Few things in life are definite. But a doctor recommending prenatal vitamins to a pregnant woman? That’s practically assured. We know that prenatal vitamins aid in the healthy development of the baby and provide balanced nutrition for the mother throughout pregnancy.
So, if prenatal vitamins are commonly advised for expectant mothers, then postnatal vitamins must also be necessary, right? Not exactly. Doctors, at least those interviewed for this article, are simply not convinced that postnatal vitamins are as essential as their predecessor. Yes, obtaining adequate nutrients after childbirth is undeniably important. But taking a dedicated postpartum dietary supplement? To be determined.
Here’s what you need to understand about postnatal vitamins and the best postnatal vitamins, if any, according to obstetrician-gynecologists.
What are postnatal vitamins, and do you truly require them?
Vitamins designated as postnatal supplements are actually quite similar to prenatal vitamins, says Peyman Saadat, M.D., FACOG, a double board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist at Reproductive Fertility Center in West Hollywood, California. The distinction between prenatal and postnatal vitamins is that the latter contains higher milligrams of nutrients that are beneficial to new mothers (as opposed to pregnant mothers), such as vitamins B6, B12, and D, as they are absorbed by the baby through breast milk, says Dr. Saadat. So larger amounts of these nutrients ensure that the mother is still able to absorb enough to experience their benefits (i.e. increased energy from vitamin B) even though the breast milk and baby are also consuming some.
In case you didn’t know, producing breast milk and breastfeeding are no easy tasks (congratulations, mom)—and those are just two of the numerous physical and mental challenges that stem from childbirth. In fact, the postpartum period, and motherhood in general, are extremely physically demanding, says Lucky Sekhon, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. You’re caring for a growing baby, producing breast milk, and trying to heal your own body, all at the same time. Individually, these tasks require a significant amount of energy and nutrients, and together, even more so. “Combine that with the fact that many women are exhausted and in survival mode during the first few weeks after giving birth, and they might not be obtaining all the necessary nutrients from a well-balanced diet—so taking vitamins can be helpful in supplying whatever might be lacking,” adds Dr. Sekhon.
“I recommend taking vitamins postpartum; however, they don’t necessarily have to be a special, specific postnatal vitamin,” she says.
Reasons to Continue Taking Vitamins While Breastfeeding
There are several compelling reasons to continue taking vitamins while breastfeeding. Whether you opt for a regular multivitamin or decide to stick with your prenatal vitamin from pregnancy, these supplements provide the essential nutrients necessary for supporting breastfeeding, while also assisting new mothers in maintaining their vitality and stamina. According to Dr. Sekhon, a prenatal vitamin should ideally be taken for a minimum of six weeks after childbirth or for as long as you’re breastfeeding. Once this period is over, it is perfectly acceptable to switch back to a regular multivitamin.
Can you simply obtain these vitamins and nutrients from your diet, instead?
A potential drawback to consuming prenatal vitamins following childbirth is constipation caused by their higher content of iron, according to Dr. Saadat. In this situation, he suggests that new mothers switch to a women’s multivitamin, such as the popular GNC or Centrum brands (Buy It, $10, target.com), which typically provide approximately 100 percent of the daily requirements for vitamins and minerals.
However, there are certain factors to consider. Women who are breastfeeding may require additional calcium, and those who spend a lot of time indoors with a newborn may need extra vitamin D due to limited exposure to sunlight, says Dr. Saadat.
But what about the hormone changes that occur after delivery? Can postnatal vitamins help with those? Unfortunately, there are no vitamins known to be effective in directly managing postpartum hormonal fluctuations, says Dr. Sekhon. “Hormone changes don’t necessarily need to be managed as they are a healthy, normal part of the process of recovering from pregnancy and delivery.” However, specific issues resulting from hormonal changes after delivery, such as hair loss or hair thinning, may be improved by taking vitamins such as biotin, vitamin B3, zinc, and iron, says Dr. Sekhon. (See also: Why Some Moms Experience Major Mood Shifts When They Stop Breastfeeding)
Can you simply obtain these vitamins and nutrients from your diet, instead?
Some ob-gyns suggest that new mothers should strive to obtain all the nutrition they need from a well-balanced diet during the postpartum period before resorting to a daily vitamin to supplement their intake. One such doctor, Brittany Robles, M.D., an ob-gyn and NASM-certified personal trainer based in New York City, advises all postpartum women to ensure they are obtaining the following nutrients in their diet:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: found in fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds
- Protein: found in fatty fish, lean meats, legumes
- Fiber: found in all fruits
- Iron: found in legumes, leafy greens, red meat
- Folate: found in legumes, leafy greens, citrus fruits
- Calcium: found in dairy, legumes, dark leafy greens
In general, Dr. Robles states that she does not recommend her patients to take postnatal vitamins. “There is no question that prenatal vitamins are crucial for every woman in order to prevent the risk of neural tube defects in your baby,” she states. “However, once the neural tube is formed, during the first trimester, the vitamins become more of a convenience rather than a necessity.”
Of course, carefully planning your meals to ensure you receive all the necessary nutrients after giving birth is easier said than done. Additionally, postpartum women should consume an additional 300 calories per day due to the energy expended through breastfeeding and pumping. Dr. Robles explains that this means they need more than usual in order to adequately fuel their bodies. This is why she suggests that her postpartum breastfeeding patients focus on consuming protein-rich foods, such as lean meats, salmon, beans, legumes, and nuts, rather than snacking throughout the day to promote satiety.
Breastfeeding mothers should also include foods in their diet that help stimulate milk production, such as leafy greens, oats, and other fiber-rich foods, and stay properly hydrated. Dr. Robles recommends that a postpartum woman consumes at least half her body weight in water per day, as she is hydrating both her baby (breast milk consists of 90 percent water) and her own body. For example, a woman weighing 150 pounds should aim to drink 75 ounces or approximately 9 glasses of water (at the very least) per day, and more if she is breastfeeding.
What about other postnatal supplements?
Aside from vitamins, there are also plant-based supplements that may help maintain your postpartum mental and physical well-being. Dr. Sekhon explains that fenugreek, an herb similar to clover that comes in capsule form, is commonly used during the postpartum period to increase milk supply. It is believed to stimulate the glandular tissue in breasts, which is responsible for producing milk. While fenugreek is generally considered safe by the FDA, it can have certain side effects such as diarrhea in both the mother and baby (as it is known to pass into breast milk). Therefore, it is important to start with the lowest dose and gradually increase only if your body tolerates it. It is recommended to consult your doctor before taking fenugreek, especially if you are experiencing gastrointestinal side effects or if you do not have any issues with milk supply.
While melatonin isn’t a vitamin, (instead it’s a hormone that occurs naturally in the body to regulate circadian rhythm) it can serve as a beneficial sleep aid, particularly for new mothers who are experiencing sleep deprivation and have an unsettled sleep schedule due to nighttime diaper changes and feedings, explains Dr. Sekhon. It is permissible for women to consume melatonin while breastfeeding, but it should be used cautiously, as it can induce drowsiness—and it is always important to remain alert when caring for a young infant, she clarifies. As a substitute for melatonin, she suggests drinking chamomile tea or taking a warm bath before bedtime, both of which have been proven to aid in relaxation and, consequently, promote sleep.
In general, it is secure to take all standard vitamins during breastfeeding, but this may not be true for all herbal medicines and supplements, notes Dr. Sekhon. “It is crucial to consult your physician if you have any doubts about the safety of a vitamin or supplement while breastfeeding,” she adds.
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