Breastfeeding and Fat Loss
“Nurse your baby!” the experts say, “You’ll burn so many more calories! The baby weight will just melt right off.”
Ever since my very first baby was born years ago, I’ve been suspicious of these experts who advised that breastfeeding would cause me to lose the baby weight faster. It sure never helped me. As a matter of fact, it was only after weaning that I would lose any fat at all, but then again, I was super unhealthy back then and not eating well. (Read my comparison of my healthy and unhealthy pregnancies here.)
Baby #4 was my real test. I stayed active throughout pregnancy, performing my last workout of squats and burpees just days before he was born. I was a nutrition coach and followed a highly nutritious diet. Postpartum, I have followed my pre-pregnancy workout schedule and diet, and I have made great progress, losing all but the last 5-10 pounds within the first 6 months postpartum. And so with those last few pounds not budging no matter what I do (I’m still nursing at 12 months postpartum at this writing), I have to wonder:
If you burn so many calories from nursing, about 500 on average per day, then why in the world do some mothers have such a hard time dropping the last few pounds? And why do the experts tell us the opposite is true? Here is what I found in the latest scientific studies.
Breastfeeding Does Burn Calories, but….
If you’re a breastfeeding mom, you’ve probably heard that nursing will burn 500 calories a day. This is surely the reason the experts tell us that breastfeeding will help us lose the baby weight, that’s like a killer workout!
However, so many other factors that come into play when discussing ANYONE’S metabolism, but especially a woman during her postpartum period. Like:
- Lack of Sleep: A decrease in sleep, typical of just about every new mom, can cause metabolism to slow by causing a hormonal change that can interfere with your hunger signals, causing you to eat more than you actually need.
- Stress: Stress releases cortisol, which slows metabolism, and if you’re also not sleeping much, the cortisol is not being removed from the body at night during restorative sleep. I think we can all agree that even if we are blissfully joyful, most new moms are also highly stressed.
- Less Activity, More Eating: In the first few months postpartum, most moms are sitting with baby more and may have less time for regular activity while they adjust to a new routine (even if they’re working out). In addition, the increase in energy needs for milk production can make you feel ravenous, causing you to eat more than normal, and possibly more than needed.
- Not Enough Eating: Some moms are so busy and overwhelmed in the first months of their baby’s life or mistakenly think they need to cut calories severely to lose weight and don’t eat nearly enough, which can cause the body to believe there is famine and actually store fat as an energy reserve.
- Number of Nursing Sessions: An exclusively breastfed baby who is nursing every hour or two will put a greater energy (calorie) demand on his/her mom than one who is nursing just a few times a day. Therefore, an older baby who is eating solids and nursing less often will require less energy demand on his mother’s body than a newborn. Likewise, any baby who is being supplemented with formula will also require less milk production and therefore calorie demand from her mother.
So the number that is typically thrown out there, 500 additional calories per day, can be way off and totally misleading, depending on the preceding factors.
Even with all of these factors at play, studies found that breastfeeding moms tend to start to lose more weight around the 4 month mark, and even more when they finally wean. Why is this?
One word: hormones.
Hormones During Breastfeeding
During breastfeeding, hormones are very different than any other time in life. Breastfeeding mothers experience a drop in testosterone and estrogen, which are both fat burning, and an increase in prolactin.
Prolactin is the hormone that causes your body to produce breastmilk (prolactin = pro-lactation). It is elevated during pregnancy, but is kept in check by progesterone and estrogen levels, which both drop right after the baby is born. This allows the effects of prolactin to begin and the milk to come in for the baby. Prolactin levels rise every single time the baby nurses, signaled by nipple stimulation. So what does this have to do with fat loss?
Prolactin hormone is – TA-DAHHHH – also linked to fat storage. It makes sense that our bodies would put some sort of safeguard into place to protect baby’s milk supply, and it seems that prolactin may be that safety net. Prolactin seems to keep the nursing mother from mobilizing fat stores, so that there is always an energy reserve in case of famine.
Sometime between the 4-6 month postpartum mark, breastfeeding mothers experience a drop in prolactin. Suddenly, metabolism may begin to increase, and studies show that these mothers will generally start to see more fat loss at this point. Again, once the baby weans, within 24 hours prolactin levels drop again, and this might explain why those stubborn final 5-10 pounds suddenly disappear as fat metabolism returns to pre-lactation/pre-pregnancy levels.
