It’s not uncommon to feel down for the first couple of weeks after childbirth. You’re recovering physically from labor and delivery, dealing with postpartum hormonal swings, and adjusting to life with the newest – and most demanding – member of your family. All this can leave you feeling exhausted, cranky, and anxious.
And while feeding yourself may be last on your to-do list, eating healthy food, having regular meals and snacks, and taking a few simple steps can boost your energy level and your mood. Read on for our best nutrition tips.
PPD is a serious condition that requires treatment. A healthy diet can improve your mood, but it can’t substitute for professional help. Warning signs of PPD include insomnia, a change in appetite, weepiness or sadness that persists all day, and thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.
Stock up on omega-3 fatty acids
Experts agree that omega-3s fatty acids – found mainly in fish and some nuts and seeds – are important to include in a healthy diet. They help your body function normally and protect against heart disease. And some studies show lower overall rates of depression (including a lower incidence of postpartum depression among new moms) in countries where people eat large amounts of fish.
Pediatrician James Sears, coauthor of The Baby Book, advises new mothers to stock up on foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like wild salmon, flaxseed oil, and walnuts. He believes these enhance brain function and can help with depression. “Omega-3 oils really help the brain work better,” Sears says.
The Institute of Medicine recommends women consume 1.1 grams (1,100 mg) of omega-3 fatty acids every day. Breastfeeding women should get slightly more, about 1.3 grams. The following foods each provide about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acid:
- 1 tablespoon walnut oil = 1.4 grams
- 1 ounce black walnuts = 0.6 gram
- 1 tablespoon canola oil = 1.3 grams
- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds = 1.6 grams
- 1 1/2 ounces herring = 1 gram
- 2 1/2 ounces of Atlantic salmon = 1 gram
- 4 ounces of canned white tuna = 1 gram
- Omega-3-fortified eggs are also an option. Two eggs provide about half the daily amount recommended above, depending on the brand.
Consider taking a supplement if you don’t like the taste of fish or if you’re eating fish less often because of mercury concerns. (Nursing moms should eat 8 to 12 ounces of cooked fish or canned “light” tuna and up to 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna a week, according to joint guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.)
Omega-3 supplements made from fish oils are considered safe for nursing moms. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, they don’t have detectable levels of mercury or toxins. But skip cod liver oil supplements if you’re breastfeeding because they can contain excessive amounts of vitamins A and D.
If you’re taking a supplement, read the label to determine how much omega-3 fatty acid each capsule contains, and ask your doctor to recommend a dosage for you. Starting with a low dose and gradually increasing it or taking the pills with meals lessens the chance of having side effects like diarrhea, bloating, and nausea.
Don’t skimp on protein
It’s especially important to get enough protein in your diet now, says Shoshana Bennett, a psychologist on the advisory council of Postpartum Support International (PSI), an advocacy and support group for women with PPD.
Bennett says that eating small amounts of protein throughout the day helps keep blood sugar levels even and moods stable. And consuming dairy products, poultry, meat, and fish – along with low-glycemic carbs like nuts, whole grains, and beans – can boost production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which has a calming effect on the brain.
To get more protein in your diet, try having scrambled eggs for breakfast, a turkey or roast beef sandwich for lunch, and yogurt or cheese and crackers for a snack.
The total amount of protein you need daily depends on how much you weigh and whether you’re nursing. The average range is 50 to 85 grams of protein a day for nursing moms, and 30 to 55 grams for moms who aren’t nursing.
If you’re very petite or on the heavier side, your protein requirement might fall outside these ranges. Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food planning tool.
