Weight gain when stopping breastfeeding – myths and fears

I’ve talked to several women these last few weeks who are anxious about their body going outta control when they stop breastfeeding. Here’s some science (and some philosophy) to help you trust the process

The worries women bring to me, as an eating psychology coach, around stopping breastfeeding summarise as:

  1. They’ll put on weight
  2. Other people will expect them to get back to their pre-pregnancy body shape and size
  3. Their own body self-judgment will resume
Breastfeeding stop sign

Stopping breastfeeding is a transition worth making some space for. It doesn’t have to be straight back to the old regime. Laura Lloyd 2015

Pregnancy and breastfeeding is ‘time out’ from the dieting treadmill

This all strikes me as understandable. That feeling that the golden ticket of pregnancy, when you were allowed to let nature do its thing and your body to follow, has expired. Now that you’re drawing lactation to a close, as one woman put it, “the excuse” of breastfeeding is over, making it no longer allowable to eat cake with your friends. In the post-lactation world, pleasure will no longer be a legitimate factor: it’ll be back to the old regime, where willpower is pitted against that traditional enemy: appetite.

Although it’s natural to have these worries, it’s also unselfcompassionate, unkind, and risks jettisoning a really important life lesson that nature’s just taught us for a year and a half or so through pregnancy and breastfeeding: to trust the body; to let the body be the boss; to grow your sense of self and authenticity from the very inside.

Let’s look at the first of these concerns – weight gain. The other two I’ll save for a future blogpost because this one is already jampacked with ideas and (some) ACTUAL SCIENCE. (No prizes for guessing why it’s taken me a fortnight to write).

Does breastfeeding really help you shed weight, or ‘keep weight off’, to begin with?

There’s a half-myth in society that breastfeeding is a miracle for postpartum weight loss. I guess is it would be a useful contributor, if only it didn’t make you so damn ravenous. Like, ‘my body’s-in-a-survival-emergency-and-I’d-eat-my-mother’ ravenous. And the estimated 480 calories-per-day that breastfeeding uses is pretty easily consumed, as Zoe Williams quips “while deciding what snack to have before dinner”. (What Not to Expect When You’re Expecting).

If you’re breastfeeding and compelled to eat, you shouldn’t let anyone (least of all your own internal critic) make you feel guilty that you’re a willpower weakling who’s using breastfeeding as ‘an excuse’ to eat cake – a sentiment several women have expressed to me. Why not? Because you are literally compelled by biology: The hormone prolactin, which stimulates milk production and is four times higher in breastfeeding women, is the same one which stimulates appetite, (and also wipes out your libido). It is also much higher during the moments of breastfeeding, accounting for that ‘instant need for something sweet after feeding’ that women have recounted to me.

Let’s just look at what a hard time people give themselves for a moment

So you can see the equation: cake emergencies plus low libido, added to the usual mothering mix of sleepless nights plus birth experience recovery, snatched mealtimes and little chance to do the movement things that feel fun for the body like going for a sauna or a swim = it’s little wonder that postnatal women have body image challenges.

There just aren’t that many opportunities in it all for physical pleasure as we formerly knew it. Plus, these are all lifestyle shortcomings we habitually berated ourselves for in our pre-mothering years. So our brain is in the habit of feeling guilty for our eating, for not exercising, for not being sexy and pneumatic… you can also see there’s a lot of scope here for a postnatal woman to give herself a very hard time about things, when actually she’s got a lot on her plate aside from the crumbs.

So. Breastfeeding makes you eat at first…

This is verified by a 1991 study in Cambridge, UK (Goldberg et al), which found that in the first 3 months of breastfeeding, in well-nourished countries, women easily tend to eat a bit more and exercise a little less, rather than burning their bodies’ stores of fat.

This is absolutely proof that your appetite is in tune with your metabolism, so you shouldn’t feel bad about it so it if you haven’t ‘miraculously’ lost anything by the time you stop breastfeeding at all – in fact, you should feel reassured that you can trust your appetite to tell you exactly how much to eat to meet your needs.

… and then later it starts transforming fat. A little bit. 

However, studies also show that breastfeeding helps more with weight loss after about 3 months onward: the 3rd to 6th months of breastfeeding are the ones that seemed to really mobilize women’s fat stores, especially from the hip and thigh regions.

There’s speculation, says The Reset Hypothesis, that “long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are concentrated in lower body fat, and […] fat from this region is preferentially mobilized in lactation to support infant brain development”. I find it very cool that my thigh flab might (speculation, remember) get recycled into my children’s intelligence!

