Lose weight while breastfeeding? Breastfeed to lose weight?
For years, women have been indoctrinated to believe the most effective way to lose weight postpartum is to breastfeed. Or that the best reason to breastfeed is for weight loss.
It’s high time to call out this crap for what it is: an instrument of diet culture to manipulate women during one of the most vulnerable times of their lives — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The truth is, this message is destructive and harming new mothers in alarming ways.
Rather than focusing on the things necessary to promote postpartum recovery and healing, new moms are inundated with false promises that prey on their vulnerabilities.
I’ve heard too many stories from moms who did breastfeed but didn’t see any expected weight loss. This left them feeling like failures or as if something was wrong with their bodies. On the other hand, I’ve seen mothers who were really struggling with breastfeeding but felt like they had to push through the pain and discomfort because they believed it was the only thing that would guarantee postpartum weight loss.
For too long, telling women to breastfeed for weight loss has not only created an illusion around breastfeeding and postpartum bodies, it’s served as a distraction for what women really need to be focusing on after birthing and bringing babies into the world. Not to mention, this myth around breastfeeding creates an arbitrary and unrealistic standard for women’s postpartum bodies.
Trying to incentivize a postpartum mom to breastfeed because it will help her lose weight is effectively communicating the message that her body is not good enough as it is.
Can you imagine saying this to a new mom after everything she went through to bring her baby into the world? This is not okay, people, and we need to change this damaging propaganda against pregnant and postpartum moms.
Pushing this idea of weight loss on a brand new mom buries her beneath an impossible amount of pressure to “lose the baby weight” — a message that’s been internalized by all postpartum women due to diet culture.
Don’t postpartum moms have enough to worry about without the added pressures of changing their body size to comply with the arbitrary standards set by diet culture and mainstream media?
Isn’t the gap between expectations and reality wide enough for new moms without adding these additional unrealistic standards over her head?
The sad thing is how this message shifts the focus from the postpartum period being a time of healing and recovery to manipulating weight, food, and body size.
I’ve known too many moms who prematurely forced themselves to start rigid exercise or dieting regimes in a desperate attempt to meet these impossible standards for postpartum women, all the while suffering physical harm on their bodies, as well as emotional and mental distress. I’ve worked with postpartum moms who tore their cesarean incisions from trying to exercise too soon, who had a difficult time breastfeeding because they weren’t eating enough, or who experienced mental health complications triggered by body image distress.
This is not okay.
It’s important that we normalize the body changes women go through during pregnancy and postpartum in order to challenge the arbitrary standards that set up new moms to fail. We need to challenge the diet culture propaganda around weight loss and breastfeeding to create space for women’s bodies to do what they were meant to do.
Let’s shift the focus to help new moms focus on healing, rest and recovery.
Does Breastfeeding Help Weight Loss?
There is no solid scientific evidence supporting the claim that breastfeeding helps support long-term and lasting weight loss.
So why perpetuate this damaging rhetoric?
Studies that have shown a correlation between breastfeeding and weight loss in postpartum moms show no evidence of that weight loss being statistically significant, nor does it demonstrate the weight-loss stuck long-term. Any effect is relatively small and may not be detectable in studies that lack adequate statistical power, have imprecise data on postpartum weight change, or do not account for the exclusivity and/or duration of breastfeeding.
Bottom line: There is no scientific evidence to back up this claim that breastfeeding facilitates weight loss in postpartum moms.
The other thing to note is the potential protective effect of increased fat stores while postpartum and breastfeeding.
Women who are breastfeeding have increased levels of the hormone prolactin, which helps produce and maintain milk supply. The hormone prolactin, which is at an all time high in breastfeeding moms and necessary to produce breast milk, has actually been shown to reduce fat metabolism. Which means that a breastfeeding mom may actually have higher fat stores while breastfeeding.
And you know what?
