Breastfeeding and Weight Gain

Breastfeeding and Weight Gain

While pregnant, a woman gains an expected amount of weight gain in order for a healthy pregnancy to occur. However, problematic weight gain becomes more of a concern in the postpartum period, even while breastfeeding. Many of us are aware that it’s not that easy to return to our pre-pregnancy weight, even while breastfeeding. This makes me wonder, can breastfeeding really help get rid of the extra weight postpartum? Let’s check this out.

What are the chances that you will gain weight while breastfeeding?. The fact is that a lot of breastfeeding moms will actually lose around 1.75 pounds or 0.8kg per month during the first six months of breastfeeding. After six months of exclusively breastfeeding, there is a higher chance that weight gain can occur. Other factors such as the type and quantity of food intake as well as physical exercise may have an even greater impact on weight gain.

Is there any relationship between breastfeeding and weight gain?

Breastfeeding is often attributed to weight loss. This is due to the fact that it burns additional calories to ensure a mother’s body can provide for the increased demands of lactation. However, some experts and mothers are quite skeptical regarding breastfeeding’s weight loss benefit. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee (DGAC), weight loss may be small, temporary, and depends on the duration and intensity of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding Exclusively or Non Exclusively Can Affect Weight Gain

In a 2012 study of breastfeeding women, researchers found that breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months positively reduces postpartum weight retention. Conversely, “any” other type of breastfeeding between 3 to 5 months can increase the likelihood of gaining additional weight at 12 months postpartum. This means that mothers who had done “any” breastfeeding (combining breast milk with formula or any other supplement) during the first 6 months may have an increased chance of gaining weight later on. 

Other Factors Relating To Postpartum Weight Gain

A recent study described some factors that may affect postpartum weight retention. The study (source) concluded that breastfeeding and physical activity are not sufficient measures to prevent weight gain if not combined with a limited energy intake. Some additional factors such as reduced sleep may also alter eating patterns and level of activity. This can further contribute to the disruption of a breastfeeding mother’s metabolism. This article gives a description of the most healthful foods to eat while breastfeeding.

These studies show that breastfeeding can help prevent weight gain right after you’ve had your baby, but you cannot rely on it alone. Weight gain is mostly determined by other factors that you need to carefully balance in order to maintain a healthier body. So for breastfeeding mothers who may be concerned about their current weight, here are some important aspects to check out.

Weight gain during pregnancy can Affect Weight Gain and Retention even while Breastfeeding

Did you know that the weight you gained while pregnant can significantly affect your weight even if you are also breastfeeding? Apart from the growing fetus and increasing body fluids within a pregnant woman’s body, additional fat is stored to support pregnancy and prepare the body for lactation. This additional weight can take some time to shed postnatally, even for some breastfeeding moms, weight gain can also become a reality. Recent studies show that 48 percent of women gain more weight than is recommended during their pregnancy (source).

Your ideal weight gain while pregnant depends on your pre-pregnancy BMI or Body Mass Index. Here is the reference data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with regards to the normal pregnancy weight gain:

  • Underweight (with BMI less than 18.5): 28 to 40 pounds weight gain
  • Normal weight (with BMI 18.5 to 24.9): 25 to 35 pounds weight gain
  • Overweight (with BMI 25 to 29.9): 15 to 25 pounds weight gain
  • Obese (with BMI 30 or greater): 11 to 20 pounds weight gain

Maintaining the ideal weight gain while pregnant is a vital factor when considering postpartum weight gain and retention. Even if you intend to breastfeed, this will make losing weight more difficult after giving birth. 

To minimize your chances of postpartum weight gain and retention, follow your health care providers advise with regards to their recommendations to pregnancy weight gain. To avoid gaining and retaining any additional weight while breastfeeding, also try to adopt a healthier diet the whole way through your pregnancy.

Breastfeeding hormones and weight gain

Hormones can play a pivotal role in postpartum weight gain which is also linked to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is regulated by a complex dynamic of hormones which begins in early pregnancy right up to when you are lactating. However, the effects of these hormones are usually systemic. This means, apart from the effects upon the milk-producing tissues, it also results in other changes to other parts of the body.

Prolactin

Prolactin is one of the major hormones that regulate breastfeeding. It is responsible for initiating “lactogenesis” or milk production within the breast tissues. 

An ongoing study (source), has shown that prolactin affects the body’s ability to metabolize fat. It goes on to say that when fatty tissue receives signals from prolactin, it reacts by reducing the production of a hormone involved in regulating glucose levels and fatty acid breakdown.

A Swedish study concluded that raised prolactin levels reduce lipid or fat metabolism. It is important to note, however, that the participants of this study were non-pregnant and non-lactating women.

Other experts think that prolactin could be responsible for increasing the appetite of breastfeeding mothers. However, there are limited studies to definitely prove this association. More studies are required to confirm the role of prolactin upon appetite-stimulation, distribution of fat, and weight gain while breastfeeding.

Cortisol

Although not a breastfeeding hormone, cortisol (a stress-related hormone) can also have an impact on a breastfeeding woman with regard to weight gain. One study proved that higher levels of maternal stress can lead to greater postpartum weight retention (source). As we all know, breastfeeding is a very demanding job, which can sometimes result in a mother having increased levels of stress while breastfeeding. 

Low levels of cortisol are more beneficial for the body. Cortisol helps increase the production of insulin which is responsible for the metabolism of sugar in the body. However, extended periods of stress lead to excessive build-up of cortisol, and thus, high levels of insulin in the body. If insulin remains at its peak, our blood glucose level drops. This makes us crave for foods that are high in sugar and fats, which is not ideal for mothers who do not want to gain any extra pounds.

Cortisol levels are also found to spike among people who have had less sleep. Sleep deprivation is a common struggle among breastfeeding mothers. The relationship between weight gain and sleep deprivation has been widely studied. Researchers found that people getting less sleep at night have increased levels of cortisol and inflammatory markers in their blood. High levels of this stress hormone also lead to an increase in your appetite-stimulating hormone and cravings for junk foods. This makes sleep deprived mothers more prone to obesity and type 2 Diabetes.

Extended breastfeeding and weight gain

Fat stores that were made while you were pregnant will be lost quicker as you continue to breastfeed your baby. Studies suggest during the first 3 months, breastfeeding mothers tend to consume more calories while activity levels are reduced. These two factors will in most cases, contribute to weight gain. However, weight loss is particularly evident beginning 3 to 6 months post-partum. This is when breastfeeding mothers are more likely to use their additional fat stores. Other studies revealed that weight gain remained low for mothers who continued breastfeeding for 12 to 24 months. 

Experts agree that the greater the intensity and duration of breastfeeding, the greater the weight loss. Thus, subsequent weight gain may be prevented or even lost with frequent and extended breastfeeding.

Other factors affecting postpartum weight gain and breastfeeding

Low physical activity

When it comes to postpartum weight gain and breastfeeding, another issue to take into account is your current activity levels. Low physical activity is very common among breastfeeding mothers who have just given birth. Most breastfeeding mothers know that even with light exercise, there is very little personal time left for them or they are too exhausted to do so.

Light to moderate exercise is recommended to lactating women beginning 6 weeks postpartum. Studies show that moderate exercise can improve a breastfeeding mother’s cardiovascular fitness, lipid profiles and response to insulin. Exercise can also help lower your stress levels which as mentioned above is one contributory factor to weight gain.

Diet

Breastfeeding mothers typically have higher appetite levels, thanks to the hormones that stimulate your appetite. This increase in appetite has its biological purpose. It is intended to make up for the caloric requirements that are needed to produce milk. However, unhealthy food choices can make you more prone to weight gain while breastfeeding.

According to experts, eating a well-balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables are best for lactating mothers who do not want to gain extra weight. Dietary plans that are low in carbohydrate, like Atkins or Paleo, can also be compatible with breastfeeding. This is only suitable as long as you increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and protein to sustain your needs. If you aim to prevent postpartum weight gain, it is recommended to avoid unhealthy carbs like sweets, bread, and junk food. Look here for an example of a healthy 7-day meal plan to assist in returning to your pre-pregnancy weight.

Overall, breastfeeding can help you deal with postpartum weight gain, as long as you incorporate a healthy diet and lifestyle. Weight gain should not be a concern with breastfeeding if you are eating a relatively healthful diet. Carrying out light to moderate exercise is also important. Talk to your health care provider or a dietitian to get some extra advice if you feel you need to shed any extra weight safely while you continue nursing your baby. 

References:

https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=ysphtdl

http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1519-38292017000200251

https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternalinfanthealth/pregnancy-weight-gain.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3006166/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090402092859.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4251762/

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