Diet and Weight Loss While Breastfeeding

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The societal pressure to “get your body back” after having a baby is intense, and it’s also ridiculous. For one thing, your body didn’t go anywhere. It grew and nurtured a person (or people) and was right there all along. Great job, body. For another thing, pregnancy irrevocably changes your body—and some of those changes are for the better—so it’s unhelpful to imagine that it will ever be the same as it was pre-baby.

Nevertheless, weight loss is of great interest to many people after baby comes: to the new parent themself, but also to lots of other people in their life, even if it’s none of those people’s business. You might be curious about what the links between breastfeeding, diet, and weight loss are. Here, we’ll focus on what science can tell us about breastfeeding and weight loss, in the hopes of normalizing your experience, whatever it may be.

Often, postpartum weight loss is a motivator for breastfeeding. For a study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a group led by researcher Emma Holcroft surveyed new mothers about their motivations behind breastfeeding. Their responses focused on the immediate and appearance-related gains of breastfeeding, as well as other physical and psychological benefits.

Like the women surveyed in that 2017 study, most people believe that there are appearance-related benefits to breastfeeding. The research, however, is inconclusive in this area and breastfeeding does not lead to weight loss for everyone. There have been several studies that report small to modest effects of breastfeeding on weight loss.

Elizabeth Stuart, a statistician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and her colleagues explored the connection between breastfeeding and weight loss in women in the United States in a study that was published in 2014 in the journal Preventive Medicine. The researchers found that exclusive breastfeeding—that is, feeding baby only breast milk—for three or more months had a very small effect on postpartum weight loss. When their babies were a year old, the women who breastfed their babies for at least three months had lost an average of just 3.2 pounds more than women who did not breastfeed their babies exclusively.

Similarly, a group led by Sonia Hernández-Cordero, a researcher at the Nutrition and Health Research Center, part of the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico, showed that women exclusively breastfeeding their babies three months postpartum had lost an average of about four pounds more than women who were not exclusively breastfeeding.

On the other hand, in a study done at a large Irish hospital and published in the journal Public Health Nutrition in 2016, physician and researcher Michael Turner and colleagues found no link between breastfeeding and a mother’s weight trajectory after baby was born. And in an article published in that same journal in 2015, Yue Liu and colleagues wrote that, “although the available evidence held belief that breastfeeding decreases postpartum weight retention, more robust studies are needed to reliably assess the impact of patterns and duration of breastfeeding on postpartum weight retention,” meaning that scientists still aren’t sure how breastfeeding and weight loss are connected. Another paper in the International Journal of Obesity from 2014 highlights this issue. Jayne Woodside, a nutrition researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, and colleagues write, “Although the available evidence challenges the widely held belief that breastfeeding promotes weight loss, more robust studies are needed to reliably assess the impact of breastfeeding on postpartum weight management.”

What does this all mean for me?

If you have a new baby and you want to lose weight, exclusive breastfeeding might help. But the more important thing is to take good care of yourself, rather than focusing on extreme dieting or weight loss. Plus, if your physical and mental health are in better shape, you’ll be a better parent.

Eat a variety of foods—from fruits and vegetables, to proteins, to treats. Gently move your body in ways that feel good to you. You could put your baby in the stroller or baby carrier and take a walk. You could do some gentle stretching on the floor of your living room. Make sure that you are well hydrated, which will help your body both feel good and make milk.

You may lose weight while breastfeeding, and you may not. If you have concerns about your weight, you can talk to your doctor or midwife. Or if you need support around weight and body image after baby, a mental health professional or support group might be right for you.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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