When it comes to breastfeeding, many new mothers focus on ensuring that their baby gets the proper nutrition, but often overlook their own nutrient needs. While focusing on baby’s needs can overlap with ensuring mother has proper nutrient intake, sometimes mom’s needs can come in short.
This article will explore the many benefits of iron not just during pregnancy, but specifically for breastfeeding mothers and discuss how to ensure you are getting enough. It will also look at some common causes of maternal anemia and how to prevent it.
Maternal Anemia; Causes and Prevention
Anemia is a common problem, especially among women of childbearing age as it can lead to severe pregnancy problems such as developmental issues, low birth weight and premature babies. While these issues can be severe, the good news is that anemia is preventable and treatable. The first step is to understand the common causes of anemia so as to avoid them, or at least know what to look for as a risk factor.
1) Poor Nutrition
Often times, when we hear the word anemia, we instantly think iron, and this is for good reason. Iron is a mineral that combines with protein to form hemoglobin, the red substance in blood that carries oxygen to the body’s cells.
Because of this, diet is one of the main causes of anemia, and the easiest to remedy. A lack of the mineral, iron, in the diet can lead to anemia. Because of iron’s impact on maintaining healthy blood, adequate nutritional levels of this mineral help prevent nutritional anemia while also increasing the body’s resistance to infection. Iron is found in food such as meat, poultry, fish, dark leafy vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. It is also found in fortified foods such as cereals and breads.
2) Blood Loss
Blood loss can also cause anemia. While blood loss during pregnancy, childbirth, and after the delivery, can all be factors, slow, chronic blood loss from an ulcer or other health issue within the body can also be a cause. The reason for this is that when blood loss occurs, it depletes the body’s store of iron, leading to iron deficiency anemia. In these cases, depending on the source of blood loss, treating the underlying condition is essential. If blood loss concern is due to trauma or an event such as childbirth, doctors may suggest taking a blood-building supplement if blood loss risk is a concern.
3) Poor Blood Cell Function and Production
By now it should be evident that healthy blood is key to preventing anemia. Thus, another risk factor for the condition is poor blood health or production. When blood cell function or production is low the body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the body’s tissues. One condition with this is called hemolytic anemia, and is a disorder in which red blood cells are destroyed faster than they can be made. This type of anemia rick factor is due to a number of factors including infection, medication side effects, autoimmune disorders, cancers, or more severe biological reactions. In these cases, the underlying cause is typically more severe and thus requires more in-depth treatment, such as blood transfusions, medication, surgery or lifestyle changes depending on the cause.
Benefits of Iron for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Mothers
There’s no doubt adequate iron intake is essential for baby’s development and maintaining a healthy pregnancy. When it comes to postpartum and breastfeeding, the benefits continue, not only for a breastfed baby, but for mom as well.
One of the most common side effects of pregnancy and childbirth is fatigue, and with good reason. Not only are there new physical demands, but emotional demands as well. This fatigue can then be compounded by a lack of sleep with a restless newborn at home. For breastfeeding mothers, it is important to maintain their energy levels to keep up with the demands of motherhood, and iron can help. In fact, studies have found that proper iron supplementation over time can decrease fatigue by almost 50 percent in some cases.
Postpartum depression is a serious condition that can affect new mothers. Some of the most common symptoms include exhaustion, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings of sadness or helplessness. While the exact causes of postpartum depression are numerous, treatment and prevention options are abundant and often cater toward hormonal balance or nutritional balance. When it comes to anemia’s role in the matter, in 10 different studies, the association between postpartum anemia and postpartum depression was significant, and in a number of the studies, anemia that occurred during pregnancy significantly increased the risk of postpartum depression, thus prevention of anemia can help reduce the added risk.
For a complete resource for postpartum depression, click here.
While there are a number of causes for low milk supply or production, iron deficiency, aka anemia, is one of the most common. If you are struggling to produce enough milk, getting more of this mineral may help. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your milk supply and about iron and nutrient levels prior to beginning a supplement routine if you are breastfeeding.
Okay, so this is a no-brainer and not mother-specific, but it’s worth mentioning again. Not only is this mineral important for the health of breastfeeding mothers, it is also essential for the health of babies. Babies who do not get enough of the mineral from breast milk, in cases of breastfeeding, risk developing anemia as an infant. The mineral is critical for a baby’s brain development and immune system.
In addition to neurodevelopment importance, studies found that babies born to mothers with low levels of this mineral are at increased risk for developing infections since it helps the body produce white blood cells, which are important for fighting infection.
Ensuring that you are getting enough of it during breastfeeding can greatly impact your baby’s health.
Not only does iron help with fatigue and postpartum depression as mentioned above, it is also important for the production of serotonin, a hormone that helps to regulate sleep and improve mood. As a co factor for serotonin production, iron is involved in the conversion of tryptophan into 5HTP, and 5HTP to serotonin. If you are struggling with insomnia or need to give your mood a little boost, getting more of the mineral through diet or supplemental form, may help you to get a better night’s sleep and feel more emotionally balanced.
Gestational diabetes is another condition that can occur during pregnancy. As the term implies, this condition is caused by high levels of sugar in the blood. While not the only solution of prevention for gestational diabetes, adequate iron intake during pregnancy can help the body to use insulin. In fact, studies show that dietary iron intake during and before pregnancy, is significantly and positively associated with preventing gestational diabetes mellitus.
Iron deficiency after childbirth is quite common, thus iron is crucial for labor recovery. New mothers may be advised to continue taking prenatal vitamins or begin a postpartum supplement routine for an extended amount of time after giving birth to avoid the above-mentioned concerns and help get red blood cell counts back to normal after delivery.
To get the most benefit from iron, it is important to eat iron-rich foods, and, when necessary, include iron supplementation to compensate for lower dietary levels. Some good sources include red meat, dark leafy greens, beans, and nuts. If you are concerned about your iron levels, talk to your doctor about taking an iron supplement.