One of the most wonderful times in your life is when you become a new mother. And the fourth trimester is a time when you should be enjoying your cosy bundle of joy. But very often the experience is much darker because acting like a 24-hour life support machine can easily make your mood plummet. So the start to motherhood is often a huge struggle.
Not only do you pass nutrition to your newborn through breastfeeding, but your own state also affects your baby, whether you are breastfeeding or not. As a new mum, you may be tempted to pay more attention to your baby’s well-being than your own, but the two are fundamentally connected. Eating good nutritious food is good for you and good for your baby.
I certainly remember with my first baby feeling very vulnerable and I rarely had a day when I didn’t cry for hours. So I really wanted to make the experience better when I had my other two babies – which it certainly was! I want to share with you some easy nutrition tips to keep you happy and positive in the fourth trimester and beyond, so you can begin to love motherhood to the full, and leave the baby blues and brain fog behind.
Probably the most researched brain food is Omega 3, and it is easily depleted during pregnancy and breastfeeding. You should eat plenty of oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring and sardines. For example, you could add smoked trout to your breakfast, have sardines on rye bread at lunch time or enjoy a salmon steak at supper. It is a good idea to cook more fish at a meal than you need, so that you have plenty left over in the fridge to grab when you need a boost or simply do not have time to cook up a meal. Do please avoid tuna, swordfish and mackerel if you are breastfeeding, as these are very high in mercury and you would not want to pass this onto a young developing brain.
Walnuts are a fantastic source of Omega 3 (they even look like mini brains!). You can take a packet with you when you are out and about with your baby or you can add some to your cereal or salads. Remember to store these in your fridge to keep the Omega 3 intact. If you don’t like walnuts, some seeds are really good too.
Linseeds (also known as flax seeds) and chia seeds are both brilliant sources of Omega 3. These can be soaked or ground up and added to your cereal or morning smoothie. They do have a mild laxative effect, so are a particularly good choice to help a sluggish postnatal bowel! You can also add some flax seed oil to your salads or simply slurp it off a spoon. Again, keep it in the fridge to retain the Omega 3.
If for whatever reason you are not able to boost your diet with these Omega 3 foods then it is very important to take a good quality DHA rich Omega 3 food supplement.
Levels of vitamin D vary depending on the time of year and how much sunlight you are exposed to, although dietary sources do have a role. Vitamin D is thought to play a vital role in regulating your immune system and mood. If you give birth to a baby in the middle of the winter, or if you have dark skin, then your need for vitamin D will probably be higher than if you have a baby in the summer and have fair skin. Genetics may pay a role too, so if your family has a tendency to low vitamin D then your body may need to work harder to absorb this important vitamin.
Getting out and about with your baby will help you to catch some much needed sun rays, however during the winter it can be tricky to build your vitamin D to an optimal level and you will probably need to give your body a boost from a supplement of vitamin D3. There is a huge variation in people’s need for vitamin D. Some new mums need 1,000iu per day, others may need up to 6,000iu per day. A daily dose of 6,000iu may seem a very high level of vitamin D, but considering a single 15-minute whole body exposure to sun at midday in the summer produces well over 10,000iu, you can benefit from quite a lot. It is a always a good idea to see your GP, naturopath or nutritional therapist who can test your vitamin D levels to see whether you need supplementation.
Dietary sources of vitamin D can be found in salmon, cod liver oil, cheese and egg yolks. Rosemary and sage help the body to absorb vitamin D, so add these liberally to your food. A sage omelette or a shepherd’s pie with rosemary are delicious comfort foods to eat when vitamin D levels need boosting.
When you are pregnant or postnatal, you need a lot of folate. One of the key reasons why pregnant women and postnatal mums are predisposed to an over-anxious state is being too low in folate. There is a much higher risk of postnatal lows if folate levels have dipped. Even if you have been conscientious enough to be taking a pregnancy multivitamin containing folic acid you may need even more and this is where a folic acid supplement during the post natal months may be helpful.
Some women with a history of miscarriage or those who more susceptible to a low mood, may not be able to absorb synthetic folic acid efficiently due to a genetic polymorphism called MTHFR. In a nutshell, this gene means you do not have the enzyme to convert synthetic folic acid into folate for the cells to absorb and you should take a very special type of folate and it is highly advisable to see a practitioner, but in the meantime, make sure you eat plenty of raw green leafy veg such as spinach and kale. A green smoothie is a great way to drink this whilst you are out and about with your baby.
Having enough iron is essential to a mother with a new baby, whether she is breastfeeding or not. This is a well-researched area of nutrition and low levels of iron in the blood can be a big trigger for negative postpartum emotions and brain fog in the fourth trimester.
Steak, spinach, dried apricots and lentils are important iron-rich foods to include in your diet. Vegetarians, vegans and those who have experienced significant blood loss during the birth of their baby will need to watch their iron status and may well need to take a natural food-based iron supplement. Your doctor, naturopath or nutritional therapist again can test your blood for low iron levels if needed.
Serotonin is one of our hormones (known as a neurotransmitter) that makes us cheery and positive. Sleep deprivation initially helps to boost serotonin and that’s why we tend to be OK to start with when we are settling in with the baby. However as the weeks and months go by, the serotonin can slowly deplete and make up feel very low.
Vitamin B6 is a key nutrient to help keep serotonin levels stable in the brain and so foods rich in this such as cauliflower, celery, salmon, chicken and turkey are great sources.
It is also important to eat grain-like seeds such as quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat. These all make delicious breakfast porridge, with very little cooking required (sprinkle some walnuts, linseeds and chia seeds on top of the porridge to super-charge!). These pseudo-grains are also good to eat in the late afternoon, when you probably will feel at your hungriest.
Eating good quality protein such as chicken, turkey, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are also helpful for producing optimal amounts of serotonin.
Fermented foods are good at feeding the good bacteria in your gut which in turn help to make serotonin (90% of serotonin is made in your gut). Yoghurt is the most well-known food for containing beneficial bacteria but other options are kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut. You can now easily pick these up in health food shops, ready to eat or drink. Eateries such as Pret now sell lovely super food salads containing kimchi and other fermented foods. If this is too difficult to access then at least eat plenty of yoghurt.
Tryptophan is a key amino acid needed to build serotonin and is in most protein-rich foods. Oats, chocolate, dried dates, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, spirulina, bananas, and peanuts are all high in tryptophan and can be eaten liberally in the fourth trimester and beyond to keep you feeling at your best and your brain working to the max.
Good luck! You are on a fabulous journey and you are making a little miracle that will enrich your life for years to come.
Effects of fish-oil and folate supplementation of pregnant women on maternal and fetal plasma concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid: a European randomized multicenter trial
Vitamin D status during pregnancy and the risk of subsequent postpartum depression: a case-control study
Folic Acid and Risk of Perinatal Depression: Is There an Association?
Folates and post-partum depression
Maternal Iron Deficiency Anemia Affects Postpartum Emotions and Cognition