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Postpartum Weight Retention is a Thing. And It's Totally Normal.

Call me naive, but I went into my first pregnancy expecting that after having my baby, the extra pounds would more or less fall off on their own.

It was a huge wake up call, when a year out, I was still a steady 5 lbs above my pre-baby weight. My son was finally sleeping through the night, I was working out fairly regularly, and eating well, and the needle on the scale would not budge.

Five pounds might not sound like much, but it was bad weight. Not the kind that fills out your curves, making you more a a curvy Kim Kardashian than a slender Audrey Hepburn. Nope. We are talking about the jelly donut that settles right around your middle.

It seemed unfair. Why me? I had done everything “right”. I had gone into pregnancy a normal weight. I had gained exactly 30 lbs., the amount the Institutes of Medicine recommends for women with my BMI.

I was still breastfeeding, allegedly a huge calorie burner. And although I was tired and drained with a new baby and being back at work, I was managing to work out a few times a week. 

So why couldn’t I get the weight off? What was wrong with me?

Well, probably nothing. Turns out my experience was 100% normal.

Getting back into shape after pregnancy takes time. Most women slowly lose most, but not all, of their baby weight for a full year after giving birth. 

That popular adage “nine months on, nine months off”? Yeah, not so much.

Holding onto to some extra pounds after pregnancy is normal

Most women who gained the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy, remain 2-5 lbs. above their pre-pregnancy weight a year after giving birth. A sizable minority, 15-20% of women, will hold onto 10 lbs or more.

Institute of Medicine’s weight gain guidelines by pre-pregnancy BMI

Women who gain over the recommended amount during pregnancy, as nearly half of all pregnant women in the U.S. do, are will on average hold onto an extra 10-12 lbs.

Unsurprisingly, losing weight after giving birth is especially challenging if you are also struggling financially. In a recent study of low-income women, nearly half retained over 10 lbs. at the one-year mark, and a third of those who began pregnancy at a normal weight ended up overweight or obese.

So here’s the rub, the dirty secret no one tells you: Only women who gain under the recommended amount tend to return to their pre-pregnancy size.

What about breastfeeding? The “magical fat melter” that isn’t.

I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t breastfeeding help with this?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but in truth, breastfeeding rarely melts off pregnancy pounds.

Studies are mixed on whether breastfeeding mothers actually lose more weight than formula feeding mothers. And when studies do show a benefit, the added loss is typically small, only a pound or two.

Breastfeeding is incredibly time consuming. With a newborn, it can easily consume 8 hours a day. So, even though it does burn calories, from a time spent perspective, it’s way less efficient than, say, interval training. Or spending 6-8 hours a day walking instead of breastfeeding.

So marathon training, it’s not. Still, why doesn’t breastfeeding help us slim down? Why is breastfeeding not a fat melter, given that it does burn extra calories, between 400-500 calories a day, for full breastfeeding.

The problem: Hormones, particularly prolactin.

Prolactin–a key hormone involved in breastfeeding–also stimulates our appetites. You can blame prolactin when you suddenly find yourself devouring a whole cheeseburger.

It’s easy to see how this used to be adaptive, even in our recent past. Breastfeeding moms should stock up on food when available. That way they hedge against times of scarcity and maintain sufficient energy reserves to feed their babies.

But now we are both blessed and cursed with an abundant food supply. So rather than depleting fat stores laid down during pregnancy to help fuel our milk supply, many of us just eat more.

Prolactin’s effect on appetite may once have helped our maternal ancestors stock up on food when available, hedging against times of scarcity and ensuring they maintained sufficient energy reserves to feed their babies.

Does breastfeeding never help? No, of course not. For some lucky women, breastfeeding really does help. For others, it makes no differences. Or it even causes the opposite. Tennis star Serena Williams complained recently breastfeeding made her hang onto extra weight. ‘I was vegan, I didn’t eat sugar. I was totally eating completely healthily… and I wasn’t at the weight that I would have been had I not breastfed… What I’ve learned is that every body is different – no matter how much I worked out, it didn’t work for me. I lost ten pounds in a week when I stopped [breastfeeding]”

Other drags on the postpartum slim down

Age

Sadly, it’s not just a myth: Women in their 30s usually hang onto more baby weight than women in their 20s. And this gets worse in your late 30s and early 40s.

Consider the results of this study that tracked weight loss among postpartum women. Women under 30 usually returned to their pre-pregnancy weight by 18 months. The average 35-year woman, on the other hand, held onto an extra 5 pounds. For women 40 and up, the extra amount is 10 pounds.

“Predicted weight-retention curves over time for women of various ages (hypothetical women who fully breast-fed for 6 mo and gained 15.9kg during pregnancy).” From: Janney, Zhang, and Sowers, 1997, “Lactation and weight retention” in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 66, Issue 5: 1116–1124. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/66.5.1116

Number of babies

Also not a myth. Losing weight the second time around really is harder.

If this is not your first baby, expect some extra padding to settle around your middle. More babies == bigger postpartum belly. With each baby, women tend to hold onto additional  belly fat. (Since having my third child, I wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and think: That can’t be *my* waist.)

“Intra-abdominal adipose tissue (IAAT) means across four parity categories.” From: Blaudeau, Hunter & Sirikul (2006) “Intra-abdominal adipose tissue deposition and parity.” in
International Journal of Obesity, Vol 30: 1119–1124.

The Reality: You are not failing. You are not alone.

Is all that depressing? Sure. Also potentially reassuring? I would argue, yes.

It’s hard for most of us to completely shed our pregnancy weight. Knowing this means we can let go of absurd standards, like getting our body back in 6 weeks. 

Plus, realism can pave the road to acceptance. Many of us learn to love our new, squishier, softer selves. A lot of mothers end up embracing their “new normal” as a badge of honor. (This body grew a baby!)

Others of us will remain discontent, hiding our new waistline with mom jeans. (Confession: I live in mom jeans) And a lucky few will manage to slim back down to something resembling their pre-baby selves.

So while we may all envy Kate Middleton for her trim post-baby bod (and amazing wardrobe), but we are unlikely to look like she did a few months after having a baby. Nor should we expect to. We are mere mortals, after all. And we don’t have her team of nannies and night nurses, personal trainers and private chefs. 

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About Amy

Amy Kiefer is a researcher by training, and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. She currently lives in the Bay Area with her husband and three children where she writes about fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Check out her blog, expectingscience.com, for more great evidence-based pregnancy and parenting info.

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