Breastfeeding mothers carry a heavy burden when it comes to feeding their babies — and we’re not just talking about massively bigger breasts. As soon as you become pregnant, eating a healthy, balanced diet isn’t just important for your health, you’re now 100 percent responsible for making sure your infant gets a healthy, balanced diet, too. Everything you eat or drink, they eat or drink. And chances are you’re not getting enough of one vital nutrient — which means neither is your baby.
Pregnant and nursing mothers aren’t getting enough vitamin D, and they’re passing this deficiency on to their babies, according to a new study done by the University of Chicago. It’s unknown exactly how many nursing mothers are deficient in vitamin D, but the most recent data from a government study found that only 23 percent of all adults have blood levels in the healthy range. And because it’s even easier for nursing women to become deficient due to the increased demands of their baby on their body, that number is likely even lower among expecting and new moms, the Chicago researchers said. Vitamin D plays a vital role in building bones and immune systems, so not getting enough can have serious consequences for infants’ growth and development.
This problem is only unique to breastfed babies, however, as all infant formula is required to be fortified with vitamin D. So is this the one instance when perhaps breast isn’t best? Not exactly, Robert P. Heaney, a professor of medicine at Creighton University and expert on breastfeeding nutrition, wrote in a previous report. “It must seem strange that on the one hand we stress that human milk is the best source of nourishment for our babies, and on the other seem to ignore the fact that human milk doesn’t contain the vitamin D those babies need,” he says. “The explanation, very simply, is that the disconnect is artificial. Nursing mothers have so little vitamin D in their own bodies that there is little or none left over to put into their milk. But it has not always been this way.”
Dr. Heaney chalks up the difference to the poorer nutritional quality of the modern diet and the fact that we are outside far less often than our ancestors, as exposure to sunshine is the primary way our bodies make the vitamin.
As a result, it’s important for breastfeeding mothers to supplement, the University of Chicago researchers said. They found that the babies of mothers given “megadoses” of 2.5 mg (15,000 IUs) of supplemental vitamin D once a month for six months after delivering showed significant improvements in bone and immune health in their infants, compared to babies whose moms received a placebo. As a happy bonus, it also improved the mothers’ overall health as well.
So how much vitamin D should you be getting exactly? That’s a controversial question. The official government recommended daily allowance is 600 IUs per day. But that’s the lowest dose to prevent rickets, not the optimal dose for good health, according to the Vitamin D council. They recommend nursing women get 4,000-6,000 IUs per day, while the U.S. Endocrine Society recommends a minimum of 1,500 IUs daily. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends skipping the breast milk route altogether and giving your infant 400 IUs via daily oral vitamin D drops.
If you’re unsure what is right for you and your baby, talk to your doctor and pediatrician. They can do a blood test to see if your levels are in the healthy range or not and then give you a personalized supplement recommendation.