Higher fat stores in postpartum women serve a protective and proactive function while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding plus being postpartum is one of the most nutrient expensive times of a woman’s life. A woman has a higher need of most nutrients in order to support healing after growing and birthing a baby, as well as to initiate and support breastfeeding (should she decide to do so.)
Nutrient requirements for vitamins A, B6, and C, and for iodine and zinc (among others) are increased by more than 50%, but lactation may actually be protective against certain maternal deficiencies. Having higher fat stores ensures that her body has sufficient energy to work with.
Because of the effects of prolactin in the body, a more common experience for breastfeeding moms is to hold on to and build fat reserves.
If this is normal and biologically advantageous, why aren’t we talking about this? Why aren’t we normalizing what is actually supposed to happen in women’s postpartum bodies?
The damaging myth that women should be losing weight while breastfeeding is not a common experience and perpetuates a false narrative around what breastfeeding should look like. So when a postpartum mom doesn’t have this experience, she begins to believe that her body has failed her.
Even worse, she’ll believe that she is failing.
When there is an overall lack of nutrients and energy, this can create a host of physical and mental side effects for the postpartum mom.
Risks With Postpartum Dieting, Rapid Weight Loss
How might postpartum moms reconcile the “breastfeed to lose weight” message with what their bodies are actually doing?
For one, postpartum moms who are not seeing an expected weight loss shift while breastfeeding may begin to look for other venues to facilitate weight loss.
I’ve worked with a number of postpartum moms who felt something was wrong with their bodies because they weren’t losing weight while breastfeeding. Diet culture puts undue pressure on new moms to not only lose weight, but to do it quickly. Many women are battling with an arbitrary timeline in their head that makes no sense for what their bodies are actually capable of doing, like needing to fit into their pre-baby clothes or lose weight by a certain amount of time.
The truth is, your postpartum body is going to do what it needs to do to not only heal and recover, but to feed your baby.
Your body may be holding on to weight and fat stores as a protective factor. You may have increased hunger levels in order to support what your body needs to cover the nutritional demands of everything you’re going through. Diet culture has demonized increased hunger, appetite and body changes, all which are familiar to a postpartum mom — especially while breastfeeding.
It’s not uncommon for postpartum moms to turn to dieting tactics to try to facilitate weight loss.
Dieting is associated with a number of risk factors for postpartum moms, including but not limited to:
Decreased milk supply if breastfeeding
Body dissatisfaction, which can increase risk of maternal mental health disorders and lead to overall poorer mental health function
Shorter durations of breastfeeding
Prolonged time healing from pregnancy and childbirth
Nutrient deficiencies, which can contribute to physical and mental health complications
Poor mental functioning
You can see how problematic dieting can be for a postpartum mother.
Many moms feel like they have no choice but to resort to dieting tactics, frustrated that breastfeeding is not facilitating weight loss or with how their bodies have changed.
But when you’re preoccupied on manipulating your body size, you’re unable to fully focus on doing what is necessary and needed for you to recover, heal, and thrive during this new season of your life.
Why Postpartum Moms Are Searching For Weight Loss
It’s also important to note some of the potential reasons why postpartum moms may feel a strong pull and sense of urgency to lose weight after having a baby (aside from the damaging rhetoric from diet culture).
One thing I’ve learned from my own experiences is the deeper meaning behind, “I want my body back.”
Because, like all things, there is always more meaning beneath the surface.
When a new mom is saying this, she may also be expressing unspoken feelings like:
I miss a sense of normalcy in my life
I miss my body being my own
I miss having more autonomy and independence
I miss having the freedom to do what I want to do
I miss my relationships being the way they were
There is no question that the body changes that come about after having a baby are uncomfortable.
I think it’s also important to realize that body changes aren’t the only uncomfortable thing happening in your life. Having a baby means adapting to many different changes that are hard and uncomfortable, but we don’t always see the things happening beneath the surface. We might not be able to see past the changes in our body to see the full picture of what is happening at this point of our lives.
In reality, the postpartum season can feel like many things are happening outside of your control. It’s normal to look toward things that you feel like you can control in order to establish a sense of normalcy, to create order out of chaos. Controlling your body size or weight creates an illusion of control, which is why it’s so enticing to pursue.
But don’t miss the forest for the trees here.
Be aware of the other changes that are uncomfortable for you. Understand some of that discomfort you may be feeling in your body may also be related to the greater changes in your life. But changing your body size may not be the answer you’re looking for. In fact, engaging in dieting tactics in an attempt to change your body size may further jeopardize your overall health and well-being, which can make motherhood that much more difficult.
What to Focus on Instead of Postpartum Weight Loss
What can you focus on instead?
It’s helpful to realize that you can still choose to be kind to yourself and make healthful choices that are respectful to your postpartum body, even if you feel indifferent about your body.
You don’t have to rely on feelings about your postpartum body to dictate your choices about caring for your body.
There are many positive and effective ways to support your overall mental and physical health without engaging in dangerous tactics to manipulate your body size. Remember the postpartum period is also a time to recover, restore, and rest to support your healing and mental health.
Here are some ideas to engage in healthful behaviors to support yourself postpartum:
Focus on adequate postpartum nutrition to support healing and mental health
Give yourself permission to slow down and get restorative rest as you’re able
Connect with support groups for community and a sense of belonging
Engage in gentle movement, like walking, yoga and stretching
Get some fresh air and sunshine daily
Drink adequate amounts of water
Take your prenatal vitamins
Connect with a counselor or therapist to support you through this transition
Take a break from social media to give your brain a rest from over-saturation
Allow yourself time to engage in activities that don’t have to do with your baby — like reading a book, coloring, journaling, or any other activity that you might enjoy
You deserve to enter the postpartum season of new motherhood without being weighed down with unrealistic expectations.
You are worthy of the time and space needed to focus on your recovery and healing. Growing your baby and birthing life into the world is nothing less than miraculous.
Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise or make you feel inadequate because your body is not complying with diet culture. You weren’t meant to fit in that mold anyway, and by honoring your individual body and what it needs, you are building a healthy foundation for you and your family for years to come.
How You Feed Your Baby is Your Choice
At the end of the day, how you feed your baby is your choice.
How you decide to feed your baby is a highly personalized choice that should take multiple factors into consideration.
Many women assume because breastfeeding is “natural,” it should be the default decision. But assuming this neglects to consider a new mom and her individual circumstances, including her mental and physical health, her support system, home life, and more.
Ultimately, you should be able to make the choice on how you feed your baby based on what works best for you and your baby. You are part of the equation too, mama. And your decision to breastfeed shouldn’t be based on manipulating your body size through the process or because of false incentivization.
You don’t need to change your body after having a baby to prove anything to anyone!
You can trust your body through this postpartum process — even when it feels foreign and uncomfortable to you.
In the same way your body grew and carried your baby into being, your body can also be trusted through this postpartum season. It only asks you to be gentle with it, to treat it with the respect and kindness it deserves.
Supporting a New Mom
If you have a new mom in your life, here are some tidbits for you, too.
You don’t need to comment on her body or how her body may be changing. Telling a new mom, “You’ve already lost the baby weight!” can send her down a self-shaming spiral she doesn’t need. Really, you don’t need to say anything about her body or appearance. Please, just don’t.
The next time you see a new mom, take time to connect with her and ask her how she’s doing. Ask her how she’s coping with the new changes in motherhood. Tell her she’s doing an amazing job. And if you’re really interested in supporting her, volunteer to do something that would be helpful for her, like bringing a meal or helping clean her house. (PSA – Don’t ask a new mom what she needs you to help with, because she likely doesn’t know. Just tell her what you’re going to do, or better yet — just do it. She’ll never forget your kindness).
Remember that mothers are more than their bodies. They have innate worth and value that goes beyond how they feed their babies or what their bodies look like.
Let’s lift them up as such – they deserve to be cherished.