How Many Calories Breastfeeding Burns and What It Means for Losing Weight

You've heard that breastfeeding torches calories — but exactly what kind of calorie burn are we talking about here? And what does that mean for postpartum weight loss? Here's what you need to know.

From celebrities to our own friends, we've all heard someone tout breastfeeding as a tool for postpartum weight loss. We've also all probably heard about—or maybe even experienced— breastfeeding's ability to make the body hang on to weight more stubbornly than usual. What's the deal?

An image of a mom breastfeeding.
Getty Images.

First things first, let's make one thing really clear: Every body is different, and while that societal pressure to "bounce back" after Baby is seemingly inevitable, it shouldn't affect the way you view yourself. Postpartum bodies (like all bodies) come in various shapes and sizes, and there's no right or wrong way to look. Women should really think about body positivity after birth instead of the number on the scale.

"Research shows that the majority of people that lose weight now only gain that weight back, and they often get stuck in a cycle of chronic dieting. They have feelings of failure and struggle with being connected to their hunger and fullness cues, making eating feel like a very unregulated process and causing a tumultuous relationship with food and body," says Kimmie Singh, MS, RD, a registered dietician nutritionist at LK Nutrition, a Health at Every Size® nutrition private practice in New York City. "Focusing on body positivity during the postpartum period can help people both feel more connected to their current body and have a healthy overall relationship with food."

That said, although you shouldn't focus on postpartum weight loss, breastfeeding is serious physical work, and you're entitled to wonder what that means for your calorie burn. We enlisted a few experts to weigh in on the relationship between breastfeeding and calories...and what this means for the number on the scale.

How Many Calories Does Breastfeeding Burn?

There is no simple answer to the question of how many calories you can burn while nursing. It comes down to your body and the amount you breastfeed. "Exclusive breastfeeding typically burns about 500-700 calories per day, less if partially breastfeeding," says Kecia Gaither, M.D., who is double board-certified in OB-GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine.

With that being said, Dr. Gaither stresses that genetic and metabolic factors can affect this number, so take it as a generalization.

What Does This Mean for a Mother's Caloric Needs?

As tough as it can be to carve out time for a full meal when you're in the throes of the newborn stage, nourishing yourself is incredibly important. A breastfeeding parent's body is doing a lot of work, and you require additional calories to support this. "Caloric intake should be at least 1500-1800 calories per day—perhaps more if she is more active," says Dr. Gaither.

According to Robyn Price, a registered dietician, other factors can affect your caloric needs. "Recovery takes energy. If you had a really rough birth, maybe you have a lot of healing to happen. Maybe you need more energy," says Price. "The amount of energy you need on top of [the energy you need] for breastfeeding is more than somebody who didn't have a very difficult birth and has a shorter road to recovery."

It can be tough to pinpoint an exact number of calories a breastfeeding parent requires. "It's going to be different for everyone," Price says. "Your baby drinks a different amount of milk every day. It's not always the same, its composition is always changing. It's hard to put an exact number on it."

As most breastfeeding parents will tell you, your appetite does tend to increase if you're nursing. Let that be your guide, go for nutritious foods, drink lots of water, and you should be good to go.

So... Does Breastfeeding Help You Lose Weight?

Possibly. But experts recommend not putting too much thought towards this. "Breastfeeding shouldn't be seen as a weight loss mechanism," says Dr. Gaither. "[It] has negligible effect on body fat and total body weight for most well-nourished women. It may help to get you to your pre-pregnancy weight slightly quicker—but again, [it] depends on the woman's lifestyle."

If you're a new parent, you have enough to worry about; how long it takes to get back into your skinny jeans doesn't need to be one of them. At the same time, it's natural to want to feel like yourself again after giving birth.

"It is reasonable to want to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight. However, the most important thing in the postpartum period is to make sure that the mother and baby are well-nourished," says Sapna Shah, M.D., a board-certified endocrinologist with Paloma Health. "If breastfeeding is the goal, excessive calorie reduction can reduce both the quantity and quality of the milk and is not recommended."

It's also important to realize that weight and health are far more nuanced than people realize, says Singh, and postpartum dieting can lead to a tumultuous relationship with food and your body. "We find that people tend to have a weight set point that determines the weight that is best for their body. Sometimes this set point can shift throughout the lifespan, especially after pregnancy and childbirth. Focusing on thinness can actually lead to chronic dieting and weight cycling (the process of losing and regaining weight that happens with dieting) that is linked to many harmful health concerns, such as hypertension, poor blood sugar management, and an increased risk for heart disease."

FAQs About Breastfeeding and Weight Loss

Got some more questions about breastfeeding, calories, and weight loss? Our experts answer some common inquiries here.

What if I'm losing too much weight?

"The calories it takes to make breast milk come from what you eat daily and the fat stores you may have gained during pregnancy. If you find you are losing a lot of weight while breastfeeding, you may not be consuming enough calories to make up for those used to make breast milk. It's essential to fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods to keep yourself and your baby healthy," says Dr. Shah. "Healthy snacks like hard-boiled eggs, sardines, nuts and seeds, or yogurt are great ideas. Bonus points if you can eat with one hand!"

I've heard some people hold on to weight while breastfeeding. Is there any truth to that?

According to Dr. Shah, there's a hormonal component to breastfeeding we need to consider. "Your body requires extra calories to make breast milk. You likely need to eat a few hundred extra calories a day to keep up," she says. "Prolactin, a hormone that helps with milk production and stimulating hunger, may in some cases suppress the ability to metabolize fat."

The nature of new parenthood can contribute to postpartum weight gain as well, according to Dr. Shah. "The postpartum period can be very stressful—worrying about your new baby, losing sleep, stressing about milk production," she says. "When you experience high stress, your adrenal glands naturally ramp up the production of cortisol,the stress hormone, which can impact your ability to lose weight. One reason for this may be that high cortisol levels can increase ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone."

Will I see weight changes when I wean?

It's possible. After all, there's a major hormonal shift happening. "When weaning, your prolactin and oxytocin levels drop. Prolactin helps with milk production. This hormone also supports feelings of well-being, calmness, and relaxation. Oxytocin supports milk ejection and is occasionally called 'love hormone.' Weaning can undoubtedly impact your body and emotions. Of course, the faster the weaning process, the more sudden the shift in hormone levels," says Dr. Shah.

Weaning means that you are burning less energy and calories than when you were breastfeeding, Dr. Shah adds. "It would help if you found a new way to burn these calories, or they store in your body. One of the best ways to curb weight gain is regular movement and exercise. You may also assess your diet when weaning to ensure you are eating the appropriate amount of calories for your body's new demands."

The Bottom Line

Breastfeeding burns calories, but also requires additional calories. What we don't know is how exactly each body will respond to this. You may lose weight while breastfeeding or you may not. Either way, nourishing yourself is key. And the end of the day, that's so much more important than the number on the scale or the tag of your jeans.

"Whatever your weight is, that doesn't necessarily determine your health," says Price. "Come at the postpartum period with an open mind. It may look different for everyone. Just because there are those pressures, it doesn't have to be one way or the highway.

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