This article is part of a series on weight loss using European approaches to losing weight and staying fit. This latest article highlights my personal experience with breastfeeding my four children. Would love your opinion! Let me know how you are doing with your weight goals or if you have a question about breastfeeding.
The Real Skinny On Breastfeeding and Losing That Post-Baby Weight
There comes a point in your pregnancy when you think about how you will feed your baby. Breast or bottle? There are many benefits of breastfeeding, and one big benefit for mom: if you breastfeed, you have the potential to zip back to your pre-pregnancy weight and body.
But the term zip back might be a tad too optimistic.
You do eventually lose the weight, but the weight doesn’t just fall from you, just because you are breastfeeding. I will tell you here what really happens, for most women, and from my experiences. And it is all good.
Memories of graduate school and fat layered hips
Back way-too-long-ago when I was a student at Colorado State University I remember a course I took on “Pregnancy and Nutrition.” Our professor, (we adored her), didn’t have any children but she was a whiz at delivering these informative lectures on maternal nutrition, pregnancy and breastfeeding.
I still remember her lessons, and here in this article on breastfeeding, I am reminded of what she taught us on breastfeeding and nutrition (paraphrasing here):
- You burn 700 calories a day to make breast-milk (WOW!)
- You put fat cells on your hips and upper thighs during pregnancy that are used for ‘fuel to make breast milk’ during breastfeeding
- It is the perfect and best milk for the baby (of course).
- Breastfeeding helps your uterus (and thus your stomach) to return to its pre-pregnant shape because of the hormones released during breastfeeding
Well, there was more in those lectures. A lot more. Enough to make me convinced that if (one day) I was to have a child, I would breastfeed. And it would be easy because breastfeeding is so natural. And my stomach would shrink back in (like magic). And those (not too wanted) fatty hips that were there for a reason would magically be burnt off from needing ‘fuel’ calories. Plus, (oh la la), 700 calories a day burnt away from making breast milk? That is a lot of calories. It would be easy to lose weight.
What do scientists say about breastfeeding and weight?
Researchers point to two factors on breastfeeding and weight. First has to do with prolactin, the hormone that is released during breastfeeding. Prolactin stimulates milk production, but it also stimulates your hunger. Prolactin=hunger. So it is normal to be hungry during breastfeeding. And if you are (ravenously) hungry you might eat the wrong foods that will not only encourage weight gain but will make it happen.
The longer time a mother breastfeeds the more weight she loses post birth. So what does that mean to the average breastfeeding mother? This means that you should breastfeed longer than the average mom, and this means to breastfeed at least three months and ideally six months (or more).
What really happened with my first child’s breastfeeding experience
So, I had my first baby about 15 years ago. (Her birthday is coming up-cannot believe she will soon be 15!) And I made the decision to breastfeed my baby. Luckily when I was working for WIC (Women, Infant, Children Program) because at my job I was trained to counsel women to breastfeed, so I knew what to expect. Breastfeeding wasn’t as ‘au naturale’ as I would have thought, but all was going well.
Except I was like crazy hungry. And so what do you do when you are crazy hungry? You eat. and eat more. and more.
For the first three months of breastfeeding I was hungry and my weight didn’t go down.
And then, just from one day to the next, my crazy hunger just slowed down
And the weight started coming off gradually.
Right around the beginning of the fourth month of breastfeeding I noticed that my baby was spacing out her breastfeeding sessions and also she was taking more breast milk in at a time. And I wasn’t as hungry as before. In fact, my appetite felt like before my pregnancy, I wasn’t crazy hungry, just normal hungry.
And when I started eating less, the weight just came off gradually. I also felt better. I was sleeping more and was starting to go out for long walks and going to the gym. It was all good. And best of all, my baby was doing great from breastfeeding and I didn’t have to worry about bottles.
And with each pregnancy there after, (and I had four babies) all breastfed, all for quite a long time each, (at least a year or more) , the story was the same: breastfeeding in the beginning didn’t help me to lose weight because I was crazy hungry. I was sitting a lot (quite sedentary) because the baby was asking for milk often (at night too-of course). and was tired and recovering and I wasn’t back into a major exercise regime yet.
