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Tuesday
Nov252008

The calories and breastfeeding rollercoaster

Everyone knows that breastfeeding helps you lose the excess fat leftover from your pregnancy. But it is more complex than that.

Breastfeeding by the numbers


Being a bit of a math geek, I thought I'd have some fun with the numbers. Let's start with the basics:

  • Producing 1oz of breastmilk burns about 26 calories: According to Mary Hartley, RD on About.com's calorie count a nursing mother needs about 650 calories above her usual requirements to produce about 25 ounces of milk per day.  To meet this energy need, the Institute of Medicine recommends eating 500 calories extra calories a day.  The remaining 150 calories are drawn from fat stores accumulated during pregnancy.



  • Babies take in an average of 25 ounces of milk per day: From 1 month old to 6 months old, babies take in an average of 25 ounces of milk per day. The normal range is from 19 ounces to 30 ounces. It probably averages around 25oz per day from 6 months to 12 months too, starting out slightly higher (perhaps at around 30oz) and ending somewhat lower (around 19oz) as the baby slowly incorporates solids into his diet. Between 12 and 24 months, average intake is 14 to 19 ounces and between 24 months and 36 months the average intake is 10 to 12 ounces per day. (source: kellymom.com milk calculator).



  • Burning 1 pound of fat requires 3500 calories: It takes about 3500 calories to burn one pound of fat. That means a difference of 3500 calories between what a person takes in and what the person burns. Conversely, it takes 3500 calories to gain a pound of fat, i.e. if the person is taking in more calories than she is burning.


3 years of breastfeeding = 480,000 calories burned!


A woman whose baby nurses for 3 years according to the average amounts listed above would burn about 480,000 calories (about 230,000 during the first year, 150,000 during the second year, 100,000 during the third year).

If we assume that a breastfeeding mother and formula feeding mother both want to lose the same amount of weight, you could say that one of the following is true (or a combination of both)

  • The breastfeeding mother can eat an additional 480,000 calories during that same time period compared with the formula feeding mother, which is equal to: 1632 Mars bars (more than 1 per day!), 1825 slices of pizza, 3356 bananas, 975 Big Macs, or 3453 cans of Coke (source).



The weaning reality check


With both of my kids, especially in the early days, I just couldn't eat enough. Every time I had a chance I was snacking on something and I lost weight. In fact I got down to my pre-baby weight with my second child in under a year, which I was pretty happy with (I'm no Angelia Jolie). But then it happened. I weaned from the pump.

My daughter was still nursing whenever we were together, but I weaned down from 2 pumping sessions per day (which was already a decrease from the 3 I had previously) to one pumping session per day. And then 4 months later I weaned off of that last pumping session. So I went from pumping about 8 oz per day to pumping 4 oz per day to pumping nothing at all.  And my body responded, but not in kind. You see, I didn't cut out 100 calories from my daily intake with each pumping session that I dropped, which is what I needed to do to maintain my weight. So I gained 5 pounds...and then another 5 pounds.

So now with Christmas goodies breathing down my neck and a closet full of pants that are too tight, I'm wondering if I can manage to take those 10 pounds back off without feeling hungry all of the time. We'll see...

At least I have a reason to be thankful each time my daughter wakes up to nurse at night. :)

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Reader Comments (33)

Very interesting math lesson!

Pumping is not the same as breastfeeding. No one has looked at it, but I would bet that you have to do a lot more pumping than breastfeeding to maintain the max calorie deficit.

There is ample clinical evidence that hormones shift more readily in mothers who pump exclusively. Many will menstruate sooner than their exclusive breastfeeding counterparts that are feeding around the clock. With these hormonal shifts come the dreaded cravings, fluid retention and weight gain.

Don't beat yourself up...enjoy your holidays. Add in a little more babywearing walks and you should even out again very soon. Remember that muscles increase your weight initially but are more efficient at burning calories.

Who cares about the calories, if you are a happy, satisfied, babywearing hot mama?

November 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMáire Clements

So... that's not 480 000 calories in the first nine months then? That might explain why I weigh as much now as when seven months pregnant! My husband claims that our Little Bean would rather lie on my chest than his when she's poorly simply because I'm squishier. Wearing a baby on a cushioned surface has to be a good thing, right?

