Hold the cake, we discover how a nutritous diet can help with everything from sleep deprivation to your baby’s brain development
As a new mother, Gwyneth Archer has first-hand understanding of the impact a newborn has on your health and eating habits. The My Baba contributor and former model has a BSc (Hons) degree in Nutritional Therapy from the University of Westminster and offers one-on-one consultations providing individual dietary and lifestyle advice. She also works with pregnant women and new mothers to help them achieve the healthiest and most enjoyable experience of motherhood possible. We couldn’t think of a better person to ask why nutrition is so important as a new mother and exactly how to combat sleep deprivation without relying on copious cups of coffee.
Why is it vital that you eat well after pregnancy?
It’s crucial you eat well as a new mother. Your body has been through an enormous amount and ensuring you’re eating healthily is an essential part of healing from the rigours of pregnancy and childbirth. On top of this your body is now also having to cope with the demands of a newborn, from milk production (if you’re breastfeeding) as well as dealing with reduced sleep. A well-balanced diet, sufficient in all the major nutrients will help your body to deal with this challenging time as best it can. Eating well can also help to boost your flagging energy levels and help to improve your mood. It is also a way of caring for yourself, something that can often be forgotten when all your attention is focused on your brand new bundle of joy.
What nutrients are particularly beneficial for new mothers?
All of them! On a basic level it’s essential you’re eating enough calories (see below for how many) and that meals contain a good mix of protein and complex carbohydrates with some healthy fats. In terms of specific nutrients, new mothers (especially those who are breastfeeding) should make sure they have enough iron (found in red meat and green vegetables such as spinach and beans). Your iron levels could become depleted due to postpartum bleeding and if you’re breastfeeding your body will prioritise giving enough iron to your baby through your milk, meaning many new mothers can become depleted which leaves you feeling tired and drained – even more than you already do!
Calcium is also crucial for your baby’s bone development, along with Omega 3 for brain development. Calcium can be found in dairy products, beans, dried figs, and almonds. Salmon is an amazing source of Omega 3, particularly the anti-inflammatory DHA, which can also help your body to heal, as well as help to prevent postpartum depression. However, if you’re breastfeeding it’s recommended you limit your intake to one or two portions a week and try to stick to wild salmon as opposed to farmed, owing to the mercury levels found in some fish.
I would also look to be getting a good amount of B vitamins, as these are a vital part of energy production, something all new mothers need a hand with! Foods rich in B vitamins include, chicken, fish, vegetables, brown rice and eggs. Breastfeeding women also need more Vitamin C so make sure you’re keeping your intake of fruits and vegetables high to get adequate amounts.
Finally, Vitamin D is also needed for your baby’s bone development plus it will help to regulate your mood and energy levels. While it can be found in foods such as dairy products, fatty fish, eggs and beans, the best way of boosting your levels is to get around 15 minutes of sun exposure daily (if it is summer make sure this is in the early morning or late evening to avoid burning).
Is there anything you shouldn’t be eating?
It’s important to stay away from excess caffeine consumption, classed as over two cups of coffee per day. While you might feel like you need coffee more than ever, too much can not only pass through to your little one through your breast milk thereby keeping them awake (not what you want!) but it can also disrupt your energy balance leaving you feeling more exhausted in the long run. For the same reason I would also advise new mothers to avoid too much refined sugar – think sweets, cakes, biscuits etc. These may give you a short-term boost but this will be swiftly followed by a crash as your blood sugar levels fall rapidly, causing you to feel even more tired. Breastfeeding mothers should also stay away from eating too much fish with high mercury levels, like mackerel and tuna, as this can be passed on to your baby.
How many more calories do you need if you are breastfeeding?
There’s no definitive number as it varies between each individual but it’s approximately 300-500 more calories a day. Most women feel more hungry while breastfeeding so I would listen to your appetite and eat when you feel hunger. Just make sure you’re eating a balanced diet and sticking to at least 80% whole, unprocessed foods (think vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, beans and wholegrains) and you should be able to satisfy your hunger while safeguarding you and your baby’s health. This should also enable you to slowly and sensibly lose any ‘baby weight’.
Why is staying hydrated just as important as eating well?
Breastfeeding means that your body is losing more fluid than normal, so it’s essential that you ensure you’re drinking enough water to stay sufficiently hydrated. Most women feel more thirsty when breastfeeding so make sure you always have water on hand to drink. A good rule of thumb is to drink a large glass of water with each feed, along with a couple extra during the day. Eating foods with a high water content such as fruits, vegetables and soups also up your hydration levels. Becoming slightly dehydrated can deplete your energy, leaving you feeling extra tired. Thirst can also be mistaken for hunger so staying hydrated can stop you overeating.
A new baby often means a steady stream of visitors – and therefore lots of tea and cake! Can you suggest a healthy alternative?
A good replacement for cake is to have a fruit and nut bar (good brands include Nakd, The Primal Pantry and LoveRaw). These are made from dried fruit and nuts and give you a sweet kick but from a natural source. The nuts will also help to blunt your blood sugar spike and contribute to a slower energy release that won’t leave you feeling tired and jittery, unlike the refined sugar in cakes. You can also make your own energy balls by blending dried fruits, such as dates and apricots with chopped or ground nuts. I recommend rolling them into balls and then covering them in cinnamon and cacao, to add a decadent yet healthy twist. The cinnamon has the added bonus of helping to curb sugar cravings, ideal if you’ve got a sweet tooth. Try to avoid adding sugar to your tea and to limit yourself to around two cups a day. If you’ve reached your maximum then you can try switching to herbal teas, green tea is a great alternative as it has a host of health benefits – it still contains caffeine though so don’t go overboard!
