For many women, achieving a healthy weight after pregnancy can be a struggle.
It can be stressful taking care of a newborn, adjusting to a new routine and recovering from childbirth.
However, it is important to return to a healthy weight after delivery, especially if you plan to become pregnant again in the future.
This article looks at 16 evidence-based methods you can use to lose postpartum weight.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that women within a healthy weight range gain between 25–35 pounds (11.5–16 kg) during pregnancy (1).
The extra fat acts as an energy reserve for the birth and breastfeeding.
However, excess weight gain can result in too much fat. This is what people generally refer to as “baby weight,” and it’s very common. Nearly half of women gain more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy (1).
The consequences of keeping this excess weight include:
- Increased risk of being overweight (3, 4, 5, 6).
- Heightened risk of diabetes and heart disease (2, 3, 7, 8).
- Greater risk of complications in later pregnancies (1, 9).
- Higher health risks for women with gestational diabetes (10, 11, 12, 13).
The following list provides evidence-based tips to help you lose the extra pounds.
Despite what many women's magazines and celebrity stories would have you believe, losing weight after pregnancy can take time.
One study found that women retained an average 1–6.6 pounds (0.5–3 kg) of their pregnancy weight gain after 12 months (14).
Another study of 831 women found that 40.3% kept more than 5.5 pounds (2.5 kg) of the weight they had gained during pregnancy. Additionally, 14–20% of women retained more than 11 pounds (5 kg) (7, 15).
A World Health Organization (WHO) study of 1,743 mothers from different countries found women lost an average of 10.4 pounds (4.7 kg) in the time between two weeks and two years post birth (16).
Depending on how much weight you gained during pregnancy, it is realistic to expect that over one to two years you may lose around 10 pounds (4.5 kg). If you gained more weight, you may find you end up a few pounds heavier than you were pre-pregnancy.
Of course, with good diet and exercise, you should be able to achieve any level of weight loss that you desire.
While the amount of weight you lose after giving birth may vary, the most important thing is that you return to a healthy weight range.
Summary Weight loss after pregnancy can take time, and you may not go back to your pre-baby weight or a healthy weight straight away.
Crash diets are very low-calorie diets that aim to make you lose a large amount of weight in the shortest amount of time possible.
After delivering a baby, your body needs good nutrition to heal and recover.
A low-calorie diet is likely to be lacking in important nutrients and will probably leave you feeling tired. This is the opposite of what you need when taking care of a newborn, and when you’re likely sleep deprived.
Assuming your weight is currently stable, decreasing your calorie intake by about 500 calories per day will stimulate safe weight loss of about 1.1 pounds (0.5 kg) per week.
For example, a woman eating 2,000 calories per day could eat 300 fewer calories and burn an extra 200 calories through exercise, making a reduction of 500 calories in total.
Summary Low-calorie diets are not recommended, particularly for breastfeeding women. However, decreasing your intake by about 500 calories per day is generally safe, and will help you lose about 1 pound (0.5 kg) per week.
Breastfeeding has many benefits for both mother and baby, including:
- Provides nutrition: Breast milk contains all the nutrients a baby needs to grow and thrive in the first six months of life (20, 21, 22).
- Supports the baby's immune system: Breast milk also contains important antibodies that help your baby fight viruses and bacteria (23, 24).
- Reduces the size of the uterus: Breastfeeding helps the uterus contract and return to its normal size faster after birth (25).
- Lowers the risk of disease in infants: Breastfed infants have a lower risk of lung conditions, skin conditions, obesity, diabetes, leukemia and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), among other diseases (26, 27, 28, 29).
- Reduces the mother’s risk of disease: Women who breastfeed have lower risks of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and postnatal depression (26).
Additionally, breastfeeding has been shown to support the mother’s weight loss.
One study of 4,922 breastfeeding women found that participants had lost an average of 3.7 pounds (1.68 kg) more weight than non-breastfeeding women by six months after delivery. Other research has found similar results (30, 31, 32).
