They said that breastfeeding can help you lose baby weight quickly. An RD explains why this is not always a win for motherhood.
Mothers feel a lot of pressure to “bounce back” after giving birth. A royal mom knows this better than anyone. There was just as much talk about Meghan Markle’s “baby bump” when she stepped out with her baby, Baby Sussex, for the first time.
Although Meghan was applauded by many moms, including me, for wearing a belted trench to highlight her postpartum body (because hello! that’s actually real life), I cringed at the comments she made.
“Oh, that’s normal. But she’ll lose that weight so quickly if she’s nursing.”
They said that breastfeeding can help you lose fat.
Yes, that promise was true. I was also led to believe breastfeeding was the equivalent to a less painful “Biggest loser Challenge” at home. (Or perhaps more painful if your baby is a baby-biter).
I was taught that each time I went to the boob, my love handles and pooch belly would melt away. I would be wearing my pre-baby, prefertility treatments and pre-wedding jeans in no matter how many sessions.
Some moms I met in Facebook groups said they could still fit into their high school clothes and they barely left the couch. Yes! It’s a win for womenhood!
This mom-wisdom made perfect sense to me science-driven brain. It’s been estimated that breastmilk production is about 20 calories per ounce. For the majority of my breastfeeding journey, I was pumping around 1,300 milliliters per day. That would translate to approximately 900 calories extra.
If you do a little math, I could theoretically have lost more than seven pounds each month without changing my diet and exercise routine. Barry’s Bootcamp is dead. Just give birth to a baby and let them go on the boob.
It turns out that it is not the weight loss promise I had hoped for after giving birth.
Our bodies don’t work the same way as they did in calculus class. This is especially true when hormones are involved. This is a case in point: I am a dietitian, and my weight loss was slowed down as I became more breastfed. I also gained fat.
And apparently, I’m not the only one. Trusted Source reviewed the 2013 research and found that breastfeeding didn’t alter the weight of the baby.
What? You would think that the universe would give us some grace after we endured morning sickness, insomnia and birth.
Why isn’t the math adding up? Let’s take a look at the main reasons breastfeeding is not the weight loss miracle it claims to be.
1. Literally, you ‘ate for two.
The belief that breastfeeding can help you lose weight was before the widespread acceptance of the notion that you need to eat for two during pregnancy. Although this belief may make pregnancy seem more appealing, the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionTrusted Source says that pregnant women need only 340 calories extra in their second trimester and about 450 calories extra in their third.
What is the translation? It’s basically a glass of milk with a muffin. According to a 2015 studyTrusted Source nearly half of pregnant women gained more than recommended during pregnancy. A large reviewTrusted Source of studies linked this to an additional 10 pound weight retention 15-years later.
It’s possible that not losing enough weight or being overweight during pregnancy can be even more trouble, as it has been linked to developmental problemsTrusted Source and the risk of metabolic disturbances in your baby and, in extreme cases, infant death.
Instead of counting calories or treating every meal for the nine months like a marathon over, I suggest listening to your body and observing any subtle changes in your hunger.
Although I’ve always had a large appetite, nothing could prepare me, my husband or anyone around me for the intense hunger that I felt after giving birth. My milk arrived within a day and I realized my tiny bowl of steel-cut oats with berries, and a small sprinkling hemp hearts were not enough to quell my hunger pangs.
My dietetics practice would recommend that people pay attention to their hunger cues in order to avoid becoming so hungry that you overindulge. It wouldn’t have been difficult to overindulge if I hadn’t gotten better at anticipating my Michael Phelps-like hunger.
Women are also known to overeat out of fear of running out. Breastfeeding support groups advise that women eat like queens to make it rain milk.
A dietitian who had difficulty with supply and breastfeeding, I would happily have overshot my needs any day. However, I accepted that keeping on top of my supply was worth it.
You don’t need to be a mathematician in order to calculate your exact calorie requirements — whether you are breastfeeding or not. Listen to your body. You can eat intuitively, responding to hunger when it occurs, and you will be able to better align your intake with your needs.
3. You are slacking on sleep (obviously …)).
This is not a lifestyle choice, we know. However, chronic sleep deprivation has never been a good option for healthy weight maintenance.
ResearchTrusted Source consistently shows that if we don’t get enough shut-eye, we experience a rise in hunger hormone (ghrelin), and a dip of our satietyhormone (leptin), which causes appetites to increase.
Scientists at the University of CaliforniaTrusted Source found that people with poor sleep habits tend to eat higher-calorie foods than their well-rested counterparts.
This disturbing story has many more parts. A lot of people wake up in the middle of the night with a hungry baby and a raging appetite.
You’re an extraordinary superhuman if you think that you can make a healthy bowl of greens for yourself at 2 a.m. to eat as a nursing snack during your sleep-deprived, semi-deranged state.
Cereal, crackers, chips, salty nuts, and chips. If it was a stable carb that I could keep near my bed, it was being shamelessly shoved into mine before dawn.
4. Hormones, schmormones
While we all agree that estrogens from females can be a problem, they are arguably doing their job to keep breastfed babies nourished. Prolactin is sometimes referred to affectionately by some as the “fat-storinghormone”. It is released postpartum to stimulate milk production.
Although research in this area of prolactin is sparse, many lactation consultants, doctors, and disgruntled mothers believe that our bodies have metabolic adaptations to keep excess fat “insurance” for the baby.
This means that if you are temporarily left on an island without food, there will be at least something to feed your baby.
5. Not surprisingly, you’re stressed
The “fourth trimester”, when we take into account the stress of the fourth trimester, the postpartum pains, the newborn challenges, shifting hormones and the steep breastfeeding learning curve, is a stressful period. ResearchersTrusted Source found that weight retention after birth is linked to overall stress and maternal stress.
ResearchTrusted Source also discovered that weight retention was associated with higher cortisol levels, the hormone associated with stress.
Although I wish I could give you a quick tip on how to relax, the first few months can be a real struggle. You can make some time for yourself by asking your partner, friend or family member to help. There is a light at end of the tunnel, so keep your eyes open.
6. Supply is a problem
Many women find breastfeeding difficult or not “natural”. They resort to medication and supplements to increase their supply. Metoclopramide (Reglan), and domperidone (“Motilium”) are often prescribed to mothers as an off-label lactation aid. However, they are also used in the general population to treat delayed gastric emptying.
These meds can cause you to feel really hungry very quickly, even if you don’t have gastric emptying problems. As if breastfeeding wasn’t enough to make you want to stay in the pantry forever, there is a drug that will force you to eat every.of.the.time.
Weight gain is not uncommon. Most women don’t believe they can lose any baby weight until they stop taking the drug.