Breast milk is often compared to liquid gold, and to be honest, it’s no wonder. Over and over again, science has proven the incredible benefits of breastfeeding, both to the baby and to the mother.
In addition to being a source of the following:
Breast milk can also be used to treat health issues in the baby like ear infections, eye infections, skin problems, diaper rash, and teething. And when it comes to the mother’s health, clinical studies have even found evidence that breastfeeding can reduce the risk for developing ovarian and breast cancers, as well as diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and heart disease.
On top of it all, breastfeeding has a reputation for helping a mother lose weight at a stage when exercise and diet tend to be off the table. For many mothers, this is very helpful, since most of her attention needs to be focused on her baby. Considering the fact that in the first 3 - 12 months postpartum a breastfeeding mother burns between 300 - 500 calories a day producing milk for her baby, it makes sense that some mothers are able to shrink back to their pre-baby bodies within a few months of giving birth. That’s the equivalent of a 45-minute run, daily.
The issue with this logic being passed down to new moms is that this doesn’t mean every breastfeeding woman is simply going to shed all her baby weight with a few sessions at the boob. According to a 2003 research review published in the International Journal of Obesity, the multifactorial nature of postpartum weight change makes it difficult to determine precisely what factors have the greatest impact on weight retention, and what areas need to be targeted in preventative measures.
“Breastfeeding should be promoted for its health benefits for both mother and child but should not be solely relied upon as a way for women to compensate for excessive gestational weight gain or to increase postpartum weight loss,” the study concluded.
Furthermore, the study determined that other factors that influence postpartum weight change include ethnicity, socio-economic status, pre-pregnancy weight, parity, gestational weight gain, autoimmune deficiencies, diabetes hormones and lifestyle.
If you’re breastfeeding but struggling to lose the baby weight, there are a couple of possible reasons for that.
You gained more weight than you needed to during pregnancy
While the old adage goes; pregnant women are supposed to ‘eat for two,’ which is not only false but also potentially dangerous. First, you don’t need any additional nutrition for the entirety of your first trimester, and by the time you reach the second and third trimesters, the additional calories required don’t nearly equate to an additional meal.
Dr. Daghni Rajasingam, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says: “Energy needs do not change until the last three months of pregnancy when women need an extra 200 calories a day.”
200 calories are the equivalent of a hard-boiled egg and a handful of almonds. Not only does eating for two provide you with much more calories than either you or your baby needs, but studies have shown that it also increases your risk of requiring a c-section because indulging too much can lead to not only personal weight gain but an oversized baby.
In a study published in JAMA, researchers found that nearly half of the expectant mothers gain too much weight, which puts their health and that of their baby at risk. For mothers who are already overweight before getting pregnant, the amount of weight they need to put on during pregnancy is much less than for women who are at a healthy weight.
A surplus of gestational weight gain can also make it harder for your body to drop pounds during breastfeeding. It’s important to focus on eating healthy, fresh, and nutritious foods in small but frequent meals, and listen to your body’s needs. You also need to drink plenty of water when breastfeeding and between 1500-1800 calories a day for a sufficient milk supply. Focus on moving more to break the monotony of the sedentary lifestyle that is highly associated with breastfeeding, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein. Try to avoid sugary lactation treats and cookies, soft drinks, juice, desserts and pastries, fried or salty foods as well as saturated fats.
Your hormones, sleep schedule and stress levels still need to stabilize
Having a baby is very tough on the body, and tends to throw everything out of whack. Research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has shown that when we’re not sleeping as we need to -as will be the case until the baby’s sleep cycles are stabilized - we experience a spike in the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry, and a dip in the hormone leptin, which results in a feeling of satiety. Sleep-deprived people don’t usually make the best choices when it comes to what they eat following a midnight diaper run, and making sure all meals are always healthy and freshly prepared can be difficult. Especially if you’re exceeding your Recommended Dietary Allowance on carbs, sugar, and fat, even burning 500 calories a day won’t let the weight melt off. On top of that, prolactin is secreted to help stimulate milk production, and cortisol levels are still high, neither of which helps with weight loss.
Recognize that this is a phase and it will pass. Do what you can to manage stress in healthy ways, like going for a walk with your baby, breathing exercises, or doing some stretches and moving your body. Do make sure your doctor has cleared you for exercise before you start doing anything strenuous. Once hormone levels stabilize, you’re gaining more restorative sleep, and your diet and water intake are consistent- your weight should gradually start to go decrease.
Be kind to yourself and listen to your body.
Neville, C., McKinley, M., Holmes, V. et al. The relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum weight change—a systematic review and critical evaluation. Int J Obes 38, 577–590 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2013.132
Goldstein RF, Abell SK, Ranasinha S, Misso M, Boyle JA, Black MH, Li N, Hu G, Corrado F, Rode L, Kim YJ, Haugen M, Song WO, Kim MH, Bogaerts A, Devlieger R, Chung JH, Teede HJ. Association of Gestational Weight Gain With Maternal and Infant Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA. 2017 Jun 6;317(21):2207-2225. doi: 10.1001/jama.2017.3635. PMID: 28586887; PMCID: PMC5815056.
Chaput JP, Tremblay A. Adequate sleep to improve the treatment of obesity. CMAJ. 2012;184(18):1975-1976. doi:10.1503/cmaj.120876