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Overcoming Postpartum Weight Struggles

As a trusted provider of care for new moms and their babies since 2004, one topic that I frequently discuss is postpartum weight loss. Many clients express their desire to “bounce back” to their pre-pregnancy size, yet encounter various obstacles along the way. It’s important to understand the scientific factors behind these challenges in order to establish attainable goals and prioritize both physical and mental well-being during this important time.

3 Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight

The interplay of 3 factors is the most common reason women have difficulty losing weight after giving birth to a baby. Those factors are:

  1. Hormonal changes
  2. Sleep disturbances
  3. Breastfeeding

How your hormones affect postpartum weight management

The postpartum period can be very stressful because you are:

  • worrying about your new baby,
  • losing sleep,
  • stressing about milk production,
  • adjusting to a dramatic lifestyle change, and more.

When you experience high stress, your adrenal glands naturally ramp up the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can impact your ability to lose weight. One reason for this is that high cortisol levels can increase ghrelin, the appetite-stimulating hormone.

Sleep deprivation can also throw your hunger hormones off balance. Sleep disturbances can increase ghrelin and decrease leptin, our satiety hormone. If we get consistently less sleep than normal, these hormone disturbances lead to an increase in our appetite, making it really easy to overeat and thus more difficult to lose weight.

A third hormone to consider is prolactin that helps with milk production and stimulating a mother’s hunger. It may in some cases suppress the ability to metabolize fat, sometimes called the “fat-storing” hormone for this reason. Prolactin usually increases during and after pregnancy and remains at high levels until you’re done breastfeeding. If you choose not to breastfeed, then prolactin levels will usually return to normal a few weeks postpartum.

Sleep disturbances and weight loss

It’s no surprise that sleep is greatly affected during the postpartum stage. Babies require frequent feedings, resulting in multiple night awakenings and daytime cluster feeds. Insufficient sleep can have various effects on your body, making weight gain easier and weight loss more challenging. This applies to anyone who doesn’t get enough sleep, not just postpartum parents. In addition to an increase in the hormone ghrelin, your body also craves energy to compensate for the lack of sleep.

When you’re feeling extremely tired, you’re more likely to opt for calorie-dense foods. You may have a craving for high-calorie foods that aren’t particularly nutritious in larger quantities. For example, nuts are great in small portions, but consuming them in larger quantities can add a significant number of extra calories. As a result, you may consume more calories than you need, leading to excess fat storage for later energy use.

Breastfeeding and weight loss

Many of us have heard that breastfeeding helps you lose weight after pregnancy, but that’s not the case for everyone. While breastfeeding does burn an average of 400-500 per day, depending on the individual, there are other things that can complicate weight loss.

  1. Your body may actually hold onto a set amount of weight “in reserve” so you can feed your baby even if food becomes scarce. This evolutionary development was important because if you became too thin, you wouldn’t be able to feed your baby. So, your body can actually hold onto up to 10 additional pounds while breastfeeding.
  1. Your body might hold onto weight because of the hormone prolactin. As mentioned above, you need prolactin to create breast milk, but it also encourages fat storage in your body.
  1. Breastfeeding can trigger your appetite, which may lead to overeating. There’s a misconception that you need to eat for two when breastfeeding or that you can eat an unlimited number of calories because you’re burning so many while nursing. This simply isn’t the case, most women only need 300 to 400 extra calories to breastfeed.
  2. If breastfeeding is the goal, excessive calorie reduction can reduce both the quantity and quality of the milk and is not recommended.

What you can do to help manage your weight during the postpartum stage

During your postpartum stage, there are effective ways to manage your weight while prioritizing your health and the well-being of your child. Instead of focusing solely on weight loss, it is crucial to concentrate on taking care of yourself and recognizing the incredible things your body has done and continues to do for your child.

Maintaining your physical health is important, but it is equally crucial to safeguard your mental well-being by setting realistic expectations for yourself. Rather than striving for an ideal appearance or maximum physical fitness, consider a slow and mindful approach that takes into account what your body and mind need at this particular time.

If weight loss remains a significant goal for you, I recommend adopting a balanced approach that addresses the needs of your child and your mind and body. Remember, the journey to weight loss can be gradual and should align with what is best for your overall well-being. There are a few changes you can safely make during this time that can help you manage your weight and set you up for success when your body and mind are ready to prioritize weight loss.

  1. Focus on portion control.
  2. Limit excessive snacking on high calorie foods.
  3. Find ways to improve your sleep by seeking out additional support (family, sleep consultant, night nurse services, etc).
  4. When deemed safe by your healthcare team, slowly add in additional physical activity such as longer walks, yoga, or another activity you enjoy.


Due to our physiology, it