Exercise and breastfeeding? All you need to know...
If you’re anything like me, breastfeeding wasn’t easy (I had low supply and latching issues amongst other things!). That being said, after a few weeks of hibernation, recovery (and establishing my milk supply), I was keen to get back to being me and start exercising again - for the simple reason that exercise has always given me energy and lifted my mood. Weight loss wasn’t on my agenda - at least not in the first few weeks.
However, given my already dodgy milk supply, I was worried this could hit my supply further as lets face it: breastfeeding = major energy expenditure so how would adding more energy expenditure with exercise impact my milk supply?
So, I did what I always do, and dug down into what the research says. This is what I found:
In a nutshell - like with everything fertility/pregnancy related - exercise is good and fine for lactation - as long as it is done with consideration and in moderation.
Here is what you need to know/consider:
Why would you want to exercise while breastfeeding?
How can you ensure it doesn’t impact your milk supply?
What type of exercise is right and when?
Are there any knock on effects to the milk taste from a workout?
So first off why exercise when you’re breastfeeding?
Everyone has their individual motivations, but for me, at least at the beginning, it was more as a mood lift and to get back to feeling a bit more like myself. Exercise has been shown to have a tangible impact on the hormones that influence your mood (click here to learn more) so after such a radical change in my life I was keen to get back at least to a little part of normality.
Aside from that, it was all the same reasons I had wanted to exercise before I got pregnant: good cardio health and insulin response (particularly as I have PCOS - click here for more on that).
Then of course there is the weight issue. Whilst weight should not be your concern in the near term after having a baby, I was planning to breastfeed for at least six months so at some stage I wanted to try and get rid of some of the excess baby weight, particularly as studies have shown increased risk factors if you retain too much weight for too long during and after pregnancy:
‘The prevalence of obesity is increasing among women in their childbearing years. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy and retention of weight in the post-partum period are risk factors for obesity in later life’. (1)
So - lots of reasons why I wanted to get back to it, but my main priority was doing it ONLY if it didnt come at the detriment of feeding my baby.
So, how do you ensure it doesn’t impact your supply?
The starting point against all of this is that human studies have shown that as long as energy expenditure is not in excess then your milk supply shouldn’t be impacted.
So what do we mean by that?
We know breastfeeding is energy intensive. In fact, research has shown that on average the energy cost of lactation per day is around 500 calories. (1)
So when you add in exercise on top of that, you need to consider the additional energy required for breastfeeding on top of this.
Where does the additional energy for breastfeeding come from?
Typically from three areas:
Increasing energy intake
Decreasing energy expenditure
And/or from fat stores.
The variability here is why some women seem to lose a lot of weight during breastfeeding and others put it on. If you eat more than 500 additional calories per day and have fat stores you may well end up putting on weight, whereas if you do not up your energy intake or have low fat stores you may end up losing weight.
This is something you need to consider when adding exercise to the equation. That usually means ensuring you’re getting enough additional calories from what you’re eating and secondly ensuring that you are not doing exercise that will cause extreme calorie burn. This is especially important in the very early stages when you’re establishing your milk supply.
So being sensible and exercising in moderation remains the key, but what does the research actually define as ‘moderation’?
Once again its a bit of common sense here. It can be anything from resistance training to taking some brisk long walks in the park with your baby in the pram - it also should be based on the type of exercise you were doing before you had your baby. However, here is what one study showed:
‘Moderate aerobic exercise of 45 min/d, 5 d/week improved cardiovascular fitness, plasma lipids and insulin response...Breast milk volume and composition were not affected.’ (1)
When and how?
Common sense tells us that most people are not going to want to immediately rush back to exercise and I certainly didnt. You need time bonding with your baby, recovering and also establishing your milk supply and have to go at a pace you are comfortable with. Not to mention if you have had a C-Section you need proper time to heal (and a doctor to sign you off) so a minimum of six weeks rest is recommended.
One study (1) looked at women who were 4 weeks post-partum (but again, go at your own pace and wait at least six weeks and speak to your doctor if you have had a C-Section) who did aerobic exercise 3 days per week and resistance exercise 3 days a week. This involved the following:
The resistance part was done at home and involved using handheld adjustable weights and stability balls to perform squats, bench presses, standing military presses, stiff-leg dead lifts, high pulls, pushups, bent-over dumbbell rows, wall sits..
The aerobic portion consisted of brisk walking.
What happened? ‘Infant weight gain and growth were similar in both groups.’ Ie. No impact on milk supply.
Any other impact on milk from exercise?
There have been some discussions around exercising altering the taste of milk or even reducing your immunity but with regards to this latter part that is only temporary if exercise is done to an extreme which is absolutely not recommended so shouldn’t be an issue here.
The only impact on taste could potentially come from a salty taste if you sweat and dont shower before you breastfeed so make sure you time your workouts well between feedings so you’re not rushed and stressed.
Finally: make sure you keep VERY well hydrated as water is of course a key component of breast milk.
If in doubt on all of this - listen to your body. Everyone is different and it is important to do what works and feels good for you. Technically speaking though, if you feel like you want to get back to it then no reason no to if you do it in a considerate and moderate way. Enjoy!
LOVELADY C: Balancing Exercise and Food intake with lactation to promote post-partum weight loss. Cambridge Core: Proceedoihgs of the Nutrotion Society. Volume 70 Issue 2. May 2011 (181-184)
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.