Why Some Women Lose Weight While Breastfeeding and Others Don’t

Lose Weight While Breastfeeding

After having my first baby, I was so proud of my body for bouncing back pretty quickly. I never quite got my pre-baby abs back, but my body shed about 20 pounds within a few weeks of giving birth, and lost most of the rest within about 6 months (honestly, I don’t know exactly because I don’t own a scale!). I nursed my daughter for a little over two years, and was one of those happy breastfeeding cases — I just breastfed myself back to my former body! (Read about my journey the first time around)

Five years later, the second time has been quite different. Though I’m doing everything the same as round one — extended breastfeeding, eating super healthy (give or take a bit of extra pandemic vegan ice cream), and working out way more than usual (hello, home all day!) — my body is stubbornly holding on to more extra weight than I’d care to admit… a full YEAR after giving birth.

Why is this happening??!?! Does breastfeeding actually help you lose weight? What can I do to lose some of this stubborn weight without compromising my milk supply?

So here’s the thing:

Yes, it’s true that breastfeeding helps you lose weight, initially. Nursing your baby requires about 500 extra calories a day (depending on where your caloric baseline is), but you also burn about 20 calories per ounce of milk extracted. On average, you’ll likely burn off more calories nursing than you are adding to your diet, creating a deficit, and leading to some healthy weight loss in the first few months postpartum.

Some women will continue to lose weight, slowly but surely, after the first few months as their hormones stabilize (like me, the first time around!), and as they keep burning calories with extended nursing and attention to healthy eating and movement. But for some (like me, this time around), the exact opposite is true. The increase in prolactin (the hormone that helps you make milk) actually causes you to STORE all that extra fat that your body needs to keep making milk, making weight loss all but impossible while breastfeeding.

So what causes this difference? Why do some mothers luck out while others have to choose between getting their body back or nourishing their little ones with liquid gold?

The research on this is still uncertain, but it does seem like there are some contributing factors that can make it difficult to lose weight while breastfeeding:

  1. Stress: Yes, motherhood can be stressful for all of us. But when you are dealing with chronic stress, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes weight gain and fat retention.
  2. Age: older moms may have trouble losing weight postpartum, especially while breastfeeding. This study shows that women under 30 usually returned to their pre-pregnancy weight by 18 months. Whereas the average 35-year woman held onto an extra 5 pounds, and women over 40 held on to an extra 10 pounds.
  3. Diet: the increase in hunger (due to high prolactin levels) combined with some, let’s say looser definitions on what constitutes healthy eating while breastfeeding can create a caloric surplus that makes it difficult to lose weight. On the flip side, not getting enough calories causes your body to go into emergency mode and store fat to have enough resources to make milk.
  4. Pregnancy weight gain: The more weight you gain during pregnancy, the harder it is to lose it all in the postpartum period.

This all definitely sheds some light on what I’m experiencing this time around.

Lose Weight While Breastfeeding

Stress? Check: mostly due to my challenging 5 year old, the global pandemic (duh) we’re in the middle of, and being stuck at home with two kids (and no yard) for the last 7 months and counting.

Age? Check: now that I’m in my late 30’s, everything from the pregnancy and the postpartum period, to hormonal balance and weight loss has been harder the second time around.

Diet? Check: I’m definitely still eating healthy, but have been snacking more, eating later, and being a lot looser around what I eat for dinner (the most important meal to keep light and easily digestible for weight loss).

Pregnancy weight gain? Check: I gained a whopping 40 lbs this time around (due to illness and horrific joint pains that made it impossible to work out), and only lost an initial 10 during the first few months postpartum.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am ALL about body acceptance and showing love and gratitude for the amazing things my body is capable of. I am grateful for the opportunity to nurse my little one for as long as we both want, and do not take that privilege for granted. By no means do I want to contribute to the pressure we mamas feel around “getting our bodies back” and comparisons to the ridiculous standards set by celebrity culture and the media.

But I also know that carrying around 30 pound of extra weight isn’t good for my body (hello joint pain and compromised heart health!) or my mindset (hello elastic waist bands!). AND I know there are some steps I can be taking to lose some of the extra weight, without compromising my ability to breastfeed.

How to lose weight while breastfeeding (healthfully):

  1. A healthy breastfeeding diet: Studies show that most mothers (after the initial 6 month postpartum period) can maintain a 2000 calorie diet without compromising milk supply. Now I don’t count calories (nor do I typically recommend it), but maintaining a healthy, mostly plant-based diet, with plenty of healthy fats (coconut oil, olive oil, avocado) and lactogenic foods (oats, greens, fennel, carrots, garlic, almonds), while limiting sugar and anything processed is key. I’ve already been doing that, so I’m going to up the ante a bit by committing to 12 hours of overnight intermittent fasting (ie: not eating anything during the 12 hours between dinner and breakfast). This puts the body into fat burning mode and can aid substantially in weight loss. Again, I would not recommend this to moms within the first 6 months of breastfeeding, or moms who are struggling with milk supply.
  2. Eating a lighter dinner: Studies show that consuming your biggest meal of the day before 3pm yields more healthy weight loss than eating it after 3pm. This is also a primary tenet of Ayurvedic eating that I teach and follow. And yet, this was the big healthy habit I let fall by the wayside since getting pregnant. So I’m going back to making lunch my biggest meal of the day, and having a light soup or salad for dinner (making sure to include plant protein and healthy fats).
  3. An increase in healthy exercise: I am definitely in the exercise-to-feel-good-not-punish-yourself camp, and I’m definitely not going to go crazy in this department to lose weight. But when you are no longer seeing results from your current fitness routine, it’s time to shake things up. Look at your routine to see what’s missing — generally I recommend a good mix of body weight routines (like Pilates), light weights, cardio, and yoga. I’ve been doing pilates, cardio, yoga and weight training 5 days a week and literally have seen zero results (WTF prolactin?!?!?!). So I’m going to add an extra Zoom core class into the mix to see if that makes a difference!
  4. Get more sleep: getting a consistent 7-8 (preferably 8) hours of sleep a night increases healthy weight loss and lowers stress. For me, a combination of pandemic anxiety and staying up late getting in some adult time (read: Netflix) after a full 12 hours of being with my kids non-stop has wreaked havoc on my healthy sleep routines. So I’m recommitting to being asleep by 11 at the latest.
  5. Decrease stress: as I mentioned above, stress majorly impacts your body’s ability to lose weight. Obviously, we are living in stressful times right now, which makes it extra important to take some extra steps to lower your stress levels and show your body and mind that everything is ok. Meditation, yoga, spending time in nature, getting some time away from your children, seeing friends, and reading for pleasure (ie: not the news!) are all great ways to lower stress and cortisol levels throughout the day. For me, I’m going to bring back my trusty meditation practice — be it a longer sit before the kids wake up or shorter mini-meditations throughout the day.
  6. Decrease or eliminate alcohol: I know, I know.. that glass of wine in the evening has become a pandemic parenting survival tool for me too. But not only does alcohol add empty calories, but it also interferes with the body’s fat burning mechanisms, slowing down weight loss. So I for one am committing to skipping that glass of wine a few nights a week.

Have any of you mamas had success losing weight while breastfeeding? What worked for you? Share in the comments below!

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