November 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermymilkspilt

Great post. Interesting. I'm pretty much back to my prepregnancy body in weight, I could use a good workout session though :) I think breastfeeding and babywearing has helped so much.

When my little one was first born he was so slow at gaining weight. He never acted like he wasn't getting enough milk, but I've always wondered if I wasn't eating enough to really jump my supply. I don't think women know they have to incease their diet to provide for their baby. I think even more so than when you're prego, at least for me.

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I've been nursing for 22 months and I am 15 pounds lighter than when I got pregnant! I did exercise a lot for a few months, but only lost another 5 after that. It's awesome!

November 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGreta

lol, I love this sort of nerdiness. Great post.

Unfortunately, I was unable to breastfeed my LO. Very sad time for me. But fortunately, I lost my pregnancy weight in just 4 months.

Perhaps the key to post-natal weight lose is not to stuff yourself while pregnant, LOL.

November 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMon

@Mon - thanks for your comment. I agree that moms don't want to gain too much while pregnant, but even with a normal weight gain, there is plenty to take off afterwards.

November 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I have had the same weight issues in the last year. I usually lose a lot of weight nursing. I was skinny, skinny, skinny, and eating tons, in the first 2 years after my daughter was born. But in the last year, her nursing has tapered off quite a bit, along with my milk supply. I sort of forgot that I didn't need the all-you-can-eat buffet at every meal. I think I've gained about 10 pounds in the last year or so. Oh well. Good news is that I'm pregnant, and I can look forward to losing a bunch of weight once my next little nursling is born!

November 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTrish

Oh that was fun!! As always, thanks for sharing!!

March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterReillyLife

[...] no clear evidence that breastfeeding mothers shed the weight more easily than formula feeding moms (but we can eat more chocolate bars!). Another example is osteoporosis, where there is no clear benefit from breastfeeding. Postpartum [...]

This seems to be working the exact opposite for me.

And there seems to be a pattern developing. I tried everything in the world to lose weight after my first son was born - Weight Watchers, Jazzercise, SparkPeople, you name it. I just could NOT stay full - I was starving all the time. (I only nursed him for 4 weeks, btw.) Nothing worked. Then all the sudden - 12 months postpartum, the weight just started FALLING right off. I had no more appetite.

Then I got pregnant and, of course, went back in the other direction.

But now, here I am, 12 months PP again, and it's starting all over again (only this time I'm still nursing, just not all the time.) All the sudden, the past few weeks, I am never interested in eating.

So, I don't know what's with this 12-months-postpartum-shift I seem to be experiencing, but okay, I guess.

May 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTheFeministBreeder

I have been breastfeeding my daughter and she is now 7 months old. I have lost pretty much all of my pregnancy weight, thank goodness - I gained almost 70 pounds! It just seems once she hit 6 months old the weight is not coming off as fast as it was before then, which bums me out. But it could be worse!

May 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

So now my question is if you are down to your prepregnancy weight (even 2lbs less) in 3 mths after having your baby and breastfeeding (5.5 and 127lbs) then are you burning more than the average woman breastfeeding? Is that why I seem to eat nearly 2,600-3,000 calories a day and balance between 125-128... I am not extrememly active anymore either.

July 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLoretta

Breastfeeding twins has certainly helped me get the weight off faster than when I just was nursing one. Now I just need to not eat so much and I might lose faster than 1 lb a month ;)

November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGliding through motherhood

My 'natural' weight (not paying attention to calories or to exercise) is on the low end of the healthy range on the BMI, and when I was pregnant I gained 50 pounds, which brought me into the 'normal' range, but which was a lot of extra weight for me to carry.

I breastfed exclusively for six months, and then continued for another 5 months.

All. I. Did. Was. Eat. Could NOT get enough food in my body, and lost all 35 post-partum pounds in 3 months, and then lost more weight. You would NOT BELIEVE how much food I ate, and how fast I lost weight.

