Pregnancy Articles

Getting Back to Your Pre-Pregnancy Weight While Breastfeeding

How to Lose Safely and Gradually

NOTE: If you are NOT breastfeeding, please refer to the Getting Back to Your Pre-Pregnancy Weight article. This information in this article applies specifically to women who are breastfeeding.

The Basics of Pregnancy Weight Gain
During pregnancy, it was beneficial to your baby for you to gain a healthy amount of weight. At the same time, you were encouraged not to gain too much. Of the weight you gain during pregnancy, five to 12 pounds is typically maternal stores (supplies of extra fat that can be used as energy). However, if you gained more weight than recommended during pregnancy, you might have larger maternal stores. The larger the maternal store you have at the end of pregnancy, the harder your weight loss challenge after delivery.

Fat reserves serve as the body's insurance plan for available energy. The human body is designed to protect itself from starvation during times when food isn't readily available. When you eat too little, especially during times that your body requires more energy, such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, or illness, your body perceives itself as starving. Regardless of whether it is perceived or real starvation, your metabolism (the rate at which energy is used) will slow as a coping mechanism so it can preserve energy.

Fat reserves are necessary to make sure the body can continue to function 24/7. Fat reserves ensure energy is always available, even when we are not supplying it through regular meals and snacks. Slowing your metabolism when it's not getting enough fuel if your body's way of rationing those stores of precious fat.

The Basics of Weight Loss after Delivery
By tracking your food and making healthy choices, you should begin to slowly lose weight and return to your pre-pregnancy weight. However, sometimes there are small changes and tweaks that are needed to help the body begin to use the extra maternal stores for breastfeeding energy instead of storing it. The goal is to encourage your body to use maternal energy stores so you return to your pre-pregnancy weight.

Your body was designed to produce milk to feed your little one. Maternal stores serve as a wonderful and constant available energy source to ensure your body can produce milk at the rate and amount your little one needs. Breastfeeding is not only the best way to nourish your little one; 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 750 calories a day more than your body needs to maintain its pre-pregnancy weight. The goal in post-pregnancy nutrition is to encourage the body to dip into those maternal stores 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 breastmilk will allow you to see safe, gradual weight loss.

For women having trouble losing weight while breastfeeding, the problem isn't that they're eating too much. More often, they're eating insufficient calories. Cutting calories while breastfeeding prompts the body to think it is starving, thus slowing down your metabolism. 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. Breastmilk is 50% water, and water is also an important part of the metabolic process. A good rule of thumb is to drink at least eight ounces after every nursing session around the clock.

  • Hunger cues are the way the body lets you know it is in need of more energy. Do not ignore hunger cues or delay responding, 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 was high in carbohydrates. Since they 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 into your post-pregnancy 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. Your little one can also be a great partner for strength training as well.

  • Remember that you gained weight slowly and you should lose weight slowly. 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 good rule of thumb if you are very active is to eat an additional 100 calories for every mile run or 15 minutes of exercise over and above the increased needs you have for breastfeeding. So, if you run three miles, you'll need to add 300 calories throughout the day.

  • 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 providing an adequate milk supply. Instead of focusing on losing 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. 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 reserves.

  • It is also important to note at this stage post-pregnancy that 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, your weight-loss efforts could suffer.

  • 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 and trust that you body will respond as it should to nourish your baby and yourself.

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About The Author

Tanya Jolliffe
Tanya earned a bachelor's degree in dietetics and nutrition and has more than 15 years of nutrition counseling experience. She has worked with clients in such areas as prenatal nutrition, general family nutrition and therapeutic nutrition in end-stage organ disease.

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