Post-partum weight loss seems to be top of mind for many new moms. Part of this is an innate drive to return to our previous physique but I would argue the majority of our motivation stems from external influences.
These unrealistic expectations have wired our brains to expect a magical post-partum shedding of baby weight by simply breastfeeding or chasing after our toddlers which is the answer every celebrity named Jessica gives when asked how she got her body “back”. Note my sarcasm.
While some women are able to lose weight breastfeeding, there are many women who do not.
This can be a hard pill to swallow for those that are frustrated with a limited wardrobe and in the process of working through post-partum body image. Not only are we familiarizing ourselves with a totally new identity as a mother, but we also may feel internal or external expectations to return to a previous version of ourselves (physically and emotionally).
Compounding frustration may be stories of friends, family members and peers who say the weight just melted off with breastfeeding. I really think this tends to be more the exception than the rule though.
I personally have not lost any weight since 5 days post-partum. I exercise most days of the week and eat a diet full of vegetables, seafood, meat, broth, fruit & adequate snacks. I am a healthy weight for my frame, able to sustain my milk supply to nourish my daughter at least 7-8 times a day, and fuel myself with enough food to energize my workouts. I am still 10 pounds over my normal weight and am 5-feet-tall. It’s noticeable and wardrobe-limiting, but more importantly it means my body is supporting my breastfeeding relationship by reserving its energy stores from something far more meaningful than a few aesthetic pounds.
Those are just 3 of many ways I feel healthy and happy in my “new body”. No it may not look the same – my breasts sag (one is quite a bit larger than the other due to her feeding preference), my hips are wider and I still don’t fit into some of my old pants, but I have nursed my daughter almost 4,000 times in the first year of her life. And that feels a lot better than any skinny jean would ever feel.
But after participating in several motherhood groups, I realize that many breastfeeding women are still frustrated with their weight despite being fully immersed in the joy that is motherhood. I wanted to do a little digging during my acceptance process (it’s been a difficult one and still is some days) because I enjoy learning about the physiological state of my body and hormones.
I’m writing this article in hopes that other breastfeeding women who feel frustrated with their weight loss resistance understand the strong influence lactation hormones have on our physiology and begin the process of acceptance of their beautiful breastfeeding bodies.
With this knowledge, we can continue to support and love our bodies through nutrition, movement, sleep, laughter and our favorite self-care activities. By understanding the incredible diligence of our lactating bodies, we can honor our current physical state with respect, love and nurturing, just like we do with our babies.
Some days will be harder than others. If you can tip the scales towards a more positive body image the majority of the time, your mental health will improve. Nothing feels worse than occupying our time and thoughts with an obsession about how we look. We’re missing the point of life (and joyful moments with the life you created). We’re only on this earth in this body once – how much time of it do you want to spend thinking about your appearance?
When those hurtful thoughts enter your mind, don’t just ignore them or let them fester and ruin your day. Address them. Ask yourself what just happened to cause that thought to occur? What is the underlying emotion – a feeling of inadequacy? Feeling under-appreciated by others? Mourning your previous life? You may have an unmet need that requires a fairly simple solution. My body image improved post-partum when I hired a nanny 6 hours a week and was able to leave the house do whatever I wanted – go to the beach, the gym, a coffee to shop to work. My weight hasn’t changed, but my sense of self has.
You not losing weight is not your fault. It is your body’s way of protecting your child by protecting your supply. Exercise and diet does not override your hormones.
Prolactin is the main hormone responsible for lactation. Prolactin is elevated during pregnancy along with estrogen and progesterone which prevent the production of breastmilk during pregnancy despite the presence of prolactin.
After a woman gives birth, estrogen and progesterone drop dramatically and a few days later our breastmilk comes in as prolactin remains high. The continued suckling of a baby sends a signal to your pituitary gland in your brain to produce more prolactin, subsequently maintaining your breastmilk supply. As long as you continue to nurse, your brain will continue to make prolactin and to a varying level suppress progesterone and estrogen. Prolactin levels are also dependent on pre-existing maternal conditions, genetics and stress.
