Essential guidelines for losing weight post-pregnancy

Here's how to ensure you get back to a healthy weight after having a baby.

28 October 2008
by Katherine Graham

You’ve heard the warning: if you don’t lose the weight within a year, it’ll be with you for the rest of your life. So what do you do?

Your battle against baby flab is not only physical, it's also emotional and psychological. "Becoming a mother is a natural initiation into motherhood. Women find that suddenly they care for something more than themselves. This can be hugely empowering, but it's important that you don't drown in your care for your child. You still need to take your own needs into consideration," says Cape Town-based psychotherapist Mary Ovenstone.

That’s why losing weight is not being selfish: it’s helping you be more present for your baby. "You have to have the right mental attitude," says Ovenstone. "Don’t tell yourself: 'I have to lose this weight. I must get back into shape!' If you do, you’re igniting the parental voices inside yourself. You might comply in the beginning, but eventually you will rebel, which means you won’t meet your goal of losing weight. What you need to do instead is to say to yourself: 'I choose to lose this weight to be a better mother and a better human being. I am taking responsibility for this.'"

If you find that you suffer from postnatal depression, this can be a further hindrance to your losing weight. Don’t reprimand yourself: seek professional help. "Remember that there is a huge psychological adjustment that takes place every time we go through a life-stage transition and it takes a couple of years to get used to it," says Ovenstone.

1. Eat sensibly

If you’re breastfeeding you need to eat healthily in order to lose weight, but it’s not advisable to follow a very low-energy diet. Dietitian Cecily Fuller says: "A deficient diet can reduce the quantity of breast milk and may affect the mother’s health." Rather follow a low-fat, high-carbohydrate, high-fibre diet.

Make sure you’re getting enough calcium, advises Fuller. "Breastfeeding mums need to eat small, frequent meals that are both energy- and nutrient-dense," she says. This includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, oily fish, lean meat, skinless chicken, pulses, nuts and wholegrains that will supply your body with all the extra vitamins, minerals, protein and energy it needs.

Be aware of foods that may make your little one niggly: cabbage, beans and broccoli are the chief culprits here. Spicy foods are also to be avoided, advises Johannesburg-based gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr François Lubbe.

2. Stay hydrated

A breastfeeding mother produces about 500ml of milk a day in the early months and up to 800ml in later lactation. Bottom line: drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, herbal teas and fat-free or low-fat milk, says Fuller, and limit your intake of fruit juice if you’re watching your weight. If you love the flavour of fruit juice, rather dilute it with water.

Also avoid caffeine and alcohol (an occasional glass is fine, but remember that alcohol is loaded with kilojoules).

3. Get moving!

There’s only so much that breastfeeding and healthy eating can accomplish. If you want your body to look toned again, you’re going to have to break a sweat. Cardiovascular exercise wins hands-down as the best method of burning fat – everything from rowing, skipping and running, to cycling and swimming.

Exercise can be tricky if you’re stuck at home with baby all day. But even if you can’t get to the gym, there are other ways of becoming active again. ‘Buy yourself a skipping rope,’ suggests Yolanda Koffman, a personal trainer. ‘Do sit-ups to help firm your tummy and do lunges for your legs and buttocks. You can buy a medicine ball, a stepper and weights and do your own work-out at home.’

Women who gave birth by Caesarean section should remember to give their body a one- to two-month break before they start exercising in earnest, but there’s no harm in doing light exercise, says Dr Lubbe. ‘I recommend bent leg raises (lying flat on the floor) already in the second week, starting one leg at a time,’ he says, ‘Increase this gradually to both legs extended.’