The early weeks of pregnancy are fragile—and confusing. Here, the answers to your questions.
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Women tend to worry about getting enough calcium during pregnancy, and understandably so. Calcium is crucial for maintaining your bones and building your baby’s as well. But most pregnant women can get enough calcium to safeguard their baby’s skeletal health and their own without too much effort. “The body adapts during pregnancy by absorbing more calcium and excreting less,” says Suzanne P. Murphy, Ph.D., R.D., an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, and member of a panel that studied calcium requirements.
After extensive study, new Dietary Reference Intake, or DRI, guidelines (which update and expand on the Recommended Dietary Allowance) were issued in 1997 by the panel, which was convened by the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board. “We don’t see any evidence that pregnant women need any more calcium than nonpregnant,” Murphy says.
What you need now
Under the new guidelines, a daily intake of 1,000 milligrams of calcium, about the amount found in 31/3 glasses of milk, is adequate for pregnant and breastfeeding women ages 19 and older. Previously, a daily intake of 1,200 milligrams of calcium was suggested for pregnant and breastfeeding women of any age.
Robert Heaney, M.D., professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who also served on the panel, believes the official stance is confusing. He still advises pregnant and lactating women to consume at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day.
Whether you follow the official guideline or Heaney’s, the best way to get the calcium you and your baby need is from dairy products such as milk (skim is fine if you’re watching weight gain; chocolate milk is OK, too), yogurt, reduced-fat cheese (occasional servings if it’s the high-fat type) and leafy greens. Also ask your obstetrician if you should consider taking calcium supplements.
Breastfeeding and bone loss
Once baby arrives, attention to calcium intake should continue. During breastfeeding, the body’s calcium stores are decreased, probably because the calcium in breast milk is mobilized from bone, rather than diet. This isn’t necessarily as alarming as it may sound. The decline is temporary — usually lasting up to six months — and does not seem to increase the risk of osteoporosis later, studies indicate.
This decrease in bone density during breastfeeding occurs even if you are paying attention to calcium intake, according to researchers from the Children’s Hospital Medical Center at the University of Cincinnati. So don’t worry about that temporary loss of bone mass, researchers say. Continue to take in enough calcium (a minimum of 1,000 milligrams a day) to ensure long-term bone health for you and for baby.