Breastfeeding offers many benefits for mothers — including the potential to lose weight more quickly after having a baby.
Many women seem to consider this an important perk.
The time needed to lose weight postpartum varies from woman to woman, but many nursing mothers report that breastfeeding helped them regain their pre-baby figure more quickly.
However, many others either notice no effect or even gain weight while breastfeeding.
This article looks at the science behind breastfeeding and weight loss.
How breastfeeding may help you lose weight
Breastfeeding is often considered nature’s way of helping new moms lose their baby weight.
In part, this may be because nursing mothers burn more calories each day.
Research shows that exclusively breastfeeding mothers tend to burn on average 500 additional calories daily — the equivalent of cutting out a small meal, large snack, or performing 45–60 minutes of medium-intensity physical exercise.
Nursing moms may also be more conscious of what they eat. This may contribute to weight loss through a lower intake of processed foods and higher consumption of lean protein, fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Both of these factors may explain why studies consistently show that breastfeeding mothers tend to lose their baby weight faster than women who don’t.
For instance, in one study, women who breastfed exclusively for at least three months lost 3.2 pounds (1.5 kg) more in the first year than those who formula-fed or supplemented with formula. What’s more, the longer the mother breastfed, the stronger the effect.
Breastfeeding women were also 6% more likely to return to or dip below their pre-pregnancy weight than non-exclusively breastfeeding women.
Other studies report similar results, adding that breastfeeding mothers appear to achieve their pre-pregnancy weight on average six months earlier than those who formula-feed.
Breastfeeding may also have positive long-term effects on your weight. In one study, women who breastfed for 6–12 months had lower overall body fat percentages 5 years after giving birth than those who didn’t.
Another study found that women who exclusively breastfed for more than 12 weeks postpartum were on average 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg) lighter 10 years following their pregnancy than those who never breastfed.
These mothers also remained 5.7 pounds (2.6 kg) lighter than those who breastfed for fewer than 12 weeks.
This suggests that both the duration and frequency of breastfeeding can influence how much weight you may lose after giving birth. However, not all studies find a strong link, so more research is needed.
Summary: Exclusively breastfeeding for at least 3–6 months may help you lose more weight than formula-feeding or a combination of the two. Breastfeeding may also have lasting effects on your weight — years after giving birth.
Why some women don’t lose weight while breastfeeding
Losing weight while breastfeeding may not be equally easy for all mothers.
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A deficit of 500 calories per day may theoretically help breastfeeding mothers lose around 1 pound (0.45 kg) per week for a total of about 4 pounds (1.8 kg) per month.
Therefore, breastfeeding mothers who gained the recommended 25–35 pounds (11.5–16 kg) during pregnancy should be able to lose this weight within the first 6–8 months postpartum.
However, many nursing mothers take longer than this interval to shed their baby weight. Research shows that many women only lose up to 86% of the weight gained during pregnancy within the first 6 months after giving birth.
What’s more, some studies find no difference in weight loss between breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding mothers altogether.
The reasons why some women may have a harder time losing their baby weight while breastfeeding can be diverse.
For one, breastfeeding tends to increase hunger. Studies show that some women eat more and move less while nursing — compensating for the extra calorie burn of breastfeeding.
New mothers also tend to have irregular and interrupted periods of sleep. Sleep deprivation is another known factor for increased hunger and appetite — both of which may make it harder to lose weight.
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Summary: Not all breastfeeding mothers lose weight easily. Increased hunger and sleep deprivation may be two factors that can make it harder for you to naturally lose your baby weight.
Healthy ways to lose weight while breastfeeding
Losing weight while breastfeeding is a delicate balancing act.
You need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight, but cutting calories too drastically can make it difficult to get enough nutrients and leave you feeling tired and hungry. Plus, eating too little may make it hard to produce enough milk.
Here are some tips to help you lose your baby weight in a healthy and nutritious way:
- Eat less but not too little. Breastfeeding mothers should avoid eating fewer than 1500–1800 calories per day. This allows you to consume enough nutrients and avoid producing too little milk.
- Eat foods rich in protein and fiber. Replacing processed foods with ones rich in protein and fiber can help reduce hunger and keep you fuller for longer.
- Exercise. Despite what some women fear, moderate exercise is unlikely to negatively affect your milk production. A combination of diet and exercise helps breastfeeding mothers preserve muscle mass.
- Keep nutritious foods visible. Research shows that you’re most likely to eat foods that are visible or easily accessible. So stock up on nutritious snacks and keep pre-cut veggies and fruits within view.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking enough — especially unsweetened drinks like water — is important for your milk supply. It may also help you lose weight by keeping you full and more energized.
- Find alternatives to take-out. A meal train, in which friends and relatives help provide nutritious, home-cooked meals, is a great alternative to take-out and can contribute to weight loss.
- Eat slowly and consciously. Eating for fewer than 20 minutes or while distracted may make you eat up to 71% more calories. Try to sit down and tune in at mealtimes instead — ideally while your baby sleeps.
- Sleep when you can. Sleep deprivation can increase hunger and cravings. Try to offset your lack of sleep by planning at least a few 30-minute naps for yourself while your baby sleeps.
Summary: The tips above may help you lose weight while breastfeeding — yet still provide you and your baby with the nutrients you need.
Other breastfeeding benefits for the mom and the baby
Breastfeeding offers several other benefits:
- Provides ideal nutrition for babies. Breast milk contains everything your baby needs during the first months of life — including immune-strengthening antibodies.
- Protects your baby against disease. Breastfeeding helps protect your baby against ear infections, colds, diabetes, leukemia, and even certain types of allergies.
- May prevent childhood obesity. Breastfeeding helps babies self-regulate their milk intake, promotes healthy weight gain and may protect your baby against childhood obesity.
- May promote brain development. Breastfeeding is linked to higher intelligence scores and may be particularly beneficial for brain development in preterm babies.
- Helps your uterus contract. Breastfeeding encourages postpartum uterine contractions, which can minimize bleeding and help your uterus shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size.
- Reduces your risk of depression. Mothers who breastfeed tend to have a lower risk of postpartum depression. However, other factors may also be at play.
- May reduce your risk of disease. Breastfeeding may reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as breast and ovarian cancer.
- It saves time and money. Breastfeeding is free and requires little to no equipment. It’s also easily portable, without having to worry about warming up or cleaning bottles on the go.
Summary: Breastfeeding offers many additional benefits for mother and baby, ranging from brain development and faster postpartum recovery to protection against obesity and disease.
Breastfeeding may contribute to postpartum weight loss in some women, though not all nursing mothers notice an effect.
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To lose your baby weight, eat protein- and fiber-rich whole foods, stay hydrated, and exercise. Also, avoid eating fewer than 1500–1800 calories per day, as this may affect your milk supply.
Most importantly, keep in mind that breastfeeding offers many other benefits – for both you and your child.