So, you’ve committed to breastfeeding. With this choice comes many questions. Will it hurt or be easy? Will you enjoy it or dread it? Is it possible you’ll have rapid weight loss, or will you gain weight? While your primary goal is to nourish your growing baby, it’s essential to acknowledge the physical and emotional realities of such a decision for you, mom.
Many women claim that breastfeeding will result in weight loss. Others swear it’s the cause of postpartum weight gain. So, who’s right, and is breastfeeding weight loss in your future? Read on to hear why breastfeeding experts say many factors are at play regarding what breastfeeding will bring to you.
Can Breastfeeding Mean Weight Loss for You?
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), breastfeeding may make it easier for women to shed the weight they gain during pregnancy.1 On average, breastfeeding burns about 500-700 additional calories daily to fuel milk-making, but La Leche League International (LLLI) experts caution that this may not always contribute to weight loss postpartum. Many factors like pre-pregnancy weight, diet, and physical activity level will impact weight loss after birth, according to LLLI.2
On average, exclusively breastfeeding mothers may lose 1-2 pounds a month, and over time, breastfeeding moms tend to lose more weight than mothers who do not breastfeed.2
According to the American Pregnancy Association, when you nurse, you use fat cells stored in your body during pregnancy and calories from your diet to fuel your milk production and feed your baby. This means you can lose weight during breastfeeding even when you follow the recommendations to eat an additional 300 to 500 calories daily to keep up your energy and milk production.3
What You Eat is a Factor
Another factor contributing to weight loss during breastfeeding is the type and quality of the food you’re reaching for. Remember all the balanced meals you incorporated during your pregnancy? (Maybe there were a few late-night McDonald’s runs in there, too, no judgment!) Breastfeeding moms tend to be more mindful of the foods they put into their bodies because they continue to be their babies’ primary source of nutrition. Healthy, whole foods promote wellness and weight loss. On the other hand, processed foods are often high in sugar, unhealthy fats, salt, and calories, all of which can counteract weight loss efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).4
Breastfeeding moms are also advised to stay hydrated – after all, breast milk is more than 80% water, especially the first milk that comes with each feed.5 Drinking more water (and, subsequently, cutting back on high-calorie drinks like pre-pregnancy alcohol habits) has been linked to weight loss. According to Johns Hopkins University, drinking more water can lead to more efficient workouts, improved blood flow, fat burning, and stress reduction.6
What About Breastfeeding and Weight Gain?
While many anecdotal stories are circulating about the link between breastfeeding and weight gain, the science isn’t there to correlate the two exclusively. Instead, it’s best to view weight gain while breastfeeding as a possibility based on several related factors.
For many women, the fifth trimester, also known as “return to work,” marks one of the most challenging, stressful transitions of their lifetime. I know it was for me. Consider how your body responds when you think of past stressful chapters in your life. For some, weight pours off them; for others, it piles on.
Weight Gain Factors
Individual behavior, genetics, and lifestyle choices play significant roles in each person’s unique response, but a typical weight gain culprit is cortisol, commonly referred to as the “stress” hormone. This hormone is essential in regulating the conversion of fats and proteins to energy and can impact your metabolism in a significant way.
According to the Clevland Clinic, weight gain, especially in your face and abdomen, is a common side effect of high cortisol levels.7 Some other symptoms aside from weight gain include:
- Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades
- Wide, purple stretch marks on your abdomen
- Muscle weakness in your upper arms and thighs
- High blood sugar, which can turn into Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Excessive hair growth in people assigned female at birth
- Weak bones (osteoporosis) and fractures
Bigger Appetite During Breastfeeding Plays a Part
Did we already mention that making milk and sustaining another human while caring for yourself and other family members while balancing work and real-world responsibilities is hard? Chances are, breastfeeding will cause you to work up an appetite to replace all that energy you’re losing.
Prolactin is the hormone that tells your body to make milk. The prolactin level increases throughout your pregnancy until it’s 10 to 20 times higher than usual.8,9 This hormone can also increase your appetite, which may mean more trips to the kitchen to snatch up extra snacks and satisfy those cravings.
Of course, if you consume more calories than are needed for milk production, those extra calories could lead to weight gain rather than weight loss. Prolactin levels also tend to creep up during physical or emotional stress.9 You know, like every day spent adjusting to life after bringing your new baby into the world and being their primary caretaker.
Maintain a Healthy, Balanced Diet
I understand the unrealistic pressure society puts on us (and we put on ourselves) to fit back into our pre-pregnancy jeans once that adorable baby bump isn’t hosting a baby anymore. But it’s essential to remember that maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, staying hydrated, and snacking are vital for your and your baby’s health.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns that women who eat less than 1,800 calories per day or experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and fatigue may reduce the amount of milk their bodies make.10 Do yourself and your baby a favor — set aside weight fixations, relax and take care of your amazing body. This is only one season of life in a long and beautiful book.
Whatever way your breastfeeding journey shapes you—physically and emotionally—it’s your journey to own. It may come with its fair share of happy, sad, and frustrated tears, but try to show your body some deep respect and gratitude along the way. You are everything to that little person you just grew and brought into this world. You are strength, you are safety, you are home. Hopefully, you see that when you look in the mirror, stretch marks, scars, leaking boobs, and all.