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Postpartum Nutrition Can Keep Maternity Patients Healthy

Whether it’s the infamous pickles and ice cream cravings, making a list of all the pregnancy no-no foods to eat right after giving birth, or planning a way to get rid of baby weight, the topics of food and pregnancy often go hand-in-hand.

But there’s one aspect that probably doesn’t get covered as often as it should: Food and nutrition in those first few days after giving birth. 

Getting the right nutrients after giving birth helps a woman heal and regain strength, and can enhance her overall hospital experience. 

When it comes to making sure that new mothers are getting exactly what they need after pregnancy, there is no one better equipped than food and nutrition service teams.

Here are 5 ways in which these teams can impact a new mother’s well-being and promote healing after giving birth.

1. Make Adjustments for Breastfeeding Mothers

Breastfeeding women have special dietary needs. The right nutrients allow them to keep their energy up, produce enough milk, and keep their baby healthy and safe.

There are a few ways in which hospital dietitians and food services teams can take the needs of breastfeeding women into account:

  • Increase the amount of food: Breastfeeding women need an additional 300 to 500 calories per day to keep their energy up.
  • Vary food options: Certain foods can change the flavor of a woman’s breast milk, and eating a variety of foods allows a mother to expose her baby to different foods. This can make it easier for the baby to accept solid foods later on. 
  • Increase nutrient-rich foods to help produce milk: Some women have trouble producing enough breast milk, but certain foods can help stimulate production: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and protein-rich foods, such as lean meat or eggs.
  • Limit certain foods: Some foods, such as fish or those with a lot of caffeine can disrupt the baby’s sleep, or even potentially harm the baby’s developing nervous system. 

Since women could be breastfeeding long after leaving the hospital, they may also benefit from working with a dietitian to create a long-term breastfeeding-friendly diet plan,.

2. Focus on Nutrition — Not on Weight Loss

Many women can’t wait to shed the baby weight, but drastic weight loss — other than the 10 pounds that women generally lose right away — isn’t recommended in the first few months postpartum. It’s healthier and more sustainable to make gradual changes in eating habits. However, women should speak with their doctor about when is the right time for them to focus on weight loss.

It’s important for any team members who are interacting with postpartum women to avoid making off-handed comments about losing weight and to emphasize nutrition rather than “getting your body back.”

Some women may express their desire to lose weight, but others might not say anything — they could begin trying to lose weight on their own right away. Nurses, food service teams, or anyone who takes a tray from a patient room should pay special attention to how much food is being returned. If a woman skips a meal or two after giving birth, it’s probably not cause for alarm. 

However, if they don’t seem to be eating at all, it could be a red flag that they’re jumping on the weight loss wagon too quickly. Plus, if skipping meals, they might not get enough nutrients they need to help their body heal from the physical trauma of giving birth.

Shifting the focus away from getting their body back doesn’t mean hospitals should load a new mother’s tray with cookies and chips. It’s still important to promote healthy eating. Women should be encouraged to eat snacks like nuts or protein bars for their nutritional value, even though these types of snacks can sometimes be high in calories or fat content.

What Should Nutrition Look Like After Giving Birth?

Every day, postpartum women should consume...

●    At least 8 to 12 glasses of water
●    1,000 milligrams of calcium (1,300 for women 18 or younger)
●    At least 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit
●    Lean protein at each meal
●    Healthy snacks, such as fresh fruit or Greek yogurt with granola

Source: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2019)

3. Help Mothers Beat the Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression

Up to 80% of mothers experience the baby blues — feelings of fatigue, worry, or unhappiness after giving birth. About 15% of mothers have a more extreme form called postpartum depression. Postpartum depression can be severe and often requires medical treatment.

Postpartum depression generally begins within a week to a month after giving birth, but it can actually begin any time after, or even shortly before. 

It’s unlikely that diet alone will cure postpartum depression. However, there are certain foods that can make it a little easier to handle symptoms. After birth, it can be helpful for dietitians to work with food services and the woman’s clinical care team to provide meals that are high in fiber and vegetables and low in refined sugar, which may improve mood and ease depressive symptoms.

Registered dietitians also play another important role in regards to postpartum depression. Depression and appetite are often interlinked. While dietitians do not provide psychotherapy, they are in a unique position to identify women whose eating habits and mood point toward possible depression. They may be the first ones to notice that a woman could benefit from working with a mental health professional. 

4. Remember the Long-term Effects of Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a form of diabetes that only occurs during pregnancy, and it affects between 2% and 10% of all pregnancies in the US. Fortunately, with appropriate management, most women with gestational diabetes give birth to healthy babies.

A woman’s blood sugar should return to normal soon after birth, but it can take several days to several weeks for that to happen completely. During that time period, a woman who had gestational diabetes doesn’t necessarily need to avoid sugar completely. However, they will still likely need to pay extra special attention to their sugar intake.

Also, about 50% of women with gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes later in life, even if their blood sugar goes back to normal after childbirth.

Patients can benefit greatly when support staff — such as dietitians and food services team members — collaborate with clinicians to monitor sugar intake and develop a meal plan that limits sugar. Dietitians and clinicians can also team up on providing women with education on healthy eating patterns to decrease their risk of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.

5. Don’t Forget About Patient Experience

Of course, a healthy baby is the most important part of giving birth at the hospital. But the experience factor is critical, too. A woman whose hospital experience was so bad that it took away from the joy of having a baby is sure to score the hospital poorly on satisfaction surveys — which can mean lower HCAHPS scores. On the other hand, making the experience even more special than it already is can mean higher scores and better reviews.

A key way to improve the patient experience is to make sure that all employees who come into contact with patients are empathetic and kind. Women may have had a difficult labor, delivered prematurely, or had their baby taken to the NICU — and they could be in an incredibly emotionally vulnerable state. Any interaction, whether it’s with a nurse or a staff member taking away their food tray, can be impactful and even make or break their experience.

Recently, hospitals have been showing off their creative chops when it comes to improving the post-childbirth dining experience. For example, one hospital in New York City provides new parents with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries to celebrate their newborn, and even offers date night — new parents enjoy a candlelit dinner in the hospital room while a staff member watches the infant.

With the right focus on meeting unique nutritional needs and creating a positive delivery and recovery experience, hospitals can help women stay happy and healthy during their postpartum stay.

Sodexo provides services along a patient’s continuum of care. Learn about services available even after you leave the hospital.

January 28, 2020

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