Breastfeeding for weight loss is a harmful message for postpartum moms
It's not about "bouncing back."
Lose weight while breastfeeding? Breastfeed to lose weight? For years, women have been indoctrinated to believe the most effective way to lose weight postpartum is to breastfeed. Or even that the best reason to breastfeed is for weight loss.
It’s high time to call this message out for what it is.
Encouraging women to breastfeed for weight loss is destructive and harmful to new mothers. Rather than being allowed to focus on postpartum recovery and healing, new moms are inundated with false promises during a physically and emotionally vulnerable time.
I’ve heard too many stories from moms who breastfed but didn’t see their expected weight loss, leaving them feeling like failures, or as if something was wrong with their bodies.
I’ve seen mothers who were really struggling with breastfeeding but felt like they had to push through the pain and discomfort because they believed it was the only thing that would guarantee postpartum weight loss.
I’ve known too many moms who prematurely forced themselves to start demanding exercise or dieting regimens to oblige impossible standards for postpartum women, all the while suffering physical harm, as well as emotional and mental distress.
I’ve worked with postpartum moms who tore their cesarean incisions from trying to exercise too soon. Moms who had a difficult time breastfeeding because they weren’t eating enough. Moms who experienced mental health complications triggered by body image distress.
For too long, telling women to breastfeed for weight loss has created a damaging illusion around breastfeeding and postpartum bodies. It’s served as a distraction from what women really need to be focusing on after birthing and bringing babies into the world. And this myth of breastfeeding for weight loss perpetuates an arbitrary and unrealistic standard for women’s postpartum bodies.
Trying to incentivize a postpartum mom to breastfeed because it will help her lose weight is effectively communicating the message that her body is not good enough as it is.
This is NOT okay.
Don’t postpartum moms have enough to worry about without the added pressures of changing their body sizes to comply with arbitrary standards? Isn’t the gap between expectations and reality wide enough for a new mom without putting these unrealistic standards over her head?
It’s important that we normalize the body changes women go through during pregnancy and postpartum in order to challenge arbitrary standards that are setting up new moms to fail. We need to challenge the diet culture propaganda around weight loss and breastfeeding to create space for women’s bodies to do what they were meant to do.
Let’s shift the focus to help new moms focus on healing, rest and recovery.
Does breastfeeding help weight loss?
There is really no scientific evidence supporting the claim that breastfeeding helps support long-term and lasting weight loss.
So why perpetuate this damaging rhetoric?
Research studies that have shown a correlation between breastfeeding and weight loss in postpartum moms show no evidence of weight loss being statistically significant, nor does it demonstrate that this is a long-term effect . The effect is relatively small and may not be detectable in studies that lack adequate statistical power, have imprecise data on postpartum weight change or do not account for the exclusivity and/or duration of breastfeeding.
Bottom line: There’s no scientific evidence to back up the claim that breastfeeding facilitates weight loss in postpartum moms.
Why losing fat should not be a priority postpartum
It’s important to note the potential protective effect of increased fat stores while postpartum and breastfeeding.
Women who are breastfeeding have increased levels of the hormone prolactin, which helps produce and maintain milk supply and has also been shown to reduce fat metabolism. As a result, a breastfeeding mom may have higher fat stores while breastfeeding.
And you know what?
Higher fat stores in postpartum women actually serve a protective and proactive function while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding plus being postpartum is nutrient-expensive—in fact, it’s one of the most nutrient-expensive periods in a woman’s life. A woman has a higher need of most nutrients in order to support healing after growing and birthing a baby, as well as to initiate and support breastfeeding should she decide to do so.
A breastfeeding mother’s nutrient requirements for vitamins A, B6 and C as well as for iodine and zinc (among others) increase by more than 50%. Having higher fat stores ensures that her body has sufficient energy to work with. Because of the effects of prolactin in the body, it’s common for breastfeeding moms’ bodies to hold on to and build fat reserves.
If this is normal and biologically advantageous , why aren’t we talking about this? Why aren’t we normalizing what is actually happening in women’s postpartum bodies?
The damaging myth that women should be losing weight while breastfeeding is not a common experience and perpetuates a false narrative around what breastfeeding should look like. So when a postpartum mom doesn’t have this experience, she begins to believe that somehow her body has failed her.
Even worse, she’ll believe that she’s failing .
I’ve worked with a number of postpartum moms who felt like something was wrong with their bodies because they weren’t in fact losing weight while breastfeeding. Diet culture puts undue pressure on new moms to not only lose weight but to do it quickly. Many women are battling with an arbitrary timeline in their head that makes no sense for what their bodies are actually capable of doing, like needing to fit into their pre-baby clothes or lose weight by a certain amount of time.
The truth is, your postpartum body is going to do what it needs to do to not only heal and recover but to feed your baby.
Your body may actually be holding on to weight and fat stores as a protective factor. You may have increased hunger levels in order to support what your body needs to cover the nutritional demands of everything you’re going through. Diet culture has demonized increased hunger, appetite and body changes, all which are familiar to a postpartum mom—especially while breastfeeding.
The risk of postpartum dieting for rapid weight loss
Another reason why the focus on breastfeeding for weight loss is harmful : Postpartum moms who don’t see the weight loss they expect to see while breastfeeding may begin to look for other ways to facilitate weight loss. It’s not uncommon for postpartum moms to turn to dieting tactics to try to lose weight when breastfeeding “doesn’t work” for that purpose.
