I’ve talked about postpartum weight loss a handful of times before. I gave some advice on it when I was pregnant with my fourth, and then I shared some of my struggles when the baby was a few months old.
Now I’m going to tell you the whole story in one place, as well as offering advice based on what I’ve learned.
The biggest takeaway: it’s not simple. It’s not a matter of calories in -> calories out, or just being “strict” about your diet, or exercising enough. It’s so much more complex. Let’s start at the beginning.
After Jacob: First Struggles with Baby Weight
Jacob is my third child. I lost all my baby weight easily after my first two were born — like, within weeks. I was below my baby weight after a few months. I assumed it would always be this easy.
Jacob was born when I was 26. He was just over two years younger than Daniel, who is less than 18 months younger than Bekah. So, three babies in 3.5 years — pretty quick succession. I lost the first 20 lbs. pretty easily (I’d gained about 30), but I never did lose the last 10. My weight pretty much stalled, for 6 months or more. And then, I was pregnant with Nathan — I found out when Jacob was just 11 months — so there were no more attempts at weight loss.
At this point, I weighed about 140. I am 5’3″ with a very full figure, so this was a bit more than I liked but within “normal” for my body type. I had also just discovered using magnesium and a multivitamin tincture to help with morning sickness (it was successful, I had the least morning sickness out of any of my pregnancies).
The magnesium lotion had an interesting side effect. I didn’t gain any weight during the first 20 weeks of my pregnancy. All of the weight went straight to the front and came off my hips, thighs, and backside. I looked better and better! I became convinced that magnesium was magical (well…sort of, there’s lots of science for why this happened too!) and that I would easily lose the weight after Nathan was born.
But again…not so.
After Nathan: Surprise Weight Gain
After Nathan was born, everything appeared to be normal. I lost most of the weight in the first two weeks, putting me around 140 again. I fit into most of my pre-pregnancy clothes. I felt impatient to watch the rest of the weight drop off, as I was sure it would.
But it didn’t. After three months, I started gaining weight. In a short period, I gained 10 lbs., placing me in the low-150s. My weight stabilized again there — for a few months. And then I gained another 10 lbs., placing me in the low 160s, which was my highest non-pregnant adult weight, and, in fact, as high as it had been at 9 months pregnant with two of my babies (and 10 lbs. higher than my 9-months pregnant weight with one of them!).
I hated it. I hated looking in the mirror. I had to buy bigger clothes because my pre-pregnancy clothes no longer fit (and I was not about to get out my maternity clothes, nor live in yoga pants). I was so upset that I kept gaining weight, that I had gotten so heavy. I still hate looking at our Christmas photos, and I usually skip over any of the ones of myself.
The thing is, I wasn’t doing anything different.
- I wasn’t eating more food. (I was probably under-eating most of the time.)
- I wasn’t eating sugar or junk food. (I went through weeks where I ate basically no sugar.)
- I hadn’t changed my exercise habits.
There was nothing I had done to cause myself to gain weight. Nothing. And yet, I had. And I couldn’t lose it.
The Turning Point
Nathan continued to breastfeed exclusively until he was around 11 months old. He started to become interested in food around 10 months, but only tiny amounts, sometimes. By a year he was finally starting to eat 10 – 20% solid food. Now, at 15 months, he’s finally really into food and will eat almost anything — and probably 50 – 60% of his diet is food.
This was the turning point: the start of eating some solids, instead of only breastfeeding.
Right around Nathan’s birthday (three months ago), my weight began to drop. Again, I did nothing to cause this. I didn’t change my diet or exercise habits. Our two week sugar-free, grain-free diet didn’t change the rate of weight loss either. I started losing 1 – 2 lbs. a month, without trying. I’m down almost 15 lbs. now. Less than 10 lbs. from my pre-pregnancy weight, and about 20 lbs. from where I would like to be (what I was before I got pregnant with Jacob).
It appears, for me, to be entirely related to how much I’m breastfeeding.
What’s Happening Now
It took me awhile to research and talk to other women with similar situations to determine what was going on. Breastfeeding produces prolactin, which suppresses progesterone (responsible for fertility) and blocks cortisol (responsible for stress — my anxiety was crazy high when my hormones were trying to sort themselves out at the beginning of this year). Progesterone can help to maintain a healthy weight.
Prolactin can cause weight gain, especially in the hips and thighs, because your body is trying to store fat to make milk for your baby. Having so many babies so close together, plus breastfeeding exclusively for so long, plus having lots of other physical and emotional demands on my body, plus under-eating and not always taking care of myself properly = weight gain.
