Breastfeeding came with a perk I wasn't expecting: a huge appetite. After nine months of nausea, heartburn, food aversions, and restrictions, everything I ate suddenly tasted a-mazing. Because breastfeeding burns a ton of calories, many nursing moms like me find themselves with a bottomless stomach. But how much more do you actually need to eat while breastfeeding?
"Breastfeeding moms burn about 20 calories per ounce of breast milk," according to Dr. Robin Jacobson, a pediatrician at NYU Langone Pediatric Associates at Irving Place, part of Hassenfeld Children's Hospital. "So if the mom is making between 24 and 32 oz. of breast milk a day, that is 480 to 640 calories." Dr. Jacobson told me that at a minimum, breastfeeding mothers should take in between 1,800 and 2,200 calories per day to keep up a good milk supply. If you're pumping additional ounces to store, you might need more, using that 20 calories per ounce rule of thumb. If you store an extra 5 oz. in your freezer each day, for example, that's an extra 100 calories.
"Breastfeeding moms burn about 20 calories per ounce of breast milk."
How does this compare to pregnancy? Pregnant women need an extra 150 calories a day in the first few months and an extra 300 calories a day for the remainder of the pregnancy. But if you decide to breastfeed after giving birth, be prepared to eat even more. "A breastfeeding mom should take in 300 to 500 more calories a day than she was taking in prepregnancy to make up for the calories burned due to breastfeeding," Dr. Jacobson explained. To put that in perspective, to burn 500 calories, you would need to run intervals for one hour, dance for an hour and 15 minutes, or do Pilates for three hours.
I found it shocking that a tiny baby could require so many calories. Dr. Jacobson explained why: "Even though a baby is small, he or she needs around 500 calories a day to grow properly." But Molly Petersen, a lactation consultant for Lansinoh, also told me that there isn't a perfect correlation between the 500 calories per day and what your baby is eating. "The 500 calories is the amount of energy Mom's body uses to make breast milk for her baby. It doesn't necessarily mean that all those calories end up in her breast milk," she said.
To burn 500 calories, you would need to do Pilates for three hours.
As a baby gets older and starts eating solids, nursing moms should still maintain a larger diet: "Moms will need more energy to keep up with the baby who is moving around," Dr. Jacobson said. Petersen backed this up: "As a general rule, the amount stays about the same as baby ages." But, Petersen said, "Once your baby gets closer to one year and is eating more solids and less breast milk, the amount you burn will start to taper off."
So are all calories created the same when you're nursing? "Your body will make healthy, nutritious breast milk for your baby no matter where your calories come from," Petersen told me. That's good news, since my cravings included lots of ice cream. But Petersen also said it's important that nursing moms eat a balanced diet for their own health. And of course, there are some superfoods that may encourage milk production and keep you healthy, like oats, eggs, and avocado. You can't go wrong with those. Dig in, Mama!