Coffee is loved by mothers for an instant energy boost – how many cups is too much?
There are no official UK guidelines for breastfeeding women but approximately one or two mugs of instant coffee and one filter coffee per day is generally considered a safe amount. If you do go over this one day, don’t panic though as there’s no solid evidence that caffeine adversely affects babies through breast milk. However, as mentioned, it’s best not to rely on caffeine to fuel you through the day. Also watch out for hidden sugar in some coffee drinks such as lattes and frappes as these can further destabilise your blood sugar balance leaving you tired, as well as slowing your postpartum weight loss.
What are the alternatives to coffee when you are feeling tired?
Green tea is a good option as it contains some caffeine but a lesser amount and has a range of health benefits, including improved brain function and boosting metabolic rate, alongside antioxidant properties. Yerba mate is also a great alternative, it too contains less caffeine than coffee giving you the kick without any jittery after effect, furthermore, it can prepared in a similar way to coffee. If it’s the taste of coffee you’re missing then there are a selection of caffeine-free coffee alternatives, such as dandelion herbal coffee and chicory coffee (make sure it’s just the ground chicory root and not coffee with added chicory).
When is the best time to lose the baby weight?
Again, this is something that’s totally individual and will depend on a range of factors, not least how quickly your postpartum recovery is. For the first three months I’d recommend your focus be on getting enough rest, getting outside if you can for gentle walks and eating plenty of healthy, nutritious food. This time should be spent enjoying your new baby and appreciating your body for the new life it’s produced. Even after three months, I still feel you should approach any weight loss with a gentle attitude, this is not the time for crash diets and crazy restrictive eating. It’s essential for your well-being and health that you continue to eat enough and to nurture your body with whole, unprocessed foods. If you do this and remain as active as possible any excess weight will come off.
I stayed active throughout my pregnancy and was very fit but it is only now, nine months after my little boy was born, that I feel anywhere close to being as fit as I was before. Your body has been through a lot and it takes time for it to return to normal.
Wait until you have the all clear from your doctor before starting to exercise, no matter how active you were before birth. Have your abdominal muscles checked to make sure they’ve knitted back together so you don’t damage them further through exercise. If you can it’s always worth consulting a post-natal fitness specialist to formulate a postpartum exercise plan for you.
EAT WELL, FEEL WELL
Quick and easy recipes are the name of the game when you’re a new mother so here are three super-easy recipes you can just throw together!
Easy morning (or anytime!) smoothie
Smoothies are great for new mothers as they take hardly any time to prepare, can be eaten on the go and you can pack a host of nutrients into each glass. Feel free to experiment with different combinations and flavours but I love this one as it tastes a bit desert-like, while the maca will help to balance postpartum hormones and the cinnamon helps to curb sugar cravings.
1 banana (can be frozen)
1 large handful of spinach
1 medjool date (pitted)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of maca powder
1 heaped teaspoon of almond butter (or peanut or cashew butter)
1/2 cup of unsweetened almond milk
1 cup of water
• Place all ingredients in a blender and blend thoroughly.
• Pour into a large glass and serve.
Baked salmon with sweet potato wedges, steamed greens and tahini sauce.
This is a super simple recipe that makes a great evening meal. The salmon provides an excellent source of protein and Omega 3 fatty acids while the sweet potato wedges help balance energy. The green vegetables contain calcium, antioxidants and vitamin C to keep you healthy and energised.
2 wild salmon fillets
2 medium sized sweet potatoes
1/2 pack kale (chopped)
1 pack spinach
Handful of chopped asparagus
1 cup of peas
2 tablespoons of tahini
Coconut oil (unscented)
• Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
• Wash the sweet potatoes and chop into wedges, leaving the skin on.
• Coat the wedges with coconut oil and place on a baking tray. Sprinkle with cinnamon and paprika, then place in the oven and bake for approximately 40 minutes.
• About 15 minutes before the wedges are done, place each salmon fillet in a square of foil, squeeze over the juice of half a lemon juice and seal the foil in a parcel. Place in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
• Place all the vegetables in a steamer and steam for around 10 minutes or until cooked through.
• Place the tahini, the juice of half a lemon, a dash of salt and some water in a bowl and blend until combined thoroughly and the mixture is a sauce-like consistency.
• Place the salmon, vegetables and wedges on a plate and drizzle the tahini sauce over to serve.
Cacao Hazelnut Energy Balls
These handy little snacks feel like a treat. The combination of nuts and dried fruit provides a hit of slow-release energy, along with all-important healthy fats and protein. The cacao is rich in antioxidants and magnesium to help with sleep and relaxation.
1 1/2 cups of ground almonds
1 1/2 cups of finely chopped hazelnuts
2 cups of pitted medjool dates, soaked overnight and chopped
3/4 cup of raw cacao powder
A pinch of sea salt
Water to blend (can use the water from soaking the dates)
• Place all ingredients except the water in a food processor and pulse until the ingredients are well combined.
• Slowly add water, pulsing until the mixture forms a sticky, dough-like consistency.
• Remove mixture from the food processor and roll into balls.
• Store in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.