I didn’t struggle as much with the other babies because I wasn’t as depleted, and they didn’t exclusively breastfeed so long. They were all eating significant solids by 8 months or so.
It was an absolute nightmare this time for my hormones to straighten themselves back out again. The major issues were from about mid-December through mid-May. I first got my period back at the end of August, when Nathan was about 5.5 months old (which is about the same as with my other two boys). It was irregular at first, showing up every 6 – 8 weeks. Mid-December is when it started back towards “regular.” At first, my periods were 35 days apart (for two months), then dropped back to 28 days apart. My fertility signs, which I’ve always tracked closely, were all over the place, not my normal pattern at all. I either was ovulating very late or not at all.
At different points during the month (usually either around ovulation or around my period) would have several days of strong anxiety, sometimes nausea, fatigue, extreme sleepiness, lack of appetite or extreme appetite, terrible acne, and more. I got sick more often during this period of time than I had for years prior. It was actually really rough.
Finally, now, things are straightening out. My period has been regular for about four months. My fertility signs are finally (just this month) starting to look truly normal again. Of course, Nathan is now often more interested in food than nursing, and has just moved to his own room and started sleeping through the night (10 hours straight — first of my babies to do it this “young” — pinch me! Of course, the very day I bragged about it on the internet he quit doing it, but he’s still only waking 1 – 2x a night instead of 4 – 6x). So I’m breastfeeding a lot less than I was a few months ago.
15 months was the point at which I finally normalized after Daniel, too. I got pregnant with Jacob immediately. I hadn’t normalized after Jacob and thought I couldn’t get pregnant yet, but it obviously turned out that I could, because I did.
But now I know that, for me, it takes about 15 months for my body to fully heal and return to normal, and I probably shouldn’t get pregnant any sooner than that. Six months later than that is probably about ideal, physically. (Which would be one year later than I actually did get pregnant, twice. Since two of my age differences are around 18 – 19 months.)
Advice on Postpartum Weight Loss
This post is about the very real implications that hormones and proper nourishment both play in whether or not you lose the baby weight.
So many people are anxious to lose the weight ASAP. Some go on crash diets or exercise like crazy starting at 6 weeks. Sometimes it works. (But you risk losing your milk supply and crashing your metabolism, messing your hormones up more — bad, bad, bad, especially if you want more babies.)
A lot of people assume that if you can’t lose weight after your babies are born that you’re lazy, or you’re gorging on junk food because you’re too busy with baby or you’ve “let yourself go.” They believe if you would just go on a strict diet, or just exercise more, or just care about what you look like, that you would be able to lose the weight.
This is endlessly frustrating to the mamas like me, who didn’t change a thing and couldn’t lose the weight — or even gained weight. Human bodies are not machines. They do not work the same all the time. Our bodies maintain homeostasis and our needs are constantly changing. You can take in a certain amount of fluid each day, but some days you’ll need to pee more than others, depending on how much you are sweating, how much salt you are eating, etc. I’ve personally tracked how much I drink when I’m working away from home (no little kids stealing sips!) and have found that if I’ve been sick or have my period, I pee much more often for the amount I drink, sometimes 2 – 3x as much. Maybe that’s TMI but I think it’s really interesting.
The same is true with food. We may eat the same amount, but how much we store as fat changes. Our hunger levels change from day to day even if our activity level remains the same. There are so many variables. And all these people who pretend that there’s some simple formula to tell you how much to drink and how much to eat to be optimally healthy are just wrong…and doing us all a great disservice.
All of that said, I’m going to give you some advice on staying healthy (including losing the baby weight) throughout the pregnancy and postpartum period, based on my experiences.
Pregnancy, Postpartum, and Breastfeeding are Critical
Our culture really doesn’t get it, but the pregnancy, postpartum, and breastfeeding parts of your life are hugely important. This is probably the biggest physical task you will ever undergo — making a new person inside your body and nourishing that person on the outside for months after. Your basic energy needs increase by 15 – 20% at least, just based on the number of calories the baby actually consumes (300 in utero, 500 via breastmilk in the newborn period; could be as much as 1000 per day if exclusively breastfeeding at one year!), never mind the extra energy required to make the milk, plus the physical demands of carrying around the baby, getting broken sleep at night, and so on.
This is a major hard time in your life, physically. Take it seriously. Don’t try to shrug it off and assume you’ll get through. Sure, we all do. But the cost can be things like thyroid disorders, adrenal fatigue, autoimmune disorders, and more. You’re risking your future health by pushing yourself to meet these demands without slowing down or taking special precautions to nourish and care for yourself. We’re so go-go-go that we really don’t think about it — until it’s too late.
