Everyone agrees, celebrities especially, that breastfeeding helps you to lose weight after you have a baby. Kate Middleton, Kim Kardashian, Penelope Cruz: all back in great shape within a few months of giving birth, all putting it down to breastfeeding. Gisele Bundchen actually tweeted a picture of herself doing it in a bathrobe, while getting her hair done for a modelling assignment.
Even as a fellow nursing (and working) mother, I found this image a bit much. “Hi there! I’m perfect and beautiful,” it seemed to say. “Yes I’m thin, yes I’m working, but I can manage all that without being away from my baby for a second. Look – HERE IT IS ON MY TIT.”
Looking at this blatant piece of propaganda, I felt a bit cynical about whether breastfeeding really is all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, it’s a very convenient strategy for a celebrity mother. After you give birth, your body’s under massive scrutiny from other women – are you fat? Have you lost weight quicker than they did? Were you vain enough to slim down on purpose, when your only concern is meant to be your baby’s welfare?
It’s a lose-lose in PR terms. Unless… you were breastfeeding! It’s not vain to lose weight if you did it accidentally, while filling your baby full of antibodies. So when celebrity mums get The Question (“how did you get your figure back?”), they conveniently edit out the personal trainer, chef-prepared steamed fish etc and simply exclaim, “Breastfeeding!”
On the other hand, I have definitely slimmed down since I had my baby eight months ago, even though I’m eating more and moving less. Having weighed 80kg at the end of my pregnancy, I consistently weigh 68-69kg, which is lower than before I got pregnant.
So here’s how to lose weight by breastfeeding, according to the experts.
1. Don’t even think about dieting for two months
“It is safer to wait at least two months postpartum to purposely lose weight, as your body needs this time to recover from childbirth and establish a good milk supply,” say La Leche League International (LLLI).
2. Take it slowly
Gentle weight loss of no more than 1lb-2lb a week is recommended. Rapid weight loss can affect supply; some studies even suggest it will release toxins from your fat stores into your system that find their way into the milk.
3. Eat… some calories.
This is where the advice starts to vary a bit. LLLI says only 1,500-1,800 a day, which sounds incredibly low to me. A book I found called Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding (no prizes for guessing why I picked it up) recommends at least 2,200 calories a day as a sensible amount, but says it depends on the woman; you could go up to 2,850 if you only gained the recommended amount of weight during your pregnancy.
“In theory breastfeeding does burn calories (about 750 extra calories a day) but not everyone reacts the same,” Dr Marilyn Glenville, author of The Natural Health Bible for Women, explains. “It is common for a breastfeeding mother to feel hungry much of the time and it is fine to go along with that. It is thought that she needs about 400 extra calories a day, which could be made up with a couple of healthy snacks. This amount could change when the baby has growth spurts and demands more milk but it is always better for her to listen to her body.”
4. Follow a balanced diet
Hang on, I tell Dr Glenville. I’m listening to my body right now and I think it’s saying… “Cake. Give me cake.” Does it matter if I get my extra 400 calories in cake form? “Absolutely, because cake doesn’t have much nutritional value. The mother and baby need good nourishment and the mother’s milk is only going to be as good as how healthily the mother feeds herself.” Damn.
5. Feed for at least three to six months
This is the sweet spot in terms of calorie-burning, apparently. “The evidence seems to show that the longer you breastfeed the better the weight loss,” notes Dr Glenville. “It seems to take effect between three to six months after the birth as your body uses more of your fat stores and your appetite can decrease at this point as the baby is feeding less.”
6. Gentle exercise is fine
What to Expect From the First Year says that if you breastfeed within 90 minutes of exercising, lactic acid can affect your baby. Fortunately Babycentre are now calling this “questionable” advice. As with extreme dieting, some mothers do find that vigorous exercise affects their milk supply, but walking, swimming, cycling and so on are safe for everyone.
Et voilà: welcome back into your pre-pregnancy jeans.
The thing is, it’s not that simple for everybody. Gisele’s ecstatic expression is a far cry from my own experience with breastfeeding, which has included oversupply, blocked ducts, the baby not gaining enough weight, sore nipples, shooting pains, mastitis. The pièce de resistance was a couple of weeks ago when I got an abscess that had to be surgically drained with a needle – a process that is called aspiration, though I think we can all agree that there is nothing aspirational about it.
Still, just think how much weight I’ll lose if my tits actually fall off.
Joke. Sort of.