You may have noticed that with the return of your post-partum period you see a dip in your supply a few days prior and during. That’s because estrogen and progesterone are no longer suppressed continuously and are cycling up and down as you ovulate and menstruate.
This inverse relationship between female sex hormones and prolactin may be a cause of weight loss resistance since adequate levels of estrogen and progesterone promote the metabolism of fat.
More importantly, prolactin decreases the ability of our tissues to metabolize fat according to a Swedish study of 30,000 women and men. Now the cohort in this study weren’t breastfeeding, so that’s my only issue with the study design, but it does give us potential insight into lactation-induced weight loss resistance.
Other lifestyle factors that contribute to weight loss resistance post-partum include the lack of time available for energy expenditure through exercise. Prior to giving birth, I had time to do a 45-minute circuit everyday and take my dog for 2 long walks, one in the morning and one in the evening. These days, my goal is to do something activity 30 minutes a day, which means I’m about 6 to 8 hours less active each week.
A breastfeeding woman also has an increased demand on her energy and nutrient stores. We must listen to our hunger signals to sustain our supply and properly nourish both ourselves and our babies. This isn’t the time to diet and cut calories, or we may compromise our supply and our health quickly.
I’ve seen this time and time again with friends. They want to lose the baby weight and subsequently their milk supply falls and they end up weaning their baby as early as a couple months old. This is likely the reason me and my sisters didn’t receive the benefits of extended nursing. My mom said she didn’t produce enough milk, but we both agree it’s because she wasn’t taking care of herself nutritionally. This lack of flexibility in our energy intake in order to maintain supply is another contributing factor to our decreased ability to return to our previous size.
So what’s a nursing mama to do?
Understand the physiological reasons for your inability to lose weight or fat. Your body is smarter than you are & wants to preserve its back-up energy source via fat stores. The human body does not thrive in a famine, and it will do what it needs to prevent a famine environment, especially when a baby is involved.
Respect your body for what is has given this earth. You have created a life-giving force that will change this world. What it looks like in a mirror, or to other people is irrelevant to the health of your child and the lifelong love and bond between the two of you.
Do your best to nourish your body with the food and energy it needs to recover from pregnancy, maintain your supply, and keep your mood balanced. It’s 100% okay if your nutrition is not “on point” every single day. That is an exhausting expectation to put on yourself. If you think you “should” be eating certain foods, remove that negative energy expectation from your mindset. Instead, choose to eat nourishing foods, or choose to eat ice cream for dinner. But don’t feel guilty about your choice either way.
Move your body in ways that feel good to you. Same goes for exercise as it does for food: choose activities that you genuinely enjoy even if that means not renewing your Crossfit membership and walking an hour a day instead. This may not be the time to PR your deadlift or train for a marathon. You are doing the work of Mother Nature right now – and that is plenty of energy expenditure for a human body.
Find clothes that fit. I’ve had to overhaul key pieces of my wardrobe several times since conceiving. Breastfeeding and motherhood changes the shape of many women’s bodies. My bra size, shoulder width and hip width is greater now. Instead of stuffing myself in clothes that don’t fit properly, I decided which staples I couldn’t live without and found flattering pieces. For summer, several comfortable dresses, shorts and cute sandals go a long way.
Give comparison the axe. It’s easy to compare ourselves to other women. We may have feelings of jealousy when we see women without children, or women with children with body types we envy. Or we may compare our current self to our previous self – the most harmful comparison of them all. Something I have learned in my adulthood is the way someone looks has little to no bearing on their happiness, health, integrity, or heart. A woman who secretly struggles with disordered eating may look beautiful to someone else, but she may be wracked with anxiety and in chronic state of depression. Or a new mom who looks like she has it together may be struggling with her body image, marriage or maternal identity. When we judge others and compare them to ourselves, we are telling a double lie. Focus on your health, your baby’s health and the beautiful bond and family you have selflessly created.
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