Of course, for women who don’t experience a serious health crisis, they still will be unlikely to see postpartum weight loss. It’s their body’s way of trying to compensate for all the lost nutrients, sleep, etc. This period of time is critical in your life. Treat it that way.
Nourish Yourself Well
A major part of taking care of yourself is to nourish yourself well. I am terrible at this, admittedly. It’s not that *what* I choose is unhealthy (usually), it’s that I skip meals a lot. I grew up with friends and family who thought that low-calorie, low-fat diets and skipping meals were the right way to maintain a slim figure, and I learned to take pride in not “needing” to eat. When I get busy — which I pretty much always am, with four kids and all my other projects! — I just don’t eat. Please know I’m talking to myself here as much as all of you.
Don’t count calories. You don’t need to go for any specific number, and you definitely shouldn’t limit calories! Anywhere from 2000 to 4000 a day is probably about right, but let your appetite guide you. If you are hungry, then eat! Even if you’re not that hungry, but it’s been several hours, eat something. (I find myself so used to restricted calories that even if it’s been several hours I’ll feel hungry, but not really hungry, so I won’t eat because I’m not totally starving yet. Must.stop.doing.that.)
More specifically, include a number of rich, nourishing foods in your diet. Especially:
- Whole milk (I craved it massively in the early postpartum months)
- Whole eggs + egg yolks from pastured chickens (also craved)
- Nuts (properly soaked — yup, cravings)
- Butter from grass-fed cows (more cravings)
- Cheese, made from grass-fed cows
- Soaked or soured whole grains (I make whole wheat sourdough at home)
- Pastured meats — chicken, turkey, beef, whatever you like
- Salmon or other wild-caught fish
- Liver (I take these liver pills daily — 4 of them — experiment to find out what dose you need, I usually tend to be lower than most)
- Fermented foods (probiotics for gut health are very important)
But honestly? Eat what makes you feel strong. Whether that’s animal heavy, or plant heavy, or somewhere in between. Don’t avoid certain food groups because someone else says you should. Don’t go overboard and eat a ton of any one food or food group. Be omnivorous and open to many different foods, and figure out what makes you feel the best, then eat that. We’re all different. Skip the sugar and the refined grains and any source of empty calories — most of the time.
(I sometimes had homemade ice cream, which is low-sugar, topped with lots of walnuts, and a little homemade fudge sauce. I can’t claim the fudge sauce was healthy — at all — but it sure was fun. We all need a little fun sometimes.)
Yes, what I recommend is animal-heavy. Animal foods have a ton of nutrients in them per serving. They’re especially rich in iron, vitamin A, and B vitamins, which you need quite a lot of to make babies. The egg yolks and some of the foods I craved are actually high in vitamin K2, which is really needed while breastfeeding.
A lot of seeds, fruits, and vegetables have an okay amount of certain nutrients per cup or two, but it’s not realistic for people to eat that much at once. I did, and do, also eat quite a lot of greens, berries, potatoes, squash, coconut, and other non-animal foods. For budget reasons, 1 – 2 meals per day usually have little to no meat in them (but I do use a lot of homemade chicken stock). I love to include olive and hemp oils in what I make (olive oil for salad dressing or dipping crusty sourdough bread; hemp oil in smoothies). Hemp oil especially makes me feel very strong.
I also take or use certain supplements as often as possible:
- Homemade herbal multivitamin (1 – 2 tbsp. per day)
- Liver pills (4/day — I make my own)
- Quality probiotic powder (more on the new one I’m using next month)
- Magnesium lotion (1 – 2 tsp. per day; quite a bit more at the very end of pregnancy)
- Gelatin (2 – 3 tbsp. per day)
These are the ones I found really made a big difference for me. You may have a different experience. A friend of mine feels very strong when she takes spirulina regularly; I haven’t found much difference for me.
I also like to make herbal tea. I make probably a gallon a day, when I’m in the habit because my kids like to have some too. 🙂 I blend together red raspberry leaf, blackberry leaf, nettles, alfalfa, and a bit of spearmint to make tea. It’s very nourishing, (usually) pregnancy-safe, and yummy. (I say usually because women with clotting disorders should not use alfalfa, and women who are especially sensitive to mint should not use spearmint during pregnancy or breastfeeding. I have neither of these issues.)
Don’t Have Babies Too Close Together
I learned this one the hard way. The really, really hard way. My age gaps are 17.5 months, 25 months, and 19 months. I am not pregnant at this time (and do not plan to get pregnant for at least a few months) and Nathan is 15 months old. So we’re looking at 27 – 30 months for a gap next time, which physically is going to be much better. Making a baby is a major strain on your body, and continuing to nourish one via breastfeeding is still a big strain.