A study of 36,030 Danish mothers demonstrated that, for women who gain weight within the recommended range, breastfeeding may help get rid of pregnancy weight by as early as six months after delivery (33).
However, in the first three months, you may experience no weight loss or even some weight gain. This is due to increased calorie needs and intake, as well as reduced physical activity during lactation (14, 30, 31, 34).
If you are not breastfeeding, diet and exercise will still be enough to help you lose weight.
Summary Breastfeeding has many benefits for the mother and child. It may make weight loss more difficult in the first three months postpartum, though after three months, breastfeeding may help you lose weight.
Counting calories can help you work out how much you are eating and where any problem areas in your diet may be.
Moreover, it can help you ensure you are getting enough calories to provide you with the energy and nutrition you need.
Summary Counting calories manually or with an app may help you keep track of what you are eating and support weight loss.
For example, one study of 1,114 adults found that every 10 grams of soluble fiber people ate per day accounted for a 3.7% reduction in belly fat over a five-year period (48).
Additionally, soluble fiber is fermented into short-chain fatty acids in the gut. These help increase levels of the fullness hormones cholecystokinin (CCK), glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and peptide YY (PYY) (51, 52, 53).
Summary Soluble fiber may help with weight loss by increasing feelings of fullness and regulating appetite hormones.
Studies demonstrate that protein has a greater thermic effect than other nutrients. That means that the body uses more energy to digest it than other types of foods, which results in more calories burned (56, 57, 58).
For example, one study found that people on a diet of 30% protein ate 441 fewer calories per day compared to people on a diet that contained less protein (61).
Healthy sources include lean meats, eggs, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy.
Summary Protein supports weight loss by boosting your metabolism, increasing feelings of fullness and reducing appetite.
The foods you have around you can have a big effect on what you eat.
By stocking up on healthy snacks like cut vegetables, nuts, fruit and yogurt, you can ensure you have something close at hand if you are feeling hungry.
Furthermore, just keeping fruit out on the counter has been associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) (65).
Likewise, having unhealthy foods out on the counter is associated with increased weight. Therefore, it is best to keep them out of the kitchen, or even better, out of the house (65).
Summary Keep healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts and yogurt at home and easily accessible. Store unhealthy foods out of sight or don’t keep them in the house at all.
Sugar and refined carbs are high in calories and usually low in nutrients.
When you’re choosing food at the grocery store, read the food labels. If sugar is one of the first ingredients on the list, that product is probably better to stay away from.
It is easy to reduce your sugar intake by avoiding processed foods and sticking to whole foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruits, meats, fish, eggs, nuts and yogurt.
Summary Added sugars and refined carbs are high in calories, have little nutritional benefit and contribute to many lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. You can avoid them by sticking to whole foods.
Processed foods are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, salt and calories, all of which can counteract your weight loss efforts (72).
These foods include fast foods and pre-packed foods like chips, cookies, baked goods, candy, ready meals and mixes.
Furthermore, processed foods are associated with more addictive eating behaviors (73).
You can reduce the amount of processed foods you eat by replacing them with fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods.
Summary Processed foods are higher in added sugars, fat, salt and calories, and are bad for your health. Replace them with fresh, whole foods.
Research has shown that small amounts of alcohol, such as a glass of red wine, can confer some health benefits (74).
However, when it comes to weight loss, alcohol provides extra calories without nutrition.
Furthermore, alcohol can cause a temporary reduction in breast milk volume in mothers who are breastfeeding. Additionally, small amounts of alcohol can be passed through breast milk to your baby (78, 79).
There is no known safe level of alcohol for infants. Therefore, if you do drink, consider expressing milk beforehand, or leaving enough time between drinking and the next feed for the alcohol to pass from your body (80).
Depending on your weight, one standard alcoholic drink takes between 1.5–2 hours to clear from your body and breastmilk (79).
Summary It is best to avoid alcohol if you are trying to lose weight. Additionally, the alcohol you drink may be passed to your baby during breastfeeding. If you do drink alcohol, plan to express milk beforehand or time your feedings to reduce the risk.
