Mother's Helpers
Refortify your postpartum body with the best foods and nutrients

By Karen Ansel, MS, RD

If you’re a new mother, you may be so wrapped up in tending to the needs of your baby that you seldom give much thought to what your own body may need. But like a spent runner after a grueling marathon, your postpartum body must refuel and replenish precious nutrients depleted by the physical demands of childbearing. During the crucial postpartum recovery period, your body requires numerous multitasking nutrients to rebuild blood supplies, replenish your bones’ calcium stores, repair stretched and torn tissues, and fortify your energy. Good nutrition also serves as an insurance policy, preparing your body for future pregnancies as well as reducing your risk of chronic diseases later in life.

Build Up Blood
Round-the-clock feedings and lack of sleep might appear to be the major culprits behind postpartum exhaustion, but blood loss associated with delivery also bears the blame. Because a healthy blood supply can prevent energy-robbing anemia, restoring lost blood is potentially the most pressing nutritional issue facing new mothers, says Robert Rountree, MD, co-author of A Natural Guide to Pregnancy and Postpartum Health (Avery, 2002).

“The most important nutrients to [rebuild blood cells] are collectively referred to as the hematinics,” he says. “These include iron, vitamins B6 and B12, and folate, plus vitamin C to help with iron absorption.”

Of these nutrients, iron tops the list. Abundant in red meat, soy products, and legumes, this critical mineral helps build oxygen-transporting red blood cells. Fortified breads and cereals, along with red meat and poultry, also supply vitamins B6 and B12, two nutrients responsible for protein synthesis and new cell production necessary for restoring lost blood. Folate, another B vitamin, complements the other B’s by ensuring proper cell division among newly formed red blood cells.

Although legumes, fortified grains, and leafy green vegetables contain significant amounts of folate, many busy new moms don’t eat enough of these foods to get the recommended daily dose. Prenatal vitamins supply folate, as well as iron and vitamin B12, so many nutrition experts suggest continuing these supplements for at least six months after delivery.

Restore Bones
While still in utero, your growing baby required a constant stream of calcium for building bones and teeth. If your body lacked sufficient calcium for the developing fetus, your own skeleton quickly and efficiently provided the shortfall—weakening your bones in the process.

After giving birth, help your bones rebound by eating at least three daily servings of calcium-rich foods. Sneak in extra calcium during an afternoon snack or when you’re up late nursing by munching on low-fat cheese on whole-grain crackers, or add your favorite fruit to a cup of plain, low-fat yogurt. If you don’t eat dairy foods, stock up on fortified orange juice or soy milk, almonds, beans, and dark leafy greens such as broccoli and kale, which are also packed with this bone-building mineral.

Postpartum Protein
Although the effects of childbearing on your blood and bones may be hidden, it’s hard to ignore the stretches and tears that accompany the birthing process. Jeffrey Hampl, PhD, RD, associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, stresses the importance of eating adequate protein to repair tissues that were overtaxed during pregnancy, labor, and childbirth.

If you’re nursing your newborn, protein intake is critical for milk production and to supply vital protein that is incorporated into breast milk. As a result, most women need as much protein during this stage as they do during pregnancy: 71 grams a day, equivalent to two scrambled eggs or tofu patties for breakfast, a midday turkey sandwich, and a small salmon fillet or bowl of bean soup at dinnertime. That might sound like a mouthful, but most women can easily get enough protein by eating three daily servings of lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, soy foods, or legumes.

Time To Eat
Between feedings and diaper changes, tired new mothers know how difficult it can be to find the time to eat well—or at all. Rather than striving for three square meals at the traditional times, Rose Catanzaro, RD, a specialist in women’s nutrition at Saint Louis University in Missouri, suggests shopping for and planning quick, nutrient-dense mini meals and snacks for those times when you have a spare moment and hunger kicks in (see “Your Postpartum Pantry”).

Pivotal to regaining your stamina, eating well and at regular intervals also serves the newest person in your life: your child. “Considering the tremendous demands placed on the mother of a brand-new baby, it’s easy for mom to forget that she has needs as well,” says Rountree. “However, it is difficult to nourish an infant if the mother isn’t getting adequate nourishment herself—and that includes emotional support from friends and family as well as physical support from food and supplements.”