Does breastfeeding really burn 500 calories?

Casual myths are often thrown around about breastfeeding and post-pregnancy weight. 

Don’t worry, your baby’s gonna help get that baby weight right off.

It makes sense that it takes calories to make calories for Baby. But does breastfeeding actually increase metabolism? Does it help you lose weight?

Eating for two, again, sort of 

Milk production requires 300–550 calories, with the peak level occurring around 4–8 months, when Baby is consuming more, but not yet relying on solids. To put that number of calories in perspective — it’s a bagel, or a small steak, five bananas, one Belgian waffle. This does not necessarily mean that you need to consume 500 extra calories to make milk. 

A majority of Baby’s milk, at first, comes from fat stored during pregnancy. In this regard, yes, your infant will help you lose weight. That’s what the fat is for. If you’re feeling extra hungry — eat! This is a time of recovery, bonding, milk production and long sleepless nights! Listen to your body. Nourish it. Get your energy!

Hormones at work

It seems there are two camps when it comes to breastfeeding and metabolism. There are women who claim they can eat whatever they want and then some while breastfeeding, and still lose weight. These women often describe feeling ravenous while nursing. 

Other women claim that they hang on to an extra 10 pounds while breastfeeding — couldn’t lose it if they tried. 

Hormones are at the root of both scenarios. The common threads are twofold: Pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding really mess with your hormones; and they change the way you metabolize calories, one way or another. 

Here’s what I mean: Prolactin is our milk-production hormone. On one hand, it makes calories, which takes calories. On the other hand, it naturally inhibits production of the hormone adiponectin, the hormone responsible for speeding up metabolism. 

Prolactin disrupts adiponectin to ensure that the breastfeeding mother doesn’t get too skinny: She can’t! She’s feeding a baby! Sometimes prolactin will put a hard stop on adiponectin simply because Mom isn’t taking in enough food.  

Because prolactin is both calorie-producing and metabolism-restricting, it just kind of depends on the individual in terms of how it tips the scales. 

Know that your body is smart and you are perfect. Enjoy your (temporary) new body, be it svelte or extra curvy. 

Finally, there’s another hormone at play — cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol raises blood sugars and can cause the body to crave sweets. A little cortisol is normal in healthy individuals. Chronic overproduction of the hormone can cause weight gain or loss. 

Though new parenting is stressful, try to keep your mood and corresponding hormones in check. Take naps and baths. Light candles. Walk. Meditate. Talk to a friend. Talk to a professional. This, of course, is about more than weight. Stress can inhibit milk production, cause friction in an already depleted couple and make both Mom and Baby cranky.

Eat for you 

While you don’t need to eat twice as much while breastfeeding, you should eat well and eat enough. You may be anxious about the baby weight, but you should avoid dieting until solids are well established. 

Let your cravings be your guide. It’s not uncommon for breastfeeding moms to crave foods high in iron, calcium and vitamins C and D while breastfeeding. 

Listen. Learn. Eat good food.


Jen Wittes is a marketing director, writer, certified postpartum doula and mom of two living in St. Paul.