Cardio, such as walking, jogging, running, cycling and interval training, helps you burn calories and has numerous health benefits.
For example, an analysis of 12 studies showed that people who combined diet and exercise lost 3.7 pounds (1.72 kg) more than those who just dieted alone (86).
Other research indicates that it is the amount of aerobic exercise, rather than the intensity, that is important for fat loss and heart health. So even just going for a walk is a good step toward improving your weight and health (87, 88, 89, 90).
After delivery, your pelvic and stomach areas need time to heal, especially if you have had a cesarean section birth.
How long postpartum you can safely start exercising depends on the mode of delivery, whether there were any complications, how fit you were before and during pregnancy and generally how you feel (91, 92).
You may be able to start something gentle like pelvic floor exercises right away, whereas you should wait to take on more intense exercises until your body is fully healed and it is medically safe (91, 92).
Summary Aerobic exercise has many important health benefits. Exercise — at any level of intensity — combined with diet is an effective weight loss method.
Resistance training like weight lifting will help you lose weight and retain muscle mass.
In addition, a study of 20 breastfeeding women found that when women included resistance training in their exercise, they experienced significantly less bone mineral density loss and muscle loss than women who didn’t exercise (95).
However, this is just one study, and the sample size was small, so more research is needed in this area.
Finding time to exercise with a baby can be difficult, but there are gyms that offer classes for mothers and babies, as well as YouTube videos and mobile apps that can help you out.
Summary Resistance training helps you lose weight and maintain muscle mass, and may help breastfeeding women retain bone mineral density.
Researchers found that just by drinking 34 ounces (1 liter) of water or more per day, overweight women lost an extra 4.4 pounds (2 kg) in 12 months (97).
Aiming to drink at least 34–68 ounces (1–2 liters) of water per day is a good goal to assist with weight loss and keep hydrated, though some women who are breastfeeding or exercising a lot may need more.
Summary Drinking water boosts your metabolism and aids weight loss. It is especially important for staying hydrated during breastfeeding. Aim to drink at least 34–68 ounces (1–2 liters) per day.
One review of mothers and sleep showed that a lack of sleep is related to retaining more weight after pregnancy (108).
This association may also be true for adults in general. Eight out of 13 studies in adults found sleep deprivation is significantly associated with weight gain (109).
For new mothers, getting enough sleep can be a challenge. Strategies that may help include sleeping when your baby is sleeping and asking for help from family and friends.
Summary Poor sleep can negatively impact your weight loss efforts. Although it is difficult with a newborn, try to get as much sleep as you can and ask for help when you need it.
Group-based weight loss can be beneficial for some people.
Both face-to-face weight loss groups and online communities may be helpful (112).
However, a review of studies that included 16,000 people found that group weight loss had no significant effect compared to other weight loss interventions (41).
Finding a method that suits your lifestyle and preferences is probably the best option.
Summary In-person and online weight loss groups may be beneficial, though more research is needed to compare their effectiveness with other weight loss strategies.
Being a new mother can be a daunting role and a lot of work. Sleep deprivation and stress can be overwhelming, and up to 15% of mothers also experience postnatal depression (113).
While achieving a healthy weight after pregnancy is important, it shouldn’t add undue stress and anxiety.
If you are feeling depressed or anxious, or you’re simply struggling to cope, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Ask friends and family for help around the house, preparing meals or taking care of the baby for a few hours to allow you to rest or get some exercise.
If you need more help, your doctor, dietitian, family nurse or a psychologist can offer you support.
Summary Getting to a healthy weight is important, but shouldn’t be a cause of stress or anxiety. If you feel you aren’t coping, ask for help from your family, friends and medical practitioner.
Carrying some extra weight after pregnancy is very common.
Nevertheless, getting back into a healthy weight range is beneficial for your health and any future pregnancies.
Being healthy will allow you to enjoy time with your baby and get the most out of being a new mom.
The best and most achievable way to lose weight is through a healthy diet, breastfeeding and exercise.