Nutrition advice for parents-to-be and breastfeeding mums

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  Published on Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Nutrition advice for parents-to-be and breastfeeding mums

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & NutritionParenting & Family LifeProfiles & Interviews
  Published on Wednesday, 14 April 2021
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It’s often said that “you are what you eat,” and if you’re planning, expecting or breastfeeding a child, then your dietary choices flow on to them, too.

Good nutrition decisions early on can positively influence your little one’s lifelong health; and whether you’re a future parent, pregnant woman, new mum or doting dad, there’s lots you can do to help your child develop, grow and thrive.

To learn more about good nutrition during the parenting journey, we spoke with Leanne Elliston, a Program Manager and Accredited Practising Dietitian at Nutrition Australia ACT.

What baby-friendly foods are recommended for women before conception, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding?

Women planning to conceive should aim to improve their diet and lifestyle at least three months prior to conception. During this time, women should focus on:

  • Cutting back on highly processed foods,
  • Replacing sugary drinks with water,
  • Aiming for five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit daily,
  • Choosing healthy fats from extra virgin olive oil, avocados and nuts,
  • Cutting back on alcohol and caffeine, and
  • Taking a pre-conception supplement (one that contains at least 400mcg of folic acid and 150mcg of iodine is recommended to reduce the risk of the baby developing birth defects).

During pregnancy, the focus is on providing sufficient nutrition for both the mum-to-be and growing baby. Key nutrients of focus are:

  • Calcium, which is rich in dairy foods,
  • Iron from meat and meat alternatives, and
  • Folate from green leafy vegetables.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines provide the recommended serves needed for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. To learn more about these, visit the Eat for Health website, and download the Healthy Eating During Your Pregnancy Guide.

Maintaining sufficient fluid is also critical during both pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Pregnant women need an extra 750 to 1,000ml (three to four cups) of fluid each day to meet the needs of the fetus and amniotic fluid.

While breastfeeding, women should drink around 10 cups of fluid a day. Water is the best source of fluid.

In combination with a fibre-rich diet, drinking plenty of fluid can also help to reduce constipation.

To help put all this advice into practice, the ACT Nutrition Support Service has a meal planning guide to help you eat well for your growing baby.

Nutrition Australia’s Nutrition + Pregnancy Guide also provides a comprehensive overview of everything you need to know about food and pregnancy.

What nutrients should men consume if they’re trying for a baby?

Healthy men are more likely to produce healthy sperm, which will significantly affect the chance of conception.

The main nutrients and foods that support healthy sperm production are:

  • Zinc, found in meat, nuts and legumes,
  • Folate from green leafy vegetables,
  • Selenium from Brazil nuts, eggs and tuna,
  • Vitamin C from citrus, kiwi fruit and berries,
  • Lycopene from red coloured fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, and
  • Omega-3 fats from oily fish, like sardines and salmon.

How can parents help to reduce their baby’s risk of allergy, both in utero and after they’re born?

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) recommends that whilst pregnant, mothers should continue to eat a healthy balanced diet, rich in fibre, fruit and vegetables.

Exclusion of any particular foods (including common food allergens) during pregnancy or breastfeeding is not recommended.

Breastfeeding is encouraged and should continue whilst the baby is being introduced to solids, at around six months of age.

ASCIA says, ‘All infants should be given the common food allergens (peanut, tree nuts, cow’s milk, egg, wheat, soy, sesame, fish and shellfish), including smooth peanut butter/paste, cooked egg, dairy and wheat products before 12 months of age, unless they are already allergic to the food.’

There’s further information here, and ASCIA’s Introducing Foods and Allergy Prevention Fast Facts can be downloaded here.

New American research has found that caffeine consumed during pregnancy can change important brain pathways that could lead to behavioural problems later in a child’s life.

What are some key foods and drinks that are not recommended during pregnancy?

In Australia, it is recommended that caffeine intake is reduced during pregnancy to no more than around two cups of coffee per day and energy drinks should be avoided.

As this is an evolving area of research, we would advise expectant mothers to continue to stick to the lower end of caffeine consumption or avoid it altogether.

Other foods and drinks to avoid during pregnancy include:


During pregnancy, alcohol crosses the placenta and can affect your baby's development. This can result in:

  • Lower birth weight,
  • Miscarriage,
  • Stillbirth,
  • Premature birth,
  • Birth defects,
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which is a form of brain injury that causes a range of physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities.

As such, no amount of alcohol is safe.

Fish containing mercury

Mercury is toxic to humans and is particularly harmful to babies in utero.

During pregnancy, the mercury a mother consumes naturally from the food supply can cross the placenta and affect the baby. Too much mercury can affect the development of the baby's brain and nervous system. These effects may not be diagnosed until developmental delays are noticed in the child, such as delayed walking or talking.

Only the large predatory fish are likely to contain significant amounts of mercury. These include shark, swordfish, marlin and deep-sea perch.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) recommends limiting consumption of shark, swordfish and marlin to one portion per fortnight, or eating one portion of deep sea perch a week (and no other fish). Their Mercury in Fish brochure contains more advice on fish consumption.

Food at risk of containing listeria

Listeria is a bacteria that is found naturally in the environment, such as in soil, where it can be transferred onto food. This bacteria survives in cold, moist locations, and it can be hard to eliminate. Listeria can contaminate and grow on certain high-risk foods, due to the way they’re processed.

Although listeriosis is rare, America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a pregnant woman is 10 times more likely to get this type of food poisoning than other people. Listeria infection can lead to miscarriage, premature labour or stillbirth.

Foods that are at higher risk of listeria bacteria contamination include:

  • Foods that have been prepared well in advance and are to be eaten without further cooking e.g. pre-prepared salads, sandwiches and sushi,
  • Foods processed by slicing, chopping or shredding after cooking e.g. processed and ready-to-eat meats,
  • Soft cheeses, i.e. brie, camembert, ricotta, feta and blue cheese (note that these cheeses are safe if cooked in a product and eaten hot),
  • Foods that are kept in refrigeration storage for long periods, thereby allowing the bacteria to thrive and multiply, and
  • Unpasteurised (raw) dairy products.

To learn more about how to minimise your risks of listeria poisoning, download FSANZ’s Listeria and Food: Advice for People at Risk Guide.

What advice do you have for couples who are trying to conceive or are feeling a bit unsure about nutrition during pregnancy?

If you are struggling to get pregnant or are in need of some extra help to get you on the path to eating well for your pregnancy, it’s a good idea to visit an Accredited Practising Dietitian with an interest in pregnancy and fertility.

An APD can:

  • Assess your nutritional needs,
  • Develop personalised eating plans,
  • Provide counselling and support, and
  • Provide information to help you shop for nutritious food and eat well.

You can search for a local APD at the Dietitians Australia website.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 19 April 2021

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