why am i gaining weight while breastfeeding

Reasons why you may be gaining weight while breastfeeding

If you’re a new mom who’s also breastfeeding her baby, you may be ready to get started on your weight loss journey to get back to that pre-pregnancy weight. You may have heard that breastfeeding helps you to lose weight, but you’re not losing any weight or even worse, you’re gaining weight.

You may be wondering what happened to the whole breastfeeding makes you lose all of your pregnancy weight that everyone has promised you.

Does breastfeeding really help you lose weight?

It’s true that breastfeeding helps many mothers lose weight. The reason why breastfeeding helps with postpartum weight loss is because milk production burns extra calories. Breastfeeding burns around 300-700 calories per baby, per day. The exact number of calories burned will greatly vary from person to person and their specific circumstances.

If you’re an overall healthy person who’s in a slight caloric deficit, you’re probably going to lose some weight. Think of it like exercise, producing milk is like a workout, it burns calories. But you can exercise all you want, if you consume more calories than what you’re burning, you’re not going to lose weight.

Why you might be gaining weight while breastfeeding

First of all, it’s not breastfeeding that’s making you gain weight. There are many different reasons as to why you may be gaining weight instead of losing it.

Genetics and health conditions

Sometimes, it’s in our genes to be on the bigger side. There are of course a few health conditions that can also cause weight gain or difficulty losing weight. Some of these conditions include polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diabetes, insulin resistance, thyroid issues, Cushing syndrome, anxiety and depression, eating disorders etc.

Certain medications such as contraceptives, antidepressants, antihistamines and corticosteroids can also cause weight gain.

Burning a few calories when you have a health condition and/or are using a medication that can cause weight gain isn’t going to help you all that much, if at all.

You can discuss your concerns about weight gain with your medical provider. They may be able to offer you an alternative medication that may affect your weight less than the medication you may currently be using.

Some health conditions can be controlled really well with the correct medication and dosage, making weight loss easier.

You’re stressed

Studies show that elevated cortisol levels (the stress hormone) have been associated with weight retention in the first 12 months postpartum. Overall life stress, and particularly maternal stress, is a significant risk factor for weight retention later post birth.

You’re sleep deprived

Studies have consistently shown that when we struggle with a lack of sleep, we see a boost in our hunger hormone (ghrelin) and a dip in our satiety hormone (leptin), causing our appetites to surge.

It’s also been found that people who are struggling to get enough sleep, tend to reach for higher-calorie foods compared to their well-rested counterparts.

Your hormones are out of whack

After giving birth, your hormone levels such as estrogen and progesterone are supposed to drop as other hormones increase to lactate. If this happens properly, the hormonal changes may help promote weight loss.

Estrogen is the female hormone responsible for fat storage and reproduction. If your estrogen levels don’t drop enough, then weight loss can definitely stall.

You’re not breastfeeding exclusively

If you don’t breastfeed your baby frequently, or if you supplement your baby with infant formula, your body will produce less milk than it should. Having to produce less breastmilk means burning less calories. So, to really get the full potential of breastfeeding burning calories, it’s best to breastfeed your baby frequently, on demand and responsively.

You’re eating too many calories

We’ve already established that the average exclusively breastfeeding mother needs around 300-700 additional calories per baby, per day. Or around 1800 calories in total per day.

If you’re consuming a lot more calories than what your body is burning, you’re not going to lose weight, you’re probably going to gain weight.

You’re eating unhealthy foods

Eating highly processed foods, foods that are high in fat, junk food and of course, sugary foods are not only empty calories, it’s also very high in calories and will easily push you over the limit of what you need.

Rather option for healthy foods, this way you can eat more food, more frequently while consuming less calories and getting more nutrients.

You have unhealthy snacking habits

You may be snacking a lot, as many breastfeeding mothers do. But if you’re reaching for all sorts of sugary snacks, you’re not helping your weight loss journey at all.

Watch out for products such as lactation cookies and lactation shakes, not only are they not backed by good quality research, but they’re also often excessively high in sugar too and many of these products will have you consume quite a lot to see the promised effects.

You’re not drinking enough water

Did you know that we sometimes tend to think we’re hungry and start snacking when in fact, we’re actually just thirsty?

Drinking enough fluids and staying hydrated may help you snack less which will of course lead to reduced weight gain. When we don’t drink enough fluids, our bodies tend to retain water, making us look bloated and weigh more than we actually do.

Adequate fluid intake is not just about your weight, but it’s extremely important for your milk supply and your overall health too.

