Did you love your pregnancy body, the glow from all that extra blood rushing through your veins, the excuse to wear leggings to any event and the helpful people who gave up their seats or offered you a massage?
Or were you like me, too busy with morning sickness to decorate my baby bump, looking with disdain at my oily skin and wondering if that line down my belly would ever fade?
Either way, love it or hate it, most new mamas want to shed some of that baby weight after the new bundle is safely settled.
But who has time to exercise when baby consumes every waking moment? And how can you stick to any semblance of a diet when you need to grab the chance to eat anything close at hand, whenever you have a few seconds to spare?
Any mom struggling with breastfeeding can do a little happy dance, because guess what?
Breastfeeding burns calories! All the drama with nipple cream, middle of the night feedings, and constant thirst is worth it, not just for you little baby’s health, but also because of breastfeeding’s fat-burning potential.
How many calories does it burn?
The short answer – anywhere between 300 and 700 calories per day.
The American Pregnancy Association puts the number between 425 and 700 calories, while other sources like BeFitMom states that you initially burn around 300 calories per day, this number increasing over time as your milk supply increases.
Therefore there is actually a range for the breastfeeding calorie burn, depending on what stage of nursing you are in, and also depending on your particular body composition.
How much milk your body produces is also related to how often and how much you baby feeds – it takes around 20 calories to make one ounce of milk, so if your baby is a guzzler, your calorie burning potential is higher.
What does this really mean though? Read on to find out more about breastfeeding and how the related calorie burn works.
How does breastfeeding work?
While pregnant, your body produces hormones to begin milk production, and is hard at work increasing the number of milk ducts in your breasts.
Your body is ready to make milk before the baby is even born, which is great for moms who deliver premature babies – their bodies are already ready to nourish their little ones.
Three main hormonal changes after birth facilitate milk production:
- Drop in oestrogen and progesterone.
- Increase in prolactin
- Increase in oxytocin
After your baby is born, the mix of hormones in your body changes, with oestrogen and progesterone dropping, and prolactin and oxytocin increasing.
Prolactin is the hormone that stimulates milk production.
Prolactin is produced each time baby nurses, signalling that more milk needs to be produced.
This means that the more baby nurses, the more prolactin is produced – basically, more demand from baby equals more supply of milk, and this becomes a beneficial cycle, with prolactin signalling your body to produce more milk.
Prolactin also affects ovulation. Because of this, some moms use breastfeeding as an imperfect form of contraception.
But be warned: breastfeeding is not a perfect method of contraception, especially if your baby does not feed often, or if your baby is having top-up formula feeds.
Also, the release of prolactin decreases over time as your body adjusts to breastfeeding, even though milk production continues.
Oxytocin is also produced while nursing.
This hormone is responsible for milk “let down”. Oxytocin is famous for being the hormone that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, boosting your maternal instincts.
At first your body produces colostrum, a high in protein creamy looking substance that gives way (after about 3 days post-birth) to your regular milk supply.
Calories, breastfeeding and ravenous hunger.
Burning 300 to 700 calories per day is a pretty sweet deal for doing nothing other than nourishing your little one.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that if you exclusively breastfeed, you are likely to lose pregnancy weight gain (assuming a healthy weight gain of around 12kg) within 6 months of giving birth.
I found it strange (in a good way!) to be losing weight while breastfeeding because nursing a new baby made me feel hungry all the time, at least at first.
The thirst was out of this world, and I felt the need to constantly snack.
I can easily understand how a breastfeeding mother may not lose weight at first, because she is probably overdoing it with the post-feeding snacking – I didn’t lose too much weight in the first few months postpartum due to my constant hunger after feeding my baby.
Dieting not being high on my list of priorities, I usually gave in to the cravings. I was also careful to eat whenever I felt hungry, to make sure that I had enough nutrition for my own recovery, and to ensure that my breastmilk supply remained high.
However, once my body started to adjust, and I got my snacking under control, getting back to my usual calorie intake, I noticed the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding related weight loss.
One of my close friends who went back to work a few months after her baby was born saw an even more dramatic effect – being in a physical job, she didn’t have the opportunity to snack whenever the mood struck her, and she ended up being even slimmer post birth than she was before. It really seemed like her baby was eating her!
It’s about more than weight loss, though.
Breastfeeding, while great for weight loss, also has many benefits for both baby and mom.
Breastfed babies have been found to have fewer allergies and fewer cavities, decreased risk of some diseases including diabetes and respiratory illness and improved brain function.
Moms get the benefits of a decreased risk of postpartum depression, and lower risk of many illnesses including the risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease.
Watching your little munchkin search for milk with that adorable rooting reflex is also a bonus.
But wait: Does breastfeeding make your body hang on to those last few extra pounds?
Reading about the experience of some new moms in an article in the UK’s Daily Mail, I was reminded of anecdotal opinions that say that breastfeeding actually makes you hold on to some fat.
Apparently, you need some extra fat in order for your body to make breastmilk.
What’s the deal? Can this be true? And what does it mean for the 300 – 700 calories burnt while breastfeeding?
Three reasons fat remains, even while breastfeeding.
Firstly, you’ve got to realise that 300 calories is the equivalent of one cupcake! So while your body may be burning more calories due to breastfeeding, you can still outstrip this burn by bad eating habits.
Thirdly, some research suggests that fat deposits increase while pregnant, in order to ready the body for lactation and breastfeeding. La leche league says that “Women’s bodies tend to store up fat in order to nourish babies both during pregnancy and while breastfeeding”. However, a portion of fat stores are metabolised for lactation.
Bottom line: Can you rely on breastfeeding for weight loss after birth?
You can rely on breastfeeding for weight loss after birth – to some extent.
Remember, you’re often eating a little more after giving birth, to ensure your calorie intake is sufficient to meet breastfeeding needs.
So while breastfeeding may burn calories, this is often offset by increased calorie intake. Don’t expect to fit into your pre-pregnancy skinny jeans if you sit around all day eating pints of ice cream while feeding your munchkin.
If you feel hungry, don’t deprive yourself, especially if you’ve given birth very recently. Just be sure to make those extra calories count, by eating healthful snacks that pack a good nutritional punch.
A safe amount of activity once you have recovered from birth (usually after 6 weeks or so) and a healthy meal plan go a long way to ensure that you don’t squander the fat burning benefits of breastfeeding.