The end statistics on weight loss through lactation, as far as I can gather (The Reset Hypothesis actually offeres a pretty good roundup), are that breastfeeding mothers have a very slightly higher average weight loss than non-breastfeeding women: it might help you to lose about 2 kilos, or 4 & 1/2 pounds. This is backed up by this study too.

So if you’re breastfeeding, don’t expect instant effects, and if you can’t breastfeed, don’t sweat it, you’re not missing a magic-wand weightloss strategy.

How does that extra little bit of weightloss happen, if your appetite is stimulated by prolactin?

Well, the world of hormones and their effects on appetite is the Wild West of science – still unchartered territory, in other words (though the weightloss industry would love to discover the key ingredients to appetite!)

But it also seems from 2010 report (The effects of breastfeeding on maternal appetite-regulating hormones) that there’s another hormone, PYY, which when released in the gut and colon inhibits appetite (tells you you’ve had enough by increasing digestive efficiency and nutrient absorbtion, so your body gets the message it’s been fed, in other words). It’s a ‘fullness’ hormone. And it also plays a role in energy homoestasis by balancing food intake: in other words, regulating your appetite to meet your energy’s needs. So presumably, you want to eat more, but you also get satisfied more quickly.

The fact is, scientific studies on breastfeeding are a bit sketchy.

Why? Because there are so many variables (every woman participating has a different metabolism and a different diet, to begin with), and also because babies are different weights and sizes so consume different amounts. Also, formula-feeding women often confound any control comparison by going on diets (they tend to eat 6-800 calories less in the first three months, apparently), whereas breastfeeding women tend to give dieting a rest to ensure their babies aren’t being accidentally nutrient-starved.

I’d even go so far as to say that individual differences, like how much sleep you’re getting could affect things (I always make my worst food decisions when I’m knackered and reaching wildly for sugars and soporific heaps of pasta so I can legitimately pass out).

Plus, you don’t live in Honduras

I’m not saying that’s the main problem per se. But the studies that get cited most frequently showing lactation resulting in weight loss were done in Honduras, where the nutrition and lifestyle factors of the participants might be different to those in your own culture.

I don’t have any firsthand experience of life in Honduras but I’m just thinking, for example, it might be sunnier, so women might be outside walking more there than if you have your baby in winter in Sweden, say, when you might just want to sit at home with a hot chocolate. Or their diet might be mainly rice, whereas we are offered a large amount of weight-gain-promoting cheap, refined carbohydrates from wheat and corn. Coffee and cake might not be such a strong part of their culture; they might carry their children more or do more household chores manually (less internet food shopping, tumble-drying or whatever)… you get the picture.

So back to the original question. Will you gain weight when you stop breastfeeding?

Based on the studies of what breastfeeding was doing for you metabolically, (that 400 calories per day) I don’t think you will inevitably put on weight – given that your cravings might calm down too.

Many people report anecdotally that they do though, and there’s no reason to panic about that.

There will inevitably be a shift in your eating habits – you’re going to start food-feeding a baby, which puts your concentration on your little one’s nourishment rather than your own for a while longer; and you might be in the habit of reaching for sweet foods after breastfeeding – a habit that you might want to shift away from. But you might also find some cravings subside!

One thing really stands out to me in all this, and that’s the dazzling complexity of metabolism, and although we don’t exactly know the levels or responses of every hormone, it seems clear that your body adjusts its requirements to meet its demands – without dieting, without any control on your part whatsoever.

Just because breastfeeding was using 480 calories per day, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to deliberately slash your diet by 500 calories when you stop dieting to prevent weight gain. You do need to listen in to your shifting hunger levels though.

You can optimise your metabolism by eating real food in a relaxed way, resting, exercising in a fun way, and eating more at lunch and raiding the treats cupboard less late at night.

OK, so you might still have a muffin-top when you’re weaning, but give it time. We have to give the body to do its thing, find its balances.

Remember the possibility that rather than keeping the weight off, the lactation was keeping your appetite up. 

What if, when you stop breastfeeding, you just lose your fiendish appetite? What if that just adapted, and asked you for exactly the right food? I can honestly say, I haven’t had a craving for maltloaf in my post-lactation days. And I’m speaking as someone who ate a dangerously large amount of malt loaf. Don’t know where that obssession went, but it just evaporated. Appetite is clever. Metabolism is clever.

