Nutrition Articles

11 Tips to Help You Lose Weight while Breastfeeding

You Could Reach Your Pre-Pregnancy Weight without Reducing Your Milk Supply

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During pregnancy, you gained many much-needed pounds to grow and support your baby, but not every pound gained can be attributed to "baby weight" that goes away after your baby is born. A typical pregnancy weight gain (roughly 25-35 pounds) includes five to 12 pounds is maternal fat stores. But if you gained more weight than 35 pounds during pregnancy, you likely have more body fat to lose after baby arrives.

The fat stores you gained during pregnancy do serve a purpose, however. They serve as a wonderful and constant available energy source to ensure your body can produce breast milk at the rate and amount your little one needs. Breastfeeding is not only the best way to nourish your baby; it is also the most efficient way to use your maternal fat stores as they were intended. When you breastfeed, your body converts the nutrients you eat into the milk your baby eats. This is a very energy-demanding process and typically requires 600-750 extra calories each day (above your resting metabolic rate).

The goal in post-pregnancy nutrition is to encourage the body to dip into those maternal stores just slightly. To encourage this process, breastfeeding moms should increase their calories by about 500 calories over pre-pregnancy needs during the first few months. When this process works efficiently, it encourages your body to burn approximately 250 calories a day, which is about the same as 30 minutes of mild to moderate cardio activity. Though you might feel like you're eating more than you ever have (and that might be true), breastfeeding—not pregnancy—is the time when you're actually "eating for two." Eating adequate calories to produce breast milk will allow you to see safe, gradual weight loss.

For women having trouble losing weight while breastfeeding, the problem usually isn't that they're eating too much. More often, they're eating insufficient calories. Cutting too many calories while breastfeeding prompts the body to hold on to stored fat—not burn it. Though it seems counterintuitive, eating more calories will actually facilitate weight loss while breastfeeding.

The Basics of Weight Loss While Breastfeeding
Here are some basic principles to help you begin losing weight after delivery while making sure you are producing adequate milk to meet your little one's needs.
  • Eat balanced meals and snacks every few hours. Newborns generally eat every three to four hours (or more often), which means your body is using energy to produce milk that often.
     
  • Drink plenty of water. Breast milk is 50% water, and water is also an important part of the metabolic process. Try to drink at least eight ounces after every nursing session around the clock to stay hydrated.
     
  • Hunger cues are the way the body lets you know it is in need of more energy. Do not ignore hunger cues or delay eating even if you only ate a short time before. If you're hungry just an hour or two after eating, perhaps the meal or snack you had wasn't balanced enough. Since carbohydrates are a primary energy source, your body burns through them very quickly. Make sure you also have protein or fat with your carbohydrates to see if this pattern changes and you are satisfied longer.
     
  • After you have been released for exercise by your medical provider, it is important to include some activity in your post-pregnancy weight-loss plan. Work to establish a fitness routine that gradually increases in frequency and duration. Be sure to include both cardio and strength training exercises that focus on your core.  Try to include baby when possible. Strollers or front-of-the-body baby carriers provide wonderful resistance to help get your heart rate up while walking. Get outside or to a mall to walk and spend time with baby.
     
  • Remember that you gained weight slowly over 40 weeks, which means you should not expect to lose it overnight. Don't try to do anything drastic to lose weight faster. Instead, work on establishing healthy eating and fitness habits that will allow you to maintain a healthy rate of weight loss without dieting. Remember it is important to include a variety of foods in your healthy eating plan.
     
  • If you are exercising, have a physically demanding or active job, or spend much of your day running around after other children and caring for your home, you may need even more calories than you think. Most times, hunger will help guide your intake to meet these increased needs as you work or care for your family. As long as you are listening to your hunger cues and eating enough to satisfy those cues, you should be meeting your body's needs. A general guideline for very active moms is to eat an additional 100 calories for every mile ran or every 15 minutes of exercise you do. So, if you run three miles, you'll need to add 300 calories throughout the day on top of the extra calories you're eating to maintain your milk supply.
     
  • Some new breastfeeding moms will continue to lose more weight after reaching their pre-pregnancy weight because they have developed an efficient metabolic rate. This may seem ideal, but it can lead to a decrease in milk production, which is not desirable if you hope to continue breastfeeding.
     
  • If you want to drop below your pre-pregnancy weight, realize that your body may or may not cooperate. If weight loss was difficult before pregnancy, more than likely, you will have trouble both losing additional weight and maintaining an adequate milk supply. Instead of focusing on losing extra weight, consider your return to a pre-pregnancy weight a great success and focus on strength training to increase muscle strength and definition. The added muscle will help boost your metabolism!
Getting the Scale to Budge
Let's face it. Sometimes those last five or 10 pounds don't want to budge. Here are some tips to help problem solve:
  • If you were a yo-yo dieter or dealt with disordered eating issues before pregnancy, your body might hold on to those maternal fat stores as insurance out of fear of returning to a too-low bodyweight. Your body remembers all those times it wasn't fueled properly, and given the chance, it wants to guard against that happening again. The best way to prevent this is to eat properly (as outlined above) for the first three months after delivery. Increasing your calories is the best way to get your metabolism going. It may take several weeks of consistently meeting or exceeding your energy needs to get your body to respond by beginning to release those maternal fat stores.
     
  • It is also important to note at this post-pregnancy stage, stress can have a negative effect on weight loss. Your body's normal "fight or flight" mechanism responds to perceived danger by releasing adrenaline and cortisol to speed up your heart rate, slow digestion and move blood flow to major muscle groups and away from those of the digestive system. If you are rushing through your meals, live under a great deal of stress or get very little sleep (like most new moms), your weight-loss efforts could suffer. Here are some ways to recognize chronic stress and help reduce it.
     
  • Sometimes even when people do everything right, they still do not see the scale move. This may be related to hormones, medical conditions or a combination of the two. Sometimes there isn't anything more you can do but focus on maintaining your weight, making healthy food choices and exercising for good health. Once you stop breastfeeding, you can ramp up your weight-loss efforts to see if that helps, noting any symptoms that might be signs of a health issue and talking with your medical provider about what you are experiencing.

Remember that breastfeeding provides your little one with a wonderful nutritional start to life as well as creating lifelong bonding between the two of you. That is something much more important than a number on a scale and provides a wonderful value that is worth the price of a changing body. Don't give up in frustration. Stay focused on what you are doing right. Trust that your body will respond as it should to nourish your baby and yourself—and weight loss will come sooner or later.

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About The Author

Tanya Jolliffe Tanya Jolliffe
Tanya earned a bachelor's degree in dietetics and nutrition and has more than 20 years of experience in nutrition counseling and education. She is a member of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. See all of Tanya's articles.