Dieting is associated with a number of risk factors for postpartum moms, including but not limited to:
- Decreased milk supply, if breastfeeding
- Body dissatisfaction, which can increase risk of maternal mental health disorders and lead to overall poorer mental health functio n
- Shorter durations of breastfeeding
- Prolonged time healing from pregnancy and childbirth
- Nutrient deficiencies, which can contribute to physical and mental health complications
- Poor mental functioning
- Postnatal depletion
- Fatigue, exhaustion
- Mood swings
You can see how problematic dieting can be for a postpartum mother.
Many moms feel like they have no choice but to resort to dieting tactics, frustrated that breastfeeding is not facilitating weight loss or feeling unhappy with how their bodies have changed. But when you’re preoccupied with changing your body’s size , you’re unable to fully focus on letting your body recover, heal and thrive during this new season of your life.
Why postpartum moms are searching for weight loss
One thing I’ve learned from my own experiences working with new moms is the deeper meaning behind the common phrase “I want my body back.” Because like all things, there is always more meaning beneath the surface.
When a new mom says she “wants her body back,” she may also be expressing unspoken feelings like:
I miss a sense of normalcy in my life.
I miss my body being my own.
I miss having more autonomy and independence.
I miss having the freedom to do what I want to do.
I miss my relationships being the way they were.
It’s no question the body changes that come about postpartum and after having a baby are uncomfortable. And body changes aren’t the only uncomfortable thing happening in your life. Having a baby means adapting to so many different changes—but we might not be able to see past the changes in our body to understand the full picture.
The postpartum season can feel like many things are happening outside of your control. It’s normal to look toward things that you feel like you can control in order to establish some sense of normalcy, to create order in chaos. Controlling your body size or weight creates an illusion of control, which is why it’s so enticing to pursue.
But don’t miss the forest for the trees here.
Be aware of the other changes that are uncomfortable for you. Understand some of that discomfort you may be feeling in your postpartum body may also be related to the greater changes in your life. But changing your body size may not be the answer you’re looking for. In fact, engaging in dieting tactics in an attempt to change your body size may further jeopardize your overall health and well-being, which can make motherhood much more difficult.
What to focus on instead of postpartum weight loss
You can still choose to be kind to yourself and make healthful choices that are respectful to your postpartum body , even if you feel indifferent about your body.
You don’t have to rely on feelings about your postpartum body to dictate your choices about caring for your body.
There are many positive and effective ways to support your overall mental and physical health without engaging in dangerous tactics to manipulate your body size. Remember the postpartum period is also a time to recover, restore and rest to support your healing and mental health.
Here are some ideas to engage in healthful behaviors to support yourself postpartum :
- Focusing on adequate postpartum nutrition to support healing and mental health
- Giving yourself permission to slow down and get restorative rest as you’re able
- Connect with support groups for community and a sense of belonging
- Engage in gentle movement, like walking, yoga and stretching
- Get some fresh air and sunshine daily
- Drink adequate amounts of water
- Take your prenatal vitamins
- Connect with a counselor or therapist to support you through this transition
- Take a break from social media to give your brain a rest
- Allow yourself time to engage in activities that don’t have to do with your baby
You deserve to enter the postpartum season of new motherhood without being weighed down with unrealistic expectations.
You are worthy of the time and space needed to focus on your recovery and healing. Growing your baby and birthing life into the world is nothing less than miraculous.
Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise or make you feel inadequate because your body is not complying with diet culture. You weren’t meant to fit in that mold anyway, and by honoring your individual body and what you need, you are building a healthy foundation for you and your family for years to come.
How you feed your baby is your choice—and it has nothing to do with weight loss
How you decide to feed your baby is a highly personalized choice that should take multiple factors into consideration—but weight loss doesn’t need to be one of them.
Assuming that all women “must” or “should” breastfeed neglects to consider a new mom’s circumstances—her mental health , physical health, support system and home life all play a role.
Ultimately, you should be able to make the choice on how you feed your baby based on what works best for you and your baby. You are part of the equation too, mama. And your decision to breastfeed shouldn’t be based on manipulating your body size through the process or because of false incentivization.
You don’t need to change your body after having a baby to prove anything to anyone.
You can trust your body through this postpartum process—even when it feels foreign and uncomfortable to you.
In the same way your body grew and carried your baby into being, your body can also be trusted through this postpartum season. It only asks you to be gentle with it, to treat it with the respect and kindness it deserves.
How to support a new mom without complimenting her on her weight
If you have a new mom in your life, here are some important messages for you, too.
You don’t need to comment on her body or how her body may be changing. Telling a new mom, “You’ve already lost the baby weight!” can send her down a self-shaming spiral she doesn’t need. Really, you don’t need to say anything about her body or appearance. Please, just don’t.
The next time you see a new mom, take the time to connect with her and ask her how she’s doing. Ask her how she’s coping with the new changes in motherhood. Tell her she’s doing an amazing job. And if you’re really interested in supporting her, volunteer to do something that would be helpful for her, like bringing her a meal or helping her clean her house. PSA: Don’t ask a new mom what she needs you to help with, because she likely doesn’t know. Just tell her what you’re going to do, or better yet—just do it. She’ll never forget your kindness.
Remember that mothers are more than their bodies. They have innate worth and value that goes beyond how they feed their babies or what their bodies look like.
Let’s lift them up as such—they deserve to be cherished.
A version of this post was originally published here.