Once I weaned I put probably 2 or 3 pounds back on. It took awhile for my appetite and my habits to readjust to only eating for one. That's the only weight loss effort I've ever expended--trying to not eat like a breastfeeding woman after my daughter weaned at 11.5 months.

November 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermimi

I think this post is going to make me cry! I've been breastfeeding nonstop for 27 months and tandem nursing the last 11 of those and am still struggling to lose weight! And I've been working out here and there (not nearly as much as I should) and not eating horribly. What those stats I'm wondering just how many calories I am taking in!! :) Awesome article though. Reason # 897354 to breastfeed.

November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMary

[...] to my pre-pregnancy weight. I  got down to about 190 pounds or so. But then, as I described in the calories and breastfeeding rollercoaster, the less I pumped and the less she nursed, the more the weight piled back on. I thought it would [...]

This makes me want to build my supply back up to 60 oz a day like it was while E was in NICU. That's what - 1500 calories a day?! Holy crap. lol

May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

The thing is even with all the calculations for average calories burned, etc, there's still the huge X-factor of what a woman's metabolism is like and how her body handles the calories coming in and going out. I was lucky, I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight by about 4-5 months post-partum (I do think that's partially thanks to a dairy allergy that he developed right before then, meaning no more milk or yogurt... or ice cream for me). I have also heard many stories of women who, no matter what they do, can't seem to lose *any* weight while breastfeeding, as if their bodies were purposely holding on to the extra fat stores to help with milk production.

I would love to see studies that showed what the patterns of weight loss are for breastfeeding and formula-feeding moms post-partum, and see what really happens. I get the sense that *most* breastfeeding moms get a boost in losing the weight, but I wonder what the real numbers are.

May 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

What's wrong with me? During both my pregnancies, I walked daily for hours and ate reasonably, and my weight only increased normally, but both times after delivery, I started gaining. I breastfeed exclusively on demand, cosleep and eat reasonably and my boys nursed hungrily. The only thing I could guess is tha t after the baby came, I was sitting and nursing all the time and stopped my hours and hours of walking but I was still so so hungry all the time.

July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGloria

Don't cry! I didn't lose all my baby weight while nursing, either (I nursed for 2.5 years, btw). And I was also extremely active--running or at the gym at least 4-5 times a week, as well as teaching fitness classes. Some women's bodies do not respond in this way. You aren't doing anything wrong--bodies are just unpredictable. Be kind to yourself and don't hold yourself hostage to any numbers. :)

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlisa

This is such a touchy subject for women! I kind of have mixed feelings about talking about losing weight as a benefit of breastfeeding. In the last town I lived in, everyone in my La Leche League group lost weight from breastfeeding, but in the town I live in now, it doesn't seem to hold true.

I was very nervous about the changes in my body when I got pregnant, and was happy that it pretty much went back to the way it was (with a few changes) after my first son. After my second pregnancy and baby in three years though, it's not quite the same, even though the scale is down to my pre-pregnancy weight. Apparently all that babywearing isn't as much strength training as I imagine it to be.

Regardless though -- I love my body more now than ever (and this is so cliche, but true for me) -- because it's created, carried, and nourished two babies. Definitely a much more amazing feat than looking good in jeans.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuchada @ Mama Eve

I've been breastfeeding for 2 years now (my son still nurses at least 6 times a day and all through the night.) I swim 4 times a week and walk, wear my baby, eat well, but haven't lost much weight at all. I think the comments of previous posters are true, that for some women, their bodies hold on to weight while breastfeeding. It seems from my experience that women who have trouble keeping weight on pre-pregnancy experience huge weight loss while breastfeeding, often too much, and those who put it on easily tend to keep it on post-preg. I'll be interested to see what happens when my son finally weans himself.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I can totally relate to all of the women who dropped the weight quickly. Very fast for me-- less than 1 month after both my first and second children were born. But I've attributed that to walking or doing yoga daily with both pregnancies and beginning to walk as soon as 4 weeks once my babies were born.

