Nourishing Your Body During Postpartum Recovery
Becoming a Mother
The postpartum period is a pretty wild one that is filled with many emotional and physical changes that take place at the same time that a new mother is learning to deal with changes and adjustments that parenthood brings. It can often be filled with sleep deprivation, the most intense feelings of hunger (at least this was my experience!), night sweats, tender breasts, all coupled with the most wonderful feelings of joy and amazement whenever you gaze upon your precious newborn. The postpartum period begins after the delivery of a baby and ends when a mother’s body has nearly returned to its pre-pregnant state. Some resources mention that it lasts 6-8 weeks, however others (which I am more inclined to agree with) include the first three months of a baby’s life - a period that is also known as ‘the fourth trimester’.
Nutritional Considerations in the Postpartum Period
Pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum healing period, and lactation are all energy and nutrient-intensive processes that put huge demands on a woman’s body. During the postpartum period a mother needs to take care of herself through getting enough rest and good nutrition to help her rebuild her strength and replenish her body with what it needs to thrive. Nutrition is usually emphasised during pregnancy, which makes sense as it is often a time where mothers can be motivated to care for both her body and the new life growing inside of her. Nutrition during the postpartum recovery period, on the other hand, is not always emphasised as much. During the postpartum period, a woman’s body can often be depleted of many essential nutrients, and has increased energy and nutrient demands for healing and recovery after childbirth and to support breastfeeding. Not only that, but stressors associated with becoming a new parent, lack of sleep, and jumping back into excessive exercise too quickly after giving birth can all place additional demands on the body.
The postpartum recovery period is critical for replenishing nutrients that have been depleted during pregnancy and childbirth, but as any mamas out there know, this is easier said than done - eating enough food and attaining what might be considered an optimal diet is really difficult when you need to meet the demands of a newborn! When a mother doesn’t sufficient calories to support recovery and lactation and doesn’t replenish nutrient stores, she may end up feeling physically exhausted, run-down, unable to function optimally, and not able to recover as well or quickly as normal. For some, these things may even contribute to/trigger postpartum depression, and although a causal link between nutritional biomarkers and postnatal depression hasn’t been established, what we do know is that there may be an association between postpartum depression and lower levels of nutrients such as fatty acids, folate, vitamin D, B vitamins, and zinc.
Building Your Postpartum Nutrition Plan
Planning ahead, asking for help, and putting together a rough plan of how and what we were going to eat in the weeks following the birth of my little girl are some of the best things that I made sure to do before she arrived. Below I’ve included some ways in which you can put together your own postpartum nutrition plan of action - some tips are things that I made sure to do, and others have been sourced from other amazing mothers. Before we jump in, just a reminder that nutrition is just one small part of postpartum recovery and there are definitely other things that you can put in place to best support yourself (this article includes some other important things to consider during this period).
1. Organise a meal train
…or ask a good friend/family member to do this for you. When our little one was born, we were lucky enough to have a community of people around us to bring us cooked dinners throughout week 2 and 3 of being at home with our newborn. It is amazing how such a simple gesture of kindness from friends made such a difference in our lives because it meant that for two whole weeks, we didn’t need to think about what to eat when evenings rolled around. If you’re fairly busy or feeling overwhelmed towards the end of your pregnancy, consider delegating this task to a close friend or family member. Alternatively, if you’re feeling up to the task yourself, message or talk to some of your close friends and family members to ask if they’d be interested in helping out. Websites such as this, this, or this can be used to help with the logistics.
2. Dedicate some time to planning ahead before your baby arrives
Navigating life with a newborn whilst recovering from childbirth makes it a whole lot harder to find time for doing the grocery shopping and cooking. Apart from delegating meals through organising a meal train, other things that you can do to plan ahead include ordering groceries online and having them delivered to your house in the weeks after giving birth (often these services allow you to put together a list of favourites that are linked to your profile which can make having to do the actual shopping easier), using a meal-kit/meal delivery service for a period of time, and spending some time preparing some much-loved batch meals (soups, stews, and pasta bakes are all winners) and snacks in the weeks leading up to giving birth.
3. Find a good quality postpartum/breastfeeding supplement
Using a good quality multivitamin can help fill in the gaps and increase your nutrient intake during the postpartum period. It’s important to remember that supplements should be used to support a healthy diet, not in place of food. It’s worthwhile working alongside a registered nutrition professional or healthcare provider to determine which supplement(s) are most appropriate for you and your specific circumstances.
4. Eat enough!
Most experts will agree that new mothers should eat when they are hungry to replenish and fuel their bodies, but the reality is that mothers are often so busy and exhausted that food ends up at the bottom of their priority list. Your partner or family members can support you by making sure that there is food available for meals and as snacks for you to eat - they don’t need to force you to eat anything, but just gently reminding you every few hours to nibble on something if you’re hungry can make a big difference when food is the last thing on your mind. On another note, we know that there is a huge amount of pressure on new mums to have their bodies return to ‘normal’ after giving birth and so many will turn to dieting (food restriction) as a way of gaining control of this. The reality is, however, that dieting is connected with poor body image, increased mental health issues, eating disorders, is not beneficial for breastfeeding, and should definitely never be recommended for new mothers. Your body needs energy and nutrients to recover properly, so honour these needs by providing it with the nutrition that it requires.
5. Drink enough fluids
Consuming enough water is another important part of postpartum recovery, especially for the breastfeeding mamas out there who will often find that they become very thirsty when their newborn is nursing around the clock. I found that it helped to keep a few bottles of water placed around the house (for example next to your bed, beside the chair you sit on while breastfeeding, in the fridge) to remind you to drink water more often. Once again, you can ask your partner/family members who will be visiting to look out for and fill up any empty water bottles that they see around the house (this is another really easy way for them to support you).
6. Enlist the help of a postpartum doula
If this is something that you are able to afford and wish to spend money on, postpartum doulas can be hired to fill the gaps, take some pressure off of you and your partner, and provide you with the help you may need during this time. Postnatal doulas specialise in supporting families with a newborn through evidence-based information on things such as infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from birth, mother-baby bonding, infant soothing, and basic newborn care. Research shows that new parents and their babies have an easier time with this transition when a good support team is in place, and a postnatal doula can often form a vital role as part of this team (particularly if you live far away from family and close friends). You can read more about what a postnatal doula may be able to help you with here and here.
7. Seek help from a registered dietitian/nutritionist
If you don’t know where to start with nourishing your body after pregnancy and would like some guidance with how to optimise your nutrition in the postpartum period, why not seek out the guidance of a nutritional professional who specialises in supporting new mothers? It can be a bit overwhelming to plan well-balanced meals and snacks when you have 100000 other things on your mind leading up to giving birth and in the weeks and months following the birth of your baby. If it is something you are able to afford, having a few sessions with a nutrition professional who specialises in pregnancy and postpartum nutrition can take some of the pressure off of you and can help guide you in the right direction according to your unique needs and circumstances. There’s no point going it alone when there are amazing, qualified people who can support you.
8. Keep things simple
Keep meals and snacks simple during this period. Seriously, you don’t need to feel pressured to put together complex meals when the basics will suffice. Keep your kitchen well stocked with basic ingredients (such as these 12) that are nutrient-dense, and fairly versatile. If you need to prepare meals yourself (or your partner needs to do this for you), it’s perfectly fine to keep things simple by putting together a basic meal that includes some vegetables, grains (rice, quinoa, wholegrain pasta, freekeh, etc), protein (meat, poultry, beans, legumes etc.), and a source of fat (olive oil, cheese, nuts, olives etc.).