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While pregnant, you were probably reminded to take your prenatal vitamins, but you may have never really known why those extra vitamins were so important.

Now that your baby is here, chances are you’ve been instructed to keep taking your prenatals while breastfeeding — but again, you might not be sure why that’s necessary. After all, aren’t they called prenatal vitamins? Why should you take them postpartum?

Turns out, prenatal (or postnatal-specific) vitamins serve an important purpose while breastfeeding, too. That’s because they contain key minerals and vitamins, like vitamin A.

While you should never hesitate to ask your doctor for information about your diet or nutritional needs, we’re happy to provide you with a little background on the role of vitamin A in your breast milk.

Although you may think of vitamin A as a single thing, it’s actually a group of fat soluble compounds.

Two forms of vitamin A exist: one found primarily in animal products and one in plant products. To be used, both forms must be converted to retinol and retinoic acid.

Once it enters your body, most of the vitamin A in your system is stored in the liver until it’s broken down and enters the bloodstream.

Vitamin A plays a key role in:

  • your vision
  • the promotion of healthy organ tissues
  • immunity support
  • healthy reproduction

We just shared that vitamin A is essential to vision, growth, and immunity. Well, your baby needs these benefits, too. When a baby is born, they have only minimal stores of vitamin A, but they need lots of it to develop their vision, double their size quickly, and build a strong immune system.

Accessing vitamin A through breast milk (or formula) is essential for the important growth that occurs in the early months. Getting a good amount also provides essential stores of vitamin A in the liver for when weaning occurs!

Not getting enough vitamin A can carry severe consequences for young children:

  • Vitamin A deficiency is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness.
  • Insufficient vitamin A also increases the risk of death or severe symptoms from things like diarrhea or the measles.
  • It can also contribute to poor growth or failure of wounds to heal.

Retinol (aka vitamin A) levels are highest in colostrum, the first milk you produce for baby. Levels decrease over the next week or two, and then stable out in mature milk.

On average, there’s 800 to 1,400 micrograms per liter (mcg/L) of vitamin A in colostrum and 400 to 800 mcg/L in mature milk. Concentrations of vitamin A are highest in the hindmilk.

While the exact levels of vitamin A in breast milk vary from person to person, higher levels are generally found in the milk when babies are born full term versus premature. Similarly, those who have given birth to previous children tend to have higher levels than those giving birth for the first time.

There’s no strong evidence of retinol levels in breast milk being influenced by inflammation of the breast (lactation mastitis) or your age. However, vitamin A levels are susceptible to decreasing in sunlight, so you might want to think twice before leaving bottled breast milk in direct sunlight for periods of time.

Chances are, you don’t need to take a separate vitamin A supplement. For most people, eating a healthy diet and taking their prenatal vitamin while they breastfeed offers a sufficient amount of vitamin A.

There’s a small chance that if you have insufficient stores of vitamin A in your liver and don’t get enough through your diet, you’ll need a supplement to ensure your breast milk contains enough vitamin A. But this is rare.

If you believe you’re not getting sufficient vitamin A (or any other vitamin), speak with your healthcare provider before taking a vitamin A supplement. They can perform tests and offer guidance to make sure you and your baby are getting the appropriate amount.

Fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A can concentrate in breast milk, and excessive amounts of vitamin A can be harmful to a baby. In other words, don’t take extra amounts of vitamin A unless your doctor determines you have a serious deficiency and directs you to do otherwise.

If your baby ingests too much vitamin A, you may notice:

  • softening of their skull bone
  • pulsing of their soft spot
  • bulging of their eyeballs
  • inability to gain weight

The National Institutes of Health recommends 1,200 to 1,300 mcg of vitamin A daily in your diet if you’re breastfeeding, depending on your age. It’s only if you’re not getting this amount (taking into account your prenatal or postnatal vitamin) that you’d want to talk about supplements with your healthcare provider.

For some perspective, the normal recommendation is 700 mcg when you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding. In pregnancy, you’re encouraged to maintain 750 to 770 mcg of vitamin A in your daily diet.

Excessive vitamin A can negatively impact your little one, but the side effects can be serious for you as well.

Excessive amounts of vitamin A in adults can cause:

  • bone pain
  • changes to vision
  • skin changes (rashes, peeling/cracking, yellowing)
  • headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to sunlight
  • hair loss

And chronic excessively high amounts of vitamin A can cause:

  • liver damage
  • pressure on the brain
  • osteoporosis
  • kidney damage
  • excessive calcium buildups

While reducing your vitamin A intake can help reduce these symptoms, you should notify your doctor for further testing and any additional treatments that may be necessary.

Given that it was a big no-no during pregnancy, you may wonder if you can resume retinol skin treatments while breastfeeding.

Less vitamin A will be absorbed through topical ointments than through oral supplements. Because of this, it may be fine for your baby to breastfeed after you use a topical vitamin A cream as long as their mouth doesn’t come in contact with the area of skin that the cream was applied on.

However, it’s usually safest to avoid retinol-based creams while pregnant and breastfeeding. Before using a retinol-based product, read any manufacturer warnings and discuss with your doctor.

If you have specific skin or allergy concerns during the postpartum period, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider. They can give you further guidance.

Breast milk can offer your baby so many wonderful benefits, including vitamin A.

It’s important to make sure that you’re getting the proper amounts of vitamins and nutrients to keep yourself healthy, while providing the best quality breast milk for your little one as well.

If you have questions about your dietary needs during breastfeeding, don’t hesitate to discuss them with your doctor. You can also reach out to a lactation consultant for guidance or referrals.