Breastfeeding: How to Lose While Baby Gains
by Alisa Ikeda

If you're among the lucky few whose pregnancy pounds have "just melted away," we applaud you. Thanks for visiting; no need to read further. But if you vacillate between longing to fit into those old (and now amazingly petite-looking) jeans and resisting the urge to pitch them out the window, read on (and don't pitch).

It's a Virtue

Patience. It's a virtue. And it's hard-won when you've got a crying baby, engorged breasts, sore nipples, and a belly that looks like it still contains a baby. But you're a mom now, so you may as well take this opportunity to learn how to function gracefully under tried patience at best.

Don't even think about losing weight until six to eight weeks postpartum. Your body needs—and you deserve—a chance to recover from childbirth and to establish a good milk supply. Take this time to marvel at your new creation and to revel in your new status as "Mom." You've got much better things on your mind than dieting…like how to successfully go about your day in the oddly dream-like, new-mom stupor to which you've become accustomed.

Your Lean, Mean Breastfeeding Machine

Meantime, rest assured that your breastfeeding body will do its part to get your figure back—without any effort on yours. During those first weeks postpartum, breastfeeding releases a hormone in a woman's body that helps her uterus to return to its normal size and shape more quickly. And, according to a 1993 study by F. Kramer et al in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "mothers who breastfed exclusively or partially had significantly larger reductions in hip circumference and were less above their pre-pregnancy weights at one month postpartum than mothers who fed formula exclusively." How's that for good news?

Throughout your exclusive breastfeeding career, you'll automatically burn about 650 calories a day making, storing, and expressing milk. You're exercising internally 24/7, which means you can expect to lose one to two pounds per month during the first six months of breastfeeding—without lifting a finger.

Slow and Steady

Once your inaugural six- to eight-week postpartum period is over, you can get serious about shedding your "baby fat."

But go easy. You may understandably be tempted by the claims of hot diets out there. The Zone, Atkins, Low-Carb, Hi-Protein…you name it, there's a book on it. You can learn a little something valuable about your body's metabolism and needs from each, but none should be considered your personal weight-loss bible, particularly at this important time in your nutritional life. Rapid weight loss—more than one pound per week after the first postpartum month—is not safe for breastfeeding moms; it releases toxins, otherwise stored in your fat, into your milk and, thus, into your baby, whose small body can't afford to absorb them. And the potential drop in milk supply isn't a risk worth taking. Nursing moms should stay away from fad diets, liquid diets, weight loss medications, and even weight loss herbs.

Much as you hate to hear it again: ten months up, ten down. Allow yourself time to lose. Countless new moms say the first year "just flew by." At a moderate and safe four-pound-a-month weight loss, you'll be down to your pre-pregnancy weight—or lower!—in the seeming blink of an eye.

Note: According to Dr. Levine in his book, Hello, Baby! Good-bye, Baby Fat!, breastfeeding moms have a special window of weight loss opportunity beginning four to six months postpartum. When you breastfeed, the same hormone, prolactin, that causes your milk to flow also increases your appetite (it's that smartie, Mother Nature, working her magic to ensure you get the extra fuel you need to nourish your own body and that of your hungry wee babe). Prolactin production is in overdrive until four to six months postpartum, says Levine, when even those moms exclusively breastfeeding will witness a pronounced drop-off of the hormone—and its appetite stimulation. Let the weight loss proceed!

Losin' It with Your Diet

Naturally, the pounds won't come off as effortlessly as they piled on. But they will come off with your help. You've heard it before: no pain, no gain. This time, let's call it no boss, no loss: if you don't take charge of your body, you simply won't make it into those old jeans. But you have to be a savvy leader—your baby is counting on you to rule your body wisely.

It's vital that you stay well nourished by maintaining a healthy, nutritionally balanced, and varied diet. And you need to take in enough calories—calories are energy, after all—to feel strong and sane in these sleep-deprived times. If you become excessively tired, you're likely to have less milk and experience difficulty letting down.

Current recommendations for weight loss while breastfeeding suggest taking in 1800-2200 calories a day (and no less; if you starve yourself, you starve your baby). The caloric breakdown should be no more than 20 percent protein, at least 50 percent carbohydrates, and no more than 30 percent fat.

Here are some sure-fire "rules" for making good food choices to meet your—and your baby's—nutritional needs:

  • Say goodbye to starches and sweets
  • Focus on complex carbohydrates (whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas, brown and wild rices, potatoes…) and limit refined carbohydrates (refined or sugared cereals, white breads, chips…)
  • Eat lots of fresh vegetables (two servings at both lunch and dinner) and fruits
  • Limit fat intake to the "good" fats: the omega-3 fatty acids found in deep-sea, cold-water fish like salmon, sole, mackerel, or cod (the jury's still out on the supplement forms, so go natural here)
  • Season with lemon and herbs, not butter or dressings
  • Avoid processed foods; they're typically laden with salt and saturated fats you and your baby should do without
  • Remember your calcium intake—eat leafy green vegetables, cheese, tofu, or salmon with bones
  • Choose skim milk over 1%, 2%, or whole
  • Snack smart: try baby carrots, celery sticks, grapes, and air-popped popcorn
  • Avoid caffeine (it's an appetite stimulant!) and alcohol
  • Let your thirst dictate your water consumption; a good rule of thumb is to drink when baby nurses
  • Avoid diet sodas; they have artificial sweeteners that will only activate your sweet tooth to crave more sugar
  • Take a multivitamin (most prenatal vitamins have just what lactating moms need—consult your doctor or pharmacist)
  • Go to sleep on an empty stomach (admit it: those late-night snacks are never good ones!)

Most important of all, heed your body's signals. Eat when hungry and drink when thirsty. Avoid grazing out of boredom. And remember, occasional (read: infrequent, rare, only every now and again) treats are fine. A little TLC, perhaps in the form of a decadent piece of fudge or a powdered donut (not the whole box, mind you), never hurt anyone—and goes a long way to lifting the spirits. Just remember to savor it.

(Note: It's wise to seek the guidance and support of your physician, pediatrician, and lactation consultant before embarking on a weight loss plan while lactating. They'll want to make sure baby continues to gain while you lose.)

The Skinny on Exercise

You guessed it: eating well is not enough. You have to exercise if you want to lose weight. According to a 1999 study by McCrory et al in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a "combination of dieting and aerobic exercise appears safe for breastfeeding mothers and is preferable to weight loss achieved primarily by dieting because the latter reduces lean body mass."

You may have heard that exercise spoils breast milk—that it increases the lactic acid in mother's milk and can make it taste sour. Not to worry. A 1999 study by Dewey et al in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that no baby refused to feed after her mother had exercised, and moderate exercise had no effect on the amount of milk the babies consumed. A 1994 study by Dewey et al in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "aerobic exercise performed four to five times per week beginning six to eight weeks postpartum had no adverse effect on lactation and significantly improved the cardiovascular fitness of the mothers."

Exercise, then, improves cardiovascular fitness, enhances maintenance of lean body mass, and is safe for most lactating women. So load up that stroller or front-pack and get going!

The Brass Ring

Okay, so some may consider it a mixed blessing…when you wean, you can look forward to a final weight loss prize: a loss of up to five whole pounds! (Did I mention that it comes in the form of the incredibly shrinking breasts?)

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing.