The idea breastfeeding will help you lose the extra weight you gained while pregnant is one of the biggest myths out there among new mums. As a mother myself (who also gained a fair amount of weight whilst pregnant), I understand how a myth such as this can cause new mums to feel disheartened when the weight gained during pregnancy doesn't "fall off" as quickly as expected.
There are a number of reasons why many new mums find they don’t lose weight while breastfeeding, with many actually gaining more weight in the first few months after birth.
Mums who exclusively breastfeed, will on average burn between 500 – 670 calories a day feeding their babies (this varies depending on how much a baby feeds, the compositions of milk produced by the mother).
So why do most women struggle to lose weight while breastfeeding?
One of the main reasons most breastfeeding mums have a hard time losing weight is because of the hormone prolactin.
Prolactin is a key hormone involved in the production of breast milk. The job of prolactin is to ensure our bodies preserve as much fat from our diet as possible, to ensure we can make adequate and healthy milk for our baby. On average, a breastfeeding mother will have 10 x more prolactin than the average person.
Prolactin has also been shown to suppress another hormone called adiponectin. Adiponectin has the opposite role to prolactin, it enhances your metabolism and helps to breakdown fat, which of course is the last thing the body wants to do when it comes to producing healthy milk for your growing baby.
You aren’t eating enough
That’s right, not eating enough can actually be why many mothers struggling to lose weight.
Yes your body needs to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, however, while breastfeeding if you aren’t consuming enough calories your body will likely slow down your metabolism to preserve calories so it can keep producing adequate breast milk.
You are eating too much
Nothing compares to the hunger you feel while breastfeeding (not to mention the thirst as well) and it's important to listen to your body and make sure you do eat enough, but being a new mum is hard, you have less time and motivation to make healthy meals and snacks, so typically the type of food consumed in the first few months are “convenience” foods, which tend to be more processed and higher in sugar and unhealthy fats.
You aren’t getting enough sleep
Unless you are one of these super lucky mums who have a baby that sleeps through the night from 2 weeks old (I am yet to meet a breastfeeding mum who has), chances are you are having to survive on a lot less sleep than before. I’m not going to go into detail about why sleep is important because that isn’t helpful when you have a baby, but what is important to understand is not getting enough sleep can result in unbalanced hormones (specifically grehlin and leptin, your hunger and satiety hormones), which can make it easy to overeat and regulate your hunger. Being sleep deprived will also make you more likely to crave sugary and salty foods, which is hard to ignore when you're exhausted and starving!
You are chronically stressed
Of course it's impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, and becoming a parent can be overwhelming and stressful at times. However, what we know is constantly elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, can lead to weight gain (particularly around your mid-section). When you're a mum it can often feel like you can’t take a break, but carving out some time for yourself is important for your mental and physical health. Whether it’s having a bath, going on a 20 minute walk, or doing 10 minutes of yoga or meditation every day, it’s important to find some time to unwind and relax, because you are the most important person to you baby so your health matters
The key thing to take away from this is don't beat yourself up if you gained weight during pregnancy/ in the fourth trimester. Being a mother is hard work and it's very NORMAL to gain weight during this period of time. Don't rush to lose the weight or be tempted to follow unhealthy diet/ weight-loss plans to help you lose the weight quickly. Dieting during this time will impact your recovery from pregnancy/birth, negatively impact your milk production and likely impact your mood. What's important is you and your baby are healthy and happy. Be kind to yourself and be kind to your body.