False Promises: Breastfeeding and Weight Loss
False Promises: Breastfeeding and Weight Loss

False Promises: Breastfeeding and Weight Loss

All new moms grapple with hard postpartum realities like sleep deprivation, hormonal shifts, identity crises, body image, and learning how to be patient with themselves as they heal. This is made even more difficult with the added pressures to “get your body back” which usually means in this culture, sadly, to lose weight. Breastfeeding moms get a double message here with the ever-present notion that breastfeeding “burns a lot of calories.” And it is also true that moms who may not want to breastfeed often feel pressured to override that valid need for this reason.

By, Theresa Moutafis, RD, IBCLC, FUEL Dietitian & Courtney Wyckoff, CPT, CES

Let’s get to the bottom of this, debunk this myth, and help you understand what your incredible body is actually going through while breastfeeding. 

So, does breastfeeding burn extra calories? 

This is actually true. It takes a lot of energy to make milk, and the milk itself has macronutrients and therefore calories. It all has to come from somewhere! All of this equals caloric expenditure from your body.

But what does that mean for my weight? 

This is where it all gets fuzzy. Even though you are spending extra calories, this does not necessarily result in losing weight, nor should it. There are many different components to your body’s response to breastfeeding and its relationship to weight, both in terms of gaining and losing weight, including but not limited to:

  • How often you are breastfeeding each day

  • Your baseline metabolism

  • Hormonal shifts

  • Stress and/or trauma from birth 

  • The quality of your postpartum experience

  • Care/support from your partner and community

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Caretaking load of other children

  • Returning 

  • Appetite

  • Feelings of nausea related to hormones and/or breastfeeding

  • Lacking nutrients

  • How many months postpartum you are

  • Medications you may be taking

  • Daily movement or exercise

The fact is that research has been inconclusive regarding breastfeeding and weight loss.  This is, in part because the definitions of nursing (partial vs. exclusive) and time periods studied varied significantly from study to study. This means that the assertion of losing weight while breastfeeding is not actually proven to be true.

But wait, I have to be honest that I really believe I would feel better if I lost weight after having my baby. Is this normal?

Yes, this is entirely normal! You’ve just gone through a long period of pregnancy where your body was completely out of control and completely dedicated to the survival of your baby. Adding to this is the reality that in the postpartum period, your body continues to be the main source of safety and nourishment (whether breastfeeding or not) for your newborn. It is also fraught with a ton of unknowns, very little routine, and a completely upended life in basically every way. The result is often that we want to regain control of whatever we can and focusing on food/weight often feels like the easiest way to regain control. 

It’s also important for us, as new moms, to be able to say, hey I really don’t like how I feel in my body or how I look. We often feel ashamed of admitting this, as if we aren’t doing “body positivity” well or we aren’t as empowered as we thought. The truth is that pregnancy, birth, and postpartum just feels, well, uncomfortable and icky for most of us. We can live with that feeling and still love ourselves. Both can be true at the same time.

The trick here, though, is avoiding the pitfall of believing that changing your weight or “getting your body back” will fix the bigger issue. The bigger issue is that we live in a society that does not fully revere or support the healing we need from pregnancy, birth, and in the newborn phase. And it also doesn’t remind you that you are valuable even when your body changes. In fact, it does quite the opposite, doesn’t it? 

This is a worthy thing to rebel against and to attempt to unlearn so that you can relearn what it means to be worthy and valuable even when (not if) your body is a human body doing human things. It can often be helpful to focus on what you can control, especially that which builds you up rather than tears you down. Here’s our quick list:

  1. Asking your partner/friend for help with your babe if you need a quick nap

  2. Going outside for a change of scenery when you feel swirly and taking a deep breath

  3. Doing safe, moderate movement and breathing to get back to feeling safe if your body

  4. Finding like-minded parents who are going through a similar situation and vent

  5. Focus on the basics of your care: Rest, Food, Water, Laughter, repeat. 

  6. Getting professional help if/when it is warranted (it often is for most of us!)

How can MommaStrong help?

We have two programs specifically geared to this period of time, both of which encourage this kind of approach to your wellness and recovery. The first is called Hazy Days, which is a dedicated postpartum program with gentle, safe 5-minute workouts for each day during the first 8 weeks after birth (you can start anytime). The second is called New Momma and is designed for anyone 2 weeks postpartum through 12 months.