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Pregnancy Guide Update- Does breastfeeding aid pregnancy-weight loss?

Not really. Breastfeeding burns calories. I found current scientific reports estimating breastfeeding takes 200 to 500 calories per day. This suggests that breastfeeding, especially exclusive, sustained breastfeeding, helps moms regain their pre-pregnancy figures.  In an effort to encourage breastfeeding due to its many clear benefits to the child and mother , many reliable sources including American Dietetic Association, Le Leche League,  most nursing and nutrition text books, and Beginnings Guides, have relied on this evidence to support statements like this one from the Beginnings Pregnancy Guide-

“Breast feeding helps you lose pregnancy weight, too.”

Some Internet sites go further claiming exclusive breast feeding is “like getting two hours of aerobic exercise each day” and “breastfeeding melts off inches around your hips”.  But scientific studies of postpartum weight loss and retention offer only scant and conflicting evidence that the extra energy demand of breastfeeding translates faster or greater weight loss.  Some studies report moderate effects, but most reveal small or no effects of breastfeeding on weight retention. A few studies attribute weight gain to breastfeeding, or show any loss attributable to breastfeeding is not sustained after 18 months. The most encouraging study I found (Jan 2011) reports that each week of breastfeeding led to an additional loss of 1.5 pounds among young (14-25 yrs), low-income,  minority women.  This finding adds weight to several studies that report similar findings in small samples of upper SES women, but differs from more recent larger studies.   A study with 1538 women aged 24 to 40 found weight loss associated with breastfeeding was minimal. Another large 2010 study with women participating in WIC concluded that exclusive breastfeeding for 20 weeks resulted in significantly less weight retention by the beginning of the second pregnancy, but the difference was less than one pound.  

It is clear that pregnancy-weight retention varies significantly woman to woman, and that excess gestational weight is hard to shed. It remains unclear whether breastfeeding initiation or duration has much to do with pregnancy-weight retention.  Gestational weight gain remains the strongest predictor of post-partum weight retention.   At this point, breastfeeding as it is commonly practiced does not appear to influence the rate or amount of postpartum weight loss, but it might, for some women. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding  (Jan 20, 2011) does not mention weight loss. Following the SG’s example, Beginnings Pregnancy Guide will continue to strongly encourage breastfeeding, but will not include easier or faster postpartum weight loss among its benefits.   I will include this new resource from the SG’s office: The National Breastfeeding Hotline 1-800-994-9662 where trained peer counselors answer breastfeeding questions in English and Spanish.

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Gould Rothberg BE, Magriples U, Kershaw TS, Rising SS & Ickovics JR. (2011). Gestational weight gain and subsequent postpartum weight loss among young, low-income, ethnic minority women. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 204: 52, e1-11.

Position of the American Dietetic Association: Promoting and Supporting Breastfeeding (Nov 2009) Journal of the American Dietetic Association

Ostbye T, Krause KM, Swamy GK & Lovelady CA. Effect of breastfeeding on weight retention from one pregnancy to the next: Results  from North Carolina WIC Program. (2010). Preventive Medicine 51: 368-372.

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