Interestingly enough, prolactin also affects sex drive and fertility, usually causing a low libido, and cessation of periods and ovulation. After the sixth month mark, your periods may return and you might be feeling like your old sexual self – this is a sign that your fertility has returned and prolactin has dropped.
So What Does It All Mean?
I went through dozens and dozens of studies for this article, trying to find a definitive answer to give you: Is it truly more difficult to lose fat while you’re breastfeeding? The truth is that the studies all contradicted each other, and at this time there is no real scientific answer, only my (semi) educated opinion: It can be for some women.
It’s important to remember that EVERYONE is different. We all live our day-to-day lives quite differently, have different hormone profiles and genetics. This is why we all have that one friend who seemed to nurse away all the baby weight and then some with little effort while you worked your butt off with frustrating results. How your body reacts to the changes that come along with nursing will most certainly be different from my body.
However, you can see that the breastfeeding mother does have a different scenario on her hands than the average woman when it comes to fat loss. We are working against hormones, stress, lack of sleep, and exhaustion.
Losing Fat While Breastfeeding
If you’re dead-set on getting off those last few pounds or have an aesthetic goal to reach, then you’ll be happy to know that breastfeeding is not a death sentence to losing the last few stubborn pounds. You CAN lose fat while nursing, it just won’t be the same game as before.
Here are a few fat loss tricks you can try if you want to try and get past the “Prolactin Plateau” (I just made that up and would like to copyright it, please) 🙂
- Instead of counting calories and and adding 500 for nursing, try just having healthy food around and just eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. This takes some practice if you’re a chronic dieter, and I would HIGHLY recommend the book Intuitive Eating to help you with this.
- Fill your plate with mostly protein and veggies, then fill in the rest with fruits, healthy fats, legumes, and whole grains.
- Eat fewer starches, or try eating starches only within 2 hours of your workout. (Starches = bread, pasta, potatoes, crackers, etc, even whole wheat/grain)
- Stop doing long, steady cardio and try HIIT workouts instead. These are great for new moms because they take less time but are actually MORE efficient at calorie burning than steady-state cardio. Try one of these HIIT workouts.
- If you do want to count calories, go to the breastfeeding calorie calculator here, add your info and subtract 15%. If this doesn’t work after a couple of weeks, you can try lowering the amount you are eating by 50 calories per day a week at a time. This will let your body know you aren’t starving so it won’t hold onto the fat, and it also won’t threaten your milk supply. I go into more detail here.
My Experience and My Thoughts
So, yes, breastfeeding did in fact put a little bit of a damper in my plans to get my pre-baby body back, visible abs and all. It became clear to me around the 5 month post-partum mark that while I COULD do it, I just didn’t freaking want to.
I realized that I could work out harder or longer, eat less starch and sugar, follow my own “get ripped plan” that I have written about here, be more strict about my calorie intake, skip the birthday cake at parties, and really focus hard on getting back that body. No excuses, right?
My focus during this first year was on SURVIVAL, people. And most of the time, survival for me meant SELF-CARE. Self-care meant:
- eating foods that nourished me and my baby, gave me energy, and made me feel my best
- exercising because I love it, for just 30 minutes of ME-time, because it gave me energy, but NOT pushing myself to exhaustion and knowing when I was too tired from sleepless nights to make myself do it.
- staying balanced and eating the cake at the party sometimes
- staying centered and meditating daily (Read Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program)
- learning and practicing loving my reflection in the mirror NO MATTER WHAT.
And the fact is, it’s FIVE POUNDS, maybe 10 from my leanest. I’m in the same pre-pregnancy clothes, I feel great, I am healthy and stronger than ever.
Maybe the experts do think that if they tell us that nursing might make losing the baby weight more difficult, we won’t do it. I made the decision to continue anyways, but that is an individual choice for everyone and one that should be informed. Now that you know (well, kind of), will you continue to breastfeed?
- Body Composition Changes during Lactation Are Highly Variable among Women
- Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries
- Oxytocin and prolactin levels in breast-feeding women. Correlation with milk yield and duration of breast-feeding.
- Hormone Prolactin Reduces Fat Metabolism
- Energy metabolism, body composition, and milk production in healthy Swedish women during lactation.
- Breastfeeding and postpartum weight retention in a cohort of Brazilian women