And sometimes, your weight can even increase the first few months after baby is born while breastfeeding. Maybe. Each person is different. To gain weight during the first month of breastfeeding can happen, and with longer breastfeeding time the weight eventually comes off.
And when the weight starts to comes off, it just keeps falling
I breastfed all four babies for a year each (my son for 15 months). And from the fourth month onwards the weight does come off (sometimes too much weight can come off too quickly if you don’t have much of an appetite and you are exclusively breastfeeding).
In other words, don’t stop breastfeeding at three months (the common period where women stop). In general, the weight loss benefits start from three months onwards and by exclusively breastfeeding six months or more (weaning starts at six months with the introduction of food), everyone benefits.
So what’s the skinny on breastfeeding and weight?
Breastfeeding does help you to lose weight and get back to your pre-pregnancy weight and body. Hormones, prolactin and oxytoxin, are released during breastfeeding and help to get your uterus back to where it was before and to help produce milk.
You will lose weight eventually when you breastfeed, but it may not be immediate. And that is what nature intended. To hang onto some body stores to be sure that you are the baby are both on the right nutrition track.
With all this emphasis on weight, the real benefits of breastfeeding are not judged by the scale
Breastfeeding is one of the most intimate gestures between a mom and her baby. Unfortunately for some of these great dads out there, it isn’t physiologically possible to breastfeed. Breastfeeding helps bonding process with the baby. Breast milk is the easiest milk to digest. It has different flavors depending on mom’s diet. It has anti-bodies and immune boosting proteins. The baby learns about hunger and full cues because it is them that decide when they are full. And so.much.more.
I will never regret my time breastfeeding my children. They are all super healthy and I am sure the longer-term breastfeeding helps play an important factor in why.
Other ways to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight when breastfeeding
First to remember is that it takes time (and some efforts) to get your body back:
- Don’t worry about losing weight until at least 6 weeks postpartum
- Breastfeed exclusively
- Walking and other exercise helps you to feel good and move your body
- Listen to your hunger and full cues: your body knows best and will tell you what it needs
- Drink a lot of water
- When the hunger crazies slow down, it is time to slow down the eating
- Breastfeed exclusively for six months at least and wean onto foods while continuing to breastfeed
- Gain the ‘right’ amount of weight when pregnant
The last tip is one of the most critical to getting your pre-pregnancy body back
One of the ‘easier’ ways to getting your pre-pregnancy body back is to gain the right amount of weight during pregnancy. It is not always easy, but if you start breastfeeding and you are just over your normal weight, it will be easier to get that weight down to your pre-pregnancy weight.
The European culture and breastfeeding
When I had my baby we went home from the hospital with free formula samples. And I went home quickly based on European standards (back then it was four days in the hospital for a C-section, now it could even be less!).
In Europe you can stay longer at Le Clinique to have your baby, whether it is delivered naturally or by C-section (my last J-was born by C-section in France and I stayed nine days!) . This longer hospital stay helps for breastfeeding success because you can establish breastfeeding before you leave the hospital and not at home where you might not have neither the expertise nor support.
And there is no free formula or formula coupons to come home with in France. So, there is less temptation at 4 am to whip out the free formula and put it in a bottle for baby because breastfeeding is not going well and the baby is crying and you don’t know what to do.
It isn’t always easy. But it is worth it. For mom and baby.
Breast is Best.
I really encourage you to breastfeed. This article is on breastfeeding and weight, because I wanted to highlight that most women in the beginning of breastfeeding do not lose weight.
But weight is just a number. There are so many great benefits to breastfeeding.
The weight does come off. Eventually. So persevere. And breastfeed for longer than three months. You will see what happens.
If you need more information on anything in this article, you can also contact me with any questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are looking for one to one counseling via Skype or telephone, I also counsel private clients. Contact me and I can send you a list of my services.
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