Research shows that it’s best to drink to thirst and eat to hunger. Make sure you drink water regularly throughout the day.

Tips for losing weight while breastfeeding

Take care of yourself

Don’t obsess about your body too much. Pregnancy and the postpartum period are difficult times and are hard on your body. Wait until you’re ready and then take it slow.

Self-care is so incredibly important for your mental health. A happy mom is the best mom. Start with small things and grow from there.

Eat healthy and nutrient-dense foods

Rather than obsessing over the number of calories you’re consuming or going on strict diets such as a low calorie-diet, start with changing your eating habits to healthier ones. You’d be surprised how many people lose weight just by eating healthier.

When you’re eating nutrient-dense foods and fueling your body with what it needs, you’re also less likely to get a lot of cravings. This means less sugary food cravings and you guessed it, less weight gain.

Concentrate on eating more healthy fats such as nuts and avocados, more lean meat and lean proteins and switching to whole grains. Fats, proteins and whole grains help us feel more satiated for longer.

If you struggle with protein intake or if you have little time to prepare healthier foods, meal preps or a protein shake may be another option for you.

Snack healthier

Breastfeeding mothers tend to get a lot of cravings and they also tend to snack a lot. There’s nothing wrong with frequent snacking, but make sure you’re snacking on lower calorie and healthier snacks.

Whenever you feel like eating a snack, don’t be afraid to grab one. Just make sure it’s a healthy snack. Healthy snacks can include things like fruits, vegetables, yogurt, cheese, nuts and seeds, oats and popcorn.

Drink more water

We tend to eat more when we’re thirsty. More often than not, we feel we may be hungry for a snack when in fact, we’re actually just thirsty.

Drinking more water is good to maintain a healthy milk supply and it helps with bloating and water retention that makes your weight seem higher than it really is.

Exercise more

Upping your physical activity is not only good for your health, but also for weight loss. You don’t have to exercise at a gym for an hour every single day for it to be effective. Do what you can.

You can go for walks or jogs with your baby in the stroller. This is great exercise and it’ll be good for both you and your baby to get some fresh air and a change of scenery. There are many fitness classes that allow you to take your little one with you. So, no need to worry about leaving your baby with someone else.

Yoga is also a great way to get some exercise in and as a bonus, it’s great for some deep relaxation too. You can download a fitness app or buy an exercise program from a personal trainer, and you can train from home. Pop your baby next to you on a mat and there you go.

Even 10 minutes will already make a difference. Any exercise is better than no exercise at all. Start from where you’re at, with what you have and what you’re able to do.

Be sure to wait until you get medical clearance from your healthcare provider before commencing exercise. It will usually be 6 weeks postpartum for vaginal births and 12 weeks postpartum for caesarean sections.

Can losing weight affect your milk supply?

It will depend on the method you use to lose weight, how you do it, the intensity etc.

Moderate exercise, if started gradually, will not affect your supply at all. The only time that exercise may affect your milk supply is if you start with intense exercise too quickly and don’t make up for the loss of water and calories.

Going on a diet can affect your milk supply. If you’re on a diet that limits calorie intake to less than what you need as a breastfeeding mum, your milk supply will be affected.

Eating healthy with plenty of calories, drinking enough water and light to moderate exercise may help the average healthy person to lose weight without it affecting the milk supply.

Important notes on weight loss while breastfeeding

Breastfeeding does burn calories, especially if you breastfeed exclusively but that doesn’t automatically mean every breastfeeding mother will lose weight because of it. There are many factors at play.

The good news is, weight loss during the postpartum period is possible, but it should be done properly to avoid any issues with your health or your milk supply.

Gradual weight loss is recommended. So, there’s no need to rush. Follow a healthy diet, make sure you get regular physical activity and watch your food intake, make sure it’s nutrient-dense food.

It may be a good idea to consult with a registered dietician who can help you with a personalized diet while taking breastfeeding into account.

If you’re ever in need of evidence-based information or support related to anything breastfeeding, consult with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).

Always consult with your or your baby’s medical provider before using an herb or medication, especially if you have preexisting condition or if you’re breastfeeding. Always seek medical attention from a healthcare professional if you’re ever worried about the health of you or your baby.

Additional information and resources:

What causes obesity & overweight?

Drugs That Affect Body Weight, Body Fat Distribution, and Metabolism

When breastfeeding, how many calories should moms and babies consume?

The Effect of Physical Activity on Human Milk Macronutrient Content and Its Volume

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