It takes time, but it adjusts, and your body asks you for the nourishment it needs as it resets. You don’t need to stress and start dieting and controlling it. You let your body make a baby, you didn’t control that! Why should you suddenly think body wisdom can’t be trusted?

Zoe Williams writes in What Not to Expect When You’re Expecting, “And then suddenly, about three weeks after I’d stopped breastfeeding, it all went back to normal. No, of course it didn’t just spring back, pretty much yourself, looking like maybe you’ve been living it up for a fortnight and are carrying a little holiday weight. All that fuss, you think. All that fuss, and I might as well have waited it out, with a book in one hand and a custard slice in the other”.

The good news is, if you have breastfed, you may have already done your metabolism a favour in its ability to process fat in the coming time

When you’re pregnant, your body ‘lays down’ fat. I think of this as being like laying bricks, but I guess it’s your body ‘holding’ fat more easily in your breasts and thighs and skin tissue. And when you’re breastfeeding, (after 3 months especially) it makes the adjustment, decides it doesn’t need to ‘hold’ the fat anymore and can use it up. The fancy name for this is ‘lipid homeostasis’.

Maybe, just maybe, if you have breastfed, and are now weaning, you’ve helped your body get to a point of being able to ‘mobilize’ fat more easily, not just for now, but for the upcoming couple of years.

Not all studies support this finding, but one encouraging study shows that, 3 years post-partum, mothers who breastfed for more than 3 months had higher levels of HDL (the ‘good cholesterol’ that transports fat molecules out of artery walls) than those who had breastfed for less than 3 months.

Having breastfed may also help you to process sugars better in the next years

There are other metabolic shifts during pregnancy too, which breastfeeding seems to help bring back into balance: During pregnancy you become more insulin resistant, and breastfeeding helps reset this: in other words, breastfeeding may help rebalance the pre-diabetes state that pregnancy generates in your body.

Metabolism is more intelligent than us. Science has yet to catch up

Just as the breastfeeding/weightloss studies are a bit tricky, so are the more long-term ones about what happens to fat metabolism after weaning.

For a start, there’s the ‘reverse causation’ problem with the studies: the suggestion that obesity has a negative effect on the ability to breastfeed, so severely overweight mothers didn’t do so as much, so that skewed results in favour of ‘breastfeeding=weightloss’.

Also, there are studies that suggest that the typical ‘breastfeeding mother’ (not sure if I like this stereotyping) has other healthier lifestyle traits: she eats five fruits and veg a day, she doesn’t smoke, she visits the dentist… so long-term it’s hard to see if it’s the breastfeeding or the ‘breastfeeding/healthy/natural/self-care’ mentality that helps with weight long-term.

So am I screwed if I haven’t been able to breastfeed?

You’re probably not reading this if you have had your nerves shredded by being unable to breastfeed, or if you’ve decided it’s not for you and you hate people going on about the benefits.

But I really hate that idea that if you don’t breastfeed, you’ve spannered things. And intuitively, I really don’t agree. You can’t possibly be stuck with the fat your body harboured during pregnancy just because you couldn’t breastfeed. You have a body, an inner intelligence, an inner wisdom, and a mindbogglingly biologically complex self-regulating metabolism. Regardless of lactation’s special signals to it, it still has that intelligence, and with time it must figure out what’s needed and what’s surplus to requirements.

The scientific community would love to ‘prove’ the benefits of breastfeeding, not least because governments are already simplistically and emotionally problematically telling everyone they ‘should’ do it. I come back to Zoe Williams once again because she really puts some detail into her analysis of why the World Health Organisation has recommended 6 months of breastfeeding as ‘best’ – and it’s largely due to factors applicable to population problems and gastric infection risks in the developing world, nothing really to do with us.

In conclusion…

I think we’re just in a bit of a rush.

It took me a couple of years to fit my pre-pregnancy clothes again. (There wasn’t that much point, I shouldn’t have even kept them, as some kind of goal or self-torture, and by the time I fitted them I needed some better fashions anyway). Zoe Williams (sorry to quote the hell out of her, but she really is good on this topic) picks apart the Victoria Beckham phenomenon: the celebrity-magazine focus on dazzlingly swift weightloss after pregnancy.

The key here is to stop reading Grazia. As if postnatal women have time for magazines. Pah!

Take your time. The eating happit you need is patience. And trust, of your body.

Next time I’ll be talking about what you could do to allay your weight freakout, constructive stuff that builds on your newfound bodywisdom, instead of going on some stupid cabbage soup diet.

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Concerns? Reassured? Provoked? Found some science I missed? Wade into the comment section below.