Breastfeeding comes with many perks for you and your baby. There is the amazing bond formed between the two of you during these intimate moments. Your baby is receiving the best nutrition available, incomparable to anything else on the market. And, it can kick start the process of losing that excess baby weight.
The production of milk burns more calories than you can imagine, which sounds exciting, but there’s a lot to consider when it comes to the proper approach to shedding those extra pounds.
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Women are hormonal creatures, as most men will attest to. Between puberty, the menstrual cycle, and pregnancy, our hormones get a bad rap, taking the blame for making us seemingly bipolar.
However, what most people don’t know is that our hormones are essential and highly beneficial, particularly when it comes to child rearing and lactating.
There are two main hormones, produced by the pituitary gland, that are essential for successful milk production and breastfeeding. Prolactin aids in the production of milk, while oxytocin is responsible for milk letdown.
These hormones are kept in check by estrogen and progesterone during before and during pregnancy, which inhibits the operation of mammary glands. Prolactin and oxytocin continue to be produced as long as you are nursing, and their levels will eventually drop when you wean your baby (1).
Hormones are not the only things responsible for lactation. Your body needs energy in order to produce milk. This energy (calories) is taken from you. This increases your metabolism tremendously. Breastfeeding mothers often find that they are still as hungry as often as they were when they were pregnant as a result of this.
How Many Calories are Burned while Breastfeeding?
There are varying answers to this question. On average, you will find that most professionals claim you burn between 300 and 500 calories when breastfeeding. This number is very broad, as there are several factors that play into exactly how many calories you burn, such as how much your baby eats and if you are pumping. This makes it difficult for women to determine how much extra they should (or are allowed to) eat.
Thankfully, there have been many studies done on this subject. Both the production and expulsion of milk factor into how many calories are burned. On average, it takes about 20 calories for every ounce put out.
The number of ounces that are used per day can be difficult to determine if you are exclusively breastfeeding, and can be more easily determined if you are pumping. However, it is said that a baby should consume about 2 to 3 ounces per pound (body weight) per day on average (2).
When it comes to milk production, the amount of energy needed is about 80% of the energy produced. This means that of the 20 calories present in that ounce of milk, it took about 80% (or 16 calories) to produce it. To make it simple, this formula can help you determine how many calories you are burning on average: (# of ounces x 20 calories) / 0.80 = # of calories burned (3).
So, if my baby is now 14 pounds, she should be eating between 28 to 42 ounces of milk per day (if she is not also eating solid foods), and in turn I’m burning about 700 to 1,000 calories per day!
Balancing Your Calorie Intake/Burn
Now that you can calculate how many calories you are burning per day, you can start to think about your diet and how to balance your calorie intake and output. Your base caloric allowance is based on your lifestyle. For women in their prime child birthing years (ages 19-45), the Dietary Guideline for Americans (DGAs) states that a sedentary lifestyle warrants about 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day, moderately active 2,000 to 2,500, and active 2,200 to 2,400 (4).
While you may be burning hundreds of calories per day, it is only recommended you increase your caloric intake by 450 to 500 per day, especially if you are looking to lose the excess weight you gained during pregnancy.
You should fulfill these by making healthy choices with your diet. Choose meals or snacks that include proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and, of course, remember to hydrate. Not only will this be good for you and your health, but it will be good for your baby as you keep up your milk production (5).
Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Goals
Just about every mother gains more pounds than they want to while they are pregnant. The first thing on your mind, after delivery and getting settled at home with your baby, will probably be shedding that extra weight. As we have seen, breastfeeding can be a great way to kick start that process. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about “getting your body back,” and it is possible for you to sabotage your dream body.
A lot of moms will tell you that they lost more weight breastfeeding than they gained while they were pregnant. They did not need to exercise and were able to eat whatever they wanted. This is a dangerous mindset to have.
While your metabolism might be ramped up due to all of the calories you burn while producing milk, it will eventually slow back down again. When this happens, you will begin to put the weight back on and it will be that much harder to work it off again.
If you do not watch your diet while you are breastfeeding, indulging in all of the junk food you so desire, you will not only be sacrificing your health, you can also sabotage your weight loss goal. You may be trying to match the calories you burn, and, as a result, may be keeping the pounds on.
There are dangers with losing weight too quickly as well. Too few calories put your body into starvation mode. Your body needs appropriate caloric balance in order to keep your metabolism regulated and your mammary glands working properly, producing enough milk for your growing baby. Burning fat too quickly can also trigger the release of toxins that can end up in your milk and affect your little one (6).
Rapid weight loss can also produce some unsavory cosmetic results, especially if you’re not exercising. Solely relying on breastfeeding to burn your fat can leave your skin sagging in the areas you have gained the majority of your weight, such as your breasts, stomach, and thighs. While this doesn’t present a health risk, it is an annoyance for you and can lead to low self-esteem.
The Proper Way to Lose the Weight
Save yourself some stress. Don’t think about starting to lose the weight until your baby is at least 6 weeks old, when your doctor gives you the go ahead to increase your activity level (it is likely to be longer if you underwent a cesarean section). Your doctor can then help you come up with a plan, both in diet and exercise, to ensure you maintain a healthy lifestyle for yourself and your baby.
After this, be sure to start slow. You’ve been through an intense physical trauma, accomplishing a great feat by delivering a little human. If you were active prior to pregnancy, don’t be discouraged. It’s going to take some time to work back up to the activity level you were used to pre-pregnancy. If you were less active, this is a great opportunity to change your lifestyle and gradually work up to a good exercise routine.
Be sure you are eating a healthy diet as well. Ask your doctor about your caloric requirements, based on your age and activity level. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Limit your simple carbs and sweets. This will help you to burn more fat and reduce the chances of hitting a wall or plateau in your weight loss journey.
Most importantly, don’t be discouraged if you aren’t losing the baby weight as quickly as you desire. It took 9 months for your body to gradually change, and it’s going to take at least that long (more than likely longer) for it to go back.
Also, realize that your body may not be exactly what it was before. You may end up with more curves than you had before, due to the expansion of your hips in preparation for child birth or the enlargement of your breasts as they become laden with milk (7). These changes are a beautiful reminder of what you went through and the joy that was produced as a result.