These are some good sources of protein:
- 3 ounces chicken, turkey, or meat = 20 to 25 grams protein
- 3 ounces fish = about 20 grams protein
- Two 8-ounce glasses milk = 16 grams protein
- Two 8-ounce glasses soy milk = 14 grams protein
- Two large eggs = 12 grams protein
- 2 ounces Swiss cheese = 16 grams protein
- 1/2 block firm tofu = 14 grams protein
- 1 cup cottage cheese = 22 to 31 grams protein
- 1 cup plain low-fat yogurt = 12 grams protein
- 2 ounces dry-roasted peanuts = 14 grams protein
- 1 cup cooked beans, such as chickpeas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, baked beans, pinto beans, refried beans, or black beans = 12 to 19 grams protein
- 1 cup cooked lentils = 18 grams protein
Drink plenty of liquid
Dehydration may make the blues worse. Fatigue and anxiety are actually symptoms of moderate dehydration. So drink at least nine 8-ounce glasses of fluid a day (about 13 glasses if you’re breastfeeding). Choose water or noncaffeinated beverages that aren’t sweetened with sugar.
Also, don’t wait to drink until you feel thirsty. (By the time you notice your thirst, mild dehydration may have already kicked in.) This is especially important if you’re breastfeeding because nursing can make you extra thirsty. Grab a tall glass of water, juice, or even decaf iced tea every time you sit down to nurse your baby.
Limit your alcohol intake
Though it may give you a quick buzz, alcohol is a depressant, so limit your drinking until you’re on a more even keel. An occasional glass of wine in the evening to unwind isn’t a problem, but regular heavy drinking may make your mood worse and disrupt your sleep. Depression and alcoholism often go hand in hand, so if you feel like your drinking is spiraling out of control, talk to your healthcare provider.
There are other reasons to abstain from drinking during the postpartum period. Having more than an infrequent drink can affect your ability to nurse and take care of your child.
Moderate your caffeine intake
A cup or two of coffee can get you going in the morning, but if you’re guzzling caffeinated beverages all day long, you’re more likely to end up jittery, frazzled, and unable to sleep at night. “Caffeine is public enemy number one – it is horrible for anxiety,” says Bennett. “It makes people agitated, irritable, and restless,” she says, noting that those are also symptoms of mood disorders.
Plus, if you’re breastfeeding, doctors recommend having no more than 300 mg of caffeine a day (about what you’d get in two 8-ounce cups of coffee) to avoid affecting your baby.
Abruptly giving up all caffeine can cause temporary headaches, lethargy, and crankiness. So if you drink a lot of the stuff, don’t just quit cold turkey. Slowly cut back to a few caffeinated beverages a day – or none if you want to be caffeine-free.
Go for dark chocolate when you’re craving sweets
It’s easy to reach for junk food when you’re tired and need some quick calories, but try to resist the urge. Junk food may give you a temporary lift, but that surge comes with an eventual crash. If you do indulge occasionally, don’t beat yourself up about it. “If you have to eat something with a lot of sugar, eat some chocolate,” says registered dietitian Jo Ann Hattner.
High-quality dark chocolate – at least 70 percent cocoa – can improve mood by increasing the serotonin level in your brain. And some studies indicate that chocolate consumption triggers the release of endorphins, brain chemicals responsible for euphoric feelings.
Don’t forget your vitamins
Although a supplement is no substitute for a healthy diet rich in fruits and veggies, it can be difficult to cover all your nutritional bases during those first few busy weeks with a new baby. So keep taking your prenatal vitamin for a couple months postpartum.
Prenatal vitamins generally contain more iron than regular multivitamins, which is important because your iron stores may be depleted after pregnancy and giving birth (especially if you had a cesarean section). Low iron levels can leave you feeling fatigued and down. Also, antioxidants – including vitamins A, C, and E – may improve overall brain function, according to Bennett.
Pay attention to your appetite
It’s normal to skip meals and forget to eat on a regular schedule during the harried first weeks of caring for a newborn. But if you find that you’re rarely hungry and eating is a chore, your loss of appetite may be a symptom of postpartum depression.
Eating poorly can also contribute to mood problems. Your body needs regular, balanced meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels stable. When they’re not, it can affect your mood. If you consistently have to force yourself to eat, talk to your care provider.