I gained over 40 pounds while pregnant with my first son — and it wasn’t just baby or water retention. After he was born, I still had 25 extra pounds on my 5-feet-2-inch frame. I wasn’t very happy about this, but I was breastfeeding, and I’d heard that breastfeeding would make the pounds fall right off.
I remember a few years prior, I was hanging out with a friend who was nursing her daughter. “I burn 500 calories a day just from nursing!” she told me. And she was living proof — totally thin with Dolly Parton boobs, just a few weeks after giving birth.
Only that is not what happened to me. Not at all. I had the Dolly Parton boobs. I was a milk machine, leaking all over, and spraying across the room. But the weight wasn’t going anywhere. And I was also hungry. I mean, starving. I thought my pregnancy cravings were out of control, but breastfeeding made me 10 times as hungry.
I didn’t lose any baby weight for the first nine months. Zero pounds. I didn’t make much of an effort either. Like I said, I was just so hungry. I’d feel lightheaded if I didn’t eat something every few hours. Exercise was just pretty nonexistent besides short walks to soothe my fussy baby. Also, I didn’t think I needed to do anything. I was still under the assumption that the weight would basically just melt away, no matter what I did.
It wasn’t until my son was eating solids and nursing a little less that I began to lose any weight, and that was only after I made an effort to cut calories and exercise. It was a slow process starting when he was about 9 months old, but by the time he was 18 months, I was thinner than I’d been when I got pregnant (and I was still nursing him at that point).
Since then, I’ve actually worked with hundreds of breastfeeding women, first as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor, and then as a lactation consultant. And I can tell you that the weight loss isn’t a total myth, but that it’s just radically different for different women.
I have seen women for whom the “breastfeeding melts the calories” idea totally stands. They can eat whatever the hell they want and in any amount, and the pounds will fall off them. I have seen moms who can’t even keep up with it all and start to lose weight while breastfeeding despite the fact that they’re eating everything in sight.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen mothers who actually gain a little weight while breastfeeding. These women often can’t lose weight until they wean or until their nursing babies are older.
Then there are moms like me, who have to wait until their babies are older and their appetite decreases enough that they can cut a few calories, and possibly take up exercise.
Why all the discrepancies? Biology can be pretty complicated, but it has to do with how each mother’s body reacts to the hormones and demands of breastfeeding. It also has to do with how frequently and effectively the baby nurses (and how many babies are nursing!). And, of course, it also has to do with lifestyle (stress, sleep, activity, and diet type).
In some extreme cases — like where you are losing too much weight or gaining too much — you might want to have your thyroid checked. Some women develop a condition called postpartum thyroiditis after giving birth, which basically means that your thyroid becomes inflamed and doesn’t work properly to regulate your body systems (including your metabolism). Though it may resolve on its own, it is worth getting checked for if you suspect any issues.
For those of you who are like me and actually have to make some dietary/lifestyle changes in order to lose weight, you should know that most are safe to do while continuing to breastfeed, and only in very extreme cases of quick weight loss or excessive exercise would it decrease your milk supply.
Extreme dieting like liquid diets and other quick fixes aren’t recommended, and low-carb diets should generally be avoided. But you can reduce your calorie intake and/or try a reasonable diet plan. Just do it gradually, paying attention to what your body needs along the way. The same goes for exercising.
But most of all? Remember that every mom is different, and if you are one of those moms for whom losing weight while breastfeeding is a total and complete myth, rest assured that you are absolutely not alone. It will happen eventually, and really, there are many more benefits to breastfeeding than just that one.
And I think there’s something to having a bit of a squishy body for your itty-bitty baby. I almost think that our soft bellies, fleshy arms, and those warm and fuzzy hips are there for a reason — the perfect nursing pillow, if you ask me. And believe me, your baby loves you just the way you are, and that’s the part you’re going to remember the most, not how many pounds you were on the scale.