All of those nutrients go to the baby first and are pulled from your diet. If your diet is insufficient (if you’re skipping meals or consuming empty calories), then nutrients will be pulled from your bones and muscles to go to the baby. This is not a good thing. It’s a good idea to take time to rebuild your stores before getting pregnant again. Most recommend age gaps of 3 – 5 years between babies.
They also recommend fully weaning at least 6 months before trying to conceive again. I have never done this, and maybe never will, but I would definitely recommend waiting until your baby is only nursing a small amount, and not exclusively or nearly exclusively relying on you for nourishment. I expect by the time I’m considering another pregnancy that Nathan will be getting no more than 10 – 20% of his total calories from me. If you are more sensitive or if your health is already struggling, consider waiting longer before getting pregnant again, and wean your current baby before you do.
Your Needs ARE Important!!
Kind of like above, you really have to take this seriously. There’s so much pressure to “do it all” — be pregnant, raise other children, have a full-time job, etc. Once the baby is born, people think you should be up and about just a couple days later, caring for the house and children, and you should be back at work after six weeks. Lots of moms think this is “fine” or “just the way it is.”
This is not fine. It’s not always possible to have an ideal situation. But do what you can. A lot of companies are now offering paternity leave, and if your husband’s does, use it! Let him stay home and take care of you and the new baby for a week or two. If you have friends or your mother willing to help, let them. Allow people to do your dishes or laundry or bring you meals. Pack your freezer full of nourishing meals before baby comes, that anyone can heat up. Make a pact to stay off your feet even if your house is messier than you’d like in the weeks after baby is born.
(And if you’re no longer in a season of having babies, consider offering to help a new mama. Clean her house, cook her a meal, watch her older children, hold her baby for awhile so she can shower or nap. We weren’t meant to do all these things alone.)
Prioritize rest, eating well, and taking your supplements (if you choose). I sometimes feel “too busy” to take my supplements, and I decide I really feel “okay” without. This is a mistake, though — how can you be well-nourished if you’re just shooting for “okay?”
The baby weight may not come off right away, no matter what you do. It may not come off at all while you are breastfeeding exclusively. Our culture loves to enshrine post-baby bodies and how quickly women lost the weight, but this is just not realistic. Do not even read that trash or look at those pictures. You are not a celebrity, with a nanny to take care of the baby, with unlimited time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. You are a real mom, with limited help. That celebrity might look great, but her photos are air-brushed and she might be destroying her health unintentionally with crash diets. Do not compare yourself to that.
It’s hard not to be frustrated when you don’t look or feel like yourself. Toss in some postpartum hormones and it’s a recipe for feeling crazy. Let yourself have a good cry if you feel like it, and then remember that your body grew a person. And is now nourishing that person. That is pretty awesome! Despite still being a bit heavier than I’d like (I mostly want to lose a little belly fat now), I actually like my body better than at any time before in my life. It feels more balanced and strong than it used to. No complaints from my husband, either. 😉 He’s been quite supportive of all this!
I do exercise if and when I feel like it…lol! I’m more interested in strengthening my core than using exercise to lose weight. I do go out with my kids a lot and walk or run since it’s summertime now. I have done Zumba videos and a few exercise classes (like…four sessions). I’m very inconsistent though. I sometimes do some simple strengthening exercises my husband taught me, that his personal trainer taught him. (That sounds weird…he has a gym at work and bought a couple of sessions with their staff personal trainers. He doesn’t actually have his own.)
One involves lying on your back with an exercise ball between your feet. Lift your feet and arms slowly up into the air until they meet in the middle. Pass the ball to your hands, and slowly lower them back down. Repeat 10x. This is really, really hard on the core and is the one I do the most often. I *think* this is safe for diastasis recti, but as I don’t have that (so grateful), I can’t be sure. Check with someone who does know, like Fit2Be or the Tupler Technique.
It’s important to know, though, that if you have any sort of adrenal fatigue or serious thyroid issues that exercise could actually make things worse, not better, so don’t necessarily push yourself to exercise.
This is one seriously massive post at this point. I hope hearing my story and recommendations is helpful to you, honestly. It’s been a long road for me and I’m taking any future pregnancies and postpartum/breastfeeding very, very seriously. Especially because I’m not some “young thang” anymore — lol! I’ll be at least 30 next time I have a baby (which isn’t old, but it’s not 22, either).
Have you struggled with postpartum weight loss and hormone balance?