas
o Boiling water
o 4 tsp vegetable bouillon powder
o 1 spring of fresh garden mint
o Freshly ground black pepper
1. Finely dice the onion
2. Place the coconut oil in a very large saucepan over a medium heat.
3. Gentle sweat the onion in the oil for 3-5 minutes until it become soft and translucent.
4. Pour the whole bag of peas into the pan and add boiling water until the level is about 1-2cm above the original height of the peas.
5. Add the bouillon powder to the pan then cover and bring back to the boil.
6. Simmer the peas for about 5 minutes and then remove the pan from the heat.
7. Roughly rip the mint leaves and add to the soup.
8. Blend to an almost smooth consistency using a hand blender and season to taste with freshly ground black pepper.
Ultimate snack: homemade protein chocolates
o 300g 85% chocolate
o 4 scoops vanilla protein powder (optional)
o Handful ground macadamias or almonds
o Add any of the following to make your favourite flavour – cacao nibs, vanilla extract, mint extract, sea salt.
o Melt the chocolate and add 4 scoops vanilla protein powder (optional), handful ground macadamias or almonds (blitz them in a blender).
o Add your flavour (cacao nibs, vanilla extract, mint extract, sea salt)
o Pour into an ice cube tray and freeze, have a couple as a snack.