This second time around is a little different in that I am constantly ravishing and eating almost round the clock and maintaing my pre-prego weight. I am definitely making more milk this time around too. So I think appetite and calorie in take definitely correlate to supply. I do worry about how to change eating habits once my baby weans and wish there was more resources for moms on being healthy at that stage.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Jo

Very cool number crunching!
Similar situation for me. I lost all my pregnancy weight minus 10 pounds from my pre pregnancy weight while nursing. When he got older and wasn't drinking as much and when I slowly weaned him I gained those 10 pounds back and remain at the weight I always was. Weird how that happened!

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

I went to the doctor this week because I was sick. I wanted to cry when I got weighed. My son is 7months old and still breastfeeding. I am 10lbs heavier than I was the day I had him prior to birth!!!!! I asked the doctor if I will loose some weight when I stop breast feeding and she said you should be loosing now...I'm not and some times I don't have much time to eat just taking care of him. I'm a single mom and I devote all my free time to him and I work full time. I'm in the WIC program so I mainly eat what they provide me because it's so much food and it has a shelf life and I'm afraid of it going bad...milk, eggs, cheese, bread/tortillas, fresh fruit and veggies, beans, tuna, and oatmeal/cereal. I was suppose to be back in shape within 6 months of having him and that hasn't happened at all. I am much more active now then when I was pregnant since I spent a couple months on bed rest! I'm so frustrated!

December 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGayle

Hi Gayle,
I wonder if part of the problem is 1) by not eating you are slowing your metabolism and your body has responded to the percieved "starvation" by storing everything it can and 2) stress increases your propensity to store fat. Another thing to consider is that sleep deprivation also increases grehlin, a hormone that causes fat deposition. I would cut yourself a break, you are a single parent and working full time- that is an incredible feat! Even though it sounds counterproductive, I would try to increase what you are eating and also try to make some time for yourself each day to unwind and destress.

May 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIsis

[...] Scientifically speaking, you could lose a pound a week just by breastfeeding. According to PhD in Parenting, producing one ounce of breastmilk burns approximately 26 calories, and babies typically take in [...]

I lost 47 pounds the first 4 months after having dd1 and then lost 20 more in that year bringing me to my ideal weight,all the while just eating what my family eats(ie no particular diet).I breastfed her for 2 years and did keep that weight off some time.
7 years later dd2 came,but other than the water weight I am not losing anything.I have 65 to go.she is not gaining much so i wonder I need to let go of my 'be careful' menatlity and start eating more.maybe eat small meals 6-7 times a day and eat every 2-3 hours.I just keep wondering what I am doing wrong this time?

April 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Thank you for those of you that replied to my comment! My son is almost two now and I still struggle with getting my weight below my finally pregnancy weight! I found out for me that I had a thyroid disorder that was causing lack of energy, depression, exhaustion, weight gain, etc etc...I'm still battling to get my meds perfected to fix my hormone levels and get me back up to speed. It's just so hard when I work full time as a civillian and I'm also in the military and I know what their expectations are and I'm not meeting them..not even close. Something has to give eventually so I can start loosing a little here and a little there. Once I see that happen I think I can build myself up to a good work out and stuff again but it got to the point that I was working out almost daily and only gaining gaining gaining! And I can tell you there was no muscle to be seen any where so it's been an ongoing struggle. I have good days and bad days with moods and sleep habits and what not but it is nice to see more good days shining through now! I highly recommend that if anyone finds this information from my first post or second post to hit even slightly close to home ask to have your thyroid checked. And if your clinic results don't detect the problem don't be afraid to meet with a specialist. That is where they really laid out the dirty details on how out of whack everything was in my body! A lot of people don't see what a big impact your thryoid has on your body! It's crazy.

April 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGayle

almost a year later but I posted an update below! I know you are probably right with your points as well. I have a lot of odds working against me and am doing my best to eventually get on top of this issue!

April 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGayle

[...] I recently weaned, Annie from PhD in Parenting shared her brilliantly geektastic assessment of the calories and breastfeeding roller coaster. Though she doesn’t exactly explain why the gut is ample but the fingers are boney, I loved [...]

[...] have made a revival for whatever reason this week (like the Nestle one for Nestle-free week and the calories and breastfeeding one for which I have no logical [...]

[...] http://www.phdinparenting.com/2008/11/25/the-calories-and-breastfeeding-rollercoaster/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

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