“Eat whatever you want,” said everyone, ever, while I was pregnant. “You’ll lose it all breastfeeding.”
“Once you start breastfeeding, you’ll be skinnier than ever,” an adorable and naturally thin mom-friend assured me when I was halfway through my second trimester and trying to talk myself out of a third trip through the Indian buffet line.
“Beyond providing nourishment and helping to protect your baby from getting sick, breastfeeding can also help you lose weight gained during pregnancy,” reads the first paragraph of an article from THE FREAKING MAYO CLINIC.
Well, you know what? It’s all total bulls*&t. At least it was for me. Waiting to lose weight breastfeeding was just as disappointing as waiting for big, glorious boobs to appear after I got my period at age 11 — neither ever happened for me the way pop culture (or, you know, the freaking Mayo Clinic) told me they would. So, yes, breastfeeding can help new mothers drop their baby weight, but it’s certainly not the case for all women.
Thanks to my carb-heavy cravings during pregnancy (and temporary aversion to most proteins), I gained 40 pounds carrying my son. I lost about half of that giving birth, but in those first few months postpartum, I managed to tack on another 10. Sure, I was nursing and pumping around the clock — and taking hours-long daily walks with the stroller. But thanks to an insatiable appetite coupled with concerns over low milk supply following an emergency C-section, I basically became a black hole for food.
Ordering pizza with my husband? I’ll take my own medium with mushroom and onion, thank you very much. Lactation cookies? If one can help me produce more milk, an entire bag will surely turn me into a Dairy Queen! A middle-of-the-night granola bar slathered in peanut butter? Sleep when the baby sleeps, eat when the baby eats, right?
That may sound extreme, but nearly every mom who’s ever exclusively breastfed her baby can agree that breastfeeding is a workout and makes you HUNGRY, since the body needs to replenish the calories it burns producing milk (about 20 calories per ounce). A new mother is also likely to be totally exhausted, and studies show that sleep deprivation can also increase appetite. [Queue every mom on earth nodding in agreement.]
But it turns out that some moms (hi there!) need to just put down the bag of lactation cookies and slowly back away.
According to Kelly Bonyata, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who founded KellyMom.com, a leading evidence-based online breastfeeding resource, breastfeeding moms only need a handful of extra calories. “An exclusively breastfeeding mother, on average, needs to take in 300-500 calories per day above what was needed to maintain pre-pregnancy weight.”
That’s, like, not even two full slices of New York-style pizza! While I clearly wasn’t counting calories (seriously, what new mom has the time or energy for that?) or making the best choices, it’s safe to say I was going well over the recommended allowance for breastfeeding mothers. Some of that can certainly be attributed to my already-large appetite, but I was also operating under the very wrong assumption that the pounds would just melt away the longer I nursed.
“I think that this idea persists because there are health benefits for mothers and babies from breastfeeding and this is another way to promote breastfeeding,” says Alhambra Frarey, MD, an OBGYN in Philadelphia. “I always review the health benefits of breastfeeding with women and I do tell them that it may help them lose weight postpartum but that every person is different.”
Instead, Frarey tells her patients to focus to on a healthy lifestyle postpartum.
Of course, what you should do and what you actually do when you’re an exhausted new mom are two totally different things. And I know plenty of women who ate like I did while breastfeeding, and still managed to nurse away the pounds. Looking back, though, most of them were tall and naturally thin. I am not. Most of them also had an easy enough time losing weight pre-pregnancy, too. Definitely not me, either.
“Every person’s body is different,” says Dr. Frarey. “The variation in postpartum weight loss while breastfeeding is likely related to diet, exercise, baseline metabolism, and genetics.”
So, maybe it’s time to rephrase “you’ll lose all the baby weight breastfeeding,” into something much more realistic:
Listen, sister. Maybe you’ll be one of those lucky, genetically-blessed women whose baby weight magically melts away the first time that sweet baby latches on. Maybe you’ll live on a diet of pizza and ice cream and won’t believe your amazing luck as the pounds go poof into the ether. Or maybe you will pack on a few more pounds while nursing, even while making healthy food choices at every turn. Why? Because everybody’s body is different and weight loss — especially postpartum weight loss — isn’t one size fits all.
As for me, at about eight months postpartum, I started eating a super low-carb diet and doing sporadic high-intensity workouts. I managed to lose 16 pounds, then hit a plateau until I quit nursing when my son was 15 months old, after which point I quickly dropped another few pounds or so (without even trying). All told, it still took me a total of two years to lose my baby weight. Next time around, I’ll definitely try to take it easy on the pizza and lactation cookies.
But… no promises.