NURSING MOTHER Melissa Ramsay Miller of South Hadley, Mass., breast-feeds her daughter, Luella, as her husband, Oliver Miller, looks on.
WHEN Jessica Jochim returned to work after her three-month maternity leave, she was the envy of her co-workers at Babies “R” Us. Mrs. Jochim, who had gained 40 pounds carrying her first child, steadily slimmed until she was a size 4 again. Yet, exercise was a pre-baby relic. She wasn’t dieting, either. In fact, every two hours, she snacked as if on cue.
What was her secret? Breast-feeding her newborn James on demand, and using a breast pump to take milk home to him.
“All the ladies at work started joking they were going to go in back and pump so they could start losing weight like I was,” said Mrs. Jochim, a mother of three from Vancouver, Wash. “I had a baby suckling 600 calories a day out of me.”
That breast-feeding gives mothers an edge shedding baby weight has long been suspected. But lately, a parade of celebrities has attributed their postpartum slimming to nursing, bringing this age-old topic back into the spotlight. Adding to the conversation is a large study that suggests that weight loss through breast-feeding is not a myth.
Earlier this year, Rebecca Romijn, who wore a shrink-wrapped outfit in “X-Men,” called breast-feeding her new twins “the very best diet I’ve been on.” After Angelina Jolie posed for the November 2008 cover of W magazine nursing one of her twins, she said that it had helped her regain her figure. (That cover made her an icon among breast-feeding advocates and inspired a bronze statue of a nude Ms. Jolie double-nursing her newborns that was exhibited in London last month.)
These days, more than ever, a mother is expected to bounce back from pregnancy and be a “yummy mummy” in no time. Skin-care lines like Mama Mio target mothers with firming creams like Boob Tube. Nursing mothers can buy form-fitting tops at YummyMummyStore.com so they can flaunt their shape as they push their Bugaboo.
Is it any wonder that some new mothers are quietly thrilled at the calorie cushion that breast-feeding provides? “Nobody wants to admit they are doing it for themselves, or ‘I’m doing it to help myself look hot again,’ ” said Jesse Comer, from Portland, Ore., whose main motivation to breast-feed was her baby’s health. “It’s tough to admit to other people that everything isn’t about the baby.” But Ms. Comer, like many mothers interviewed for this article, “felt like until the weight was off, I wouldn’t feel myself.”
For those incredibly shrinking women, the time they nurse is precious not only for its skin-on-skin cuddling, but also for the Get Out of Dieting Jail Free card that comes with it.
But does breast-feeding actually speed weight loss in postpartum women? It depends.
Last year, an epidemiological study of 36,000 Danish women found that the more a mother breast-feeds, the less weight she retains six months after birth. A few factors determined how much she lost: whether a woman was overweight before pregnancy, what she gained while expecting and duration of nursing, said Kathleen M. Rasmussen, an author of the study and a nutrition professor at Cornell.
The study’s convincing data impressed experts like Cheryl A. Lovelady, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But, she said, referring to the Danish women, “we don’t breast-feed as long as they do.” Other studies, however, have found that breast-feeders don’t necessarily shed fat quicker than women who feed their newborns formula. A small study conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that non-lactating women lost more body fat than lactating women at six months, and at a faster rate. Karen Wosje, its lead author, suggested that the appetite stimulant prolactin could lead nursing mothers to overeat. Or the fact that non-lactating mothers were able to exercise more vigorously than the nursing mothers in the first half year may have tipped the scale in their favor.
Breast-feeding didn’t mean effortless weight loss for Sara Juli. Seven months in, Ms. Juli, a fund-raiser for a dance organization, had lost only 10 of her 50 pregnancy pounds. In retrospect, she said, she realized that she had eaten too heartily while eating for two. But “everyone was like ‘Don’t worry, you’ll lose it all while breast-feeding,’ ” Ms. Juli said. To which she’d respond: “Sweet! Can you pass the rice pudding?”
After birth, with her outsize habits, it was hard to change her diet. “All your energy is being sucked toward learning how to raise a baby,” she said. After she weaned, she invested in a personal trainer and Weight Watchers. So far, she has lost 10 pounds in 10 weeks, no thanks to breast-feeding.
What then to make of tales of prodigious eating among thinning breast-feeders? Dr. Lovelady suspects some of them who say they eat without consequence used to be “restrained eaters.” That is, they ate fewer calories than they expended — say, 1,700 calories instead of 2,000 — which, counterintuitively, slowed their metabolism. Once pregnant, they ate enough to keep their metabolism humming for the sake of their baby. Postpartum, “they are losing a pound a week,” Dr. Lovelady said. Yet, “they are eating a whole lot more” since making milk requires about 500 calories daily.
Breast-feeding mothers face many obstacles: little hospital help, public squeamishness and too-short maternity leave. So advocates like Marsha Walker, a registered nurse who has helped lactating mothers since 1976, don’t hesitate to tout pro-baby and pro-mother reasons to nurse. Baby can get an immunity boost, and mothers with breast cancer in the family may lower their risk. (Nursing itself also helps the uterus shrink back to size.)
Ms. Walker thinks breast-feeding mothers shouldn’t feel guilty for loving the calorie burn. “We deserve it,” she said. “She ought to get into those skinny jeans after 9 months of pregnancy and 20 hours of labor. That’s what I tell mothers. Go for it.”
Others suggest that women who view breast-feeding as a dieting tool may have “deeper body issues,” said Claire Mysko, an author of “Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat?” She was troubled by our cultural preoccupation with postpartum weight. Ms. Mysko, and her co-author Magali Amadeï, spoke to women who tried on pre-pregnancy clothes when they returned from the hospital. “Our advice is you should be motivated by the health of your child,” Ms. Mysko said.
Some women say breast-feeding becomes a crutch for them. Ellen Martin, an animation producer at Nickelodeon, was sorry when she stopped. She misses that “very intimate” connection with her daughter but also the fact she could “maintain an extreme appetite without gaining.”
Melissa Ramsay Miller, a nursing mother of 4-month-old Luella in South Hadley, Mass., is clear-eyed about the limits of breast-feeding’s ability to “get her body back.” She has five pounds left to lose, but said she has a “soft stomach.” “It doesn’t make sense it would go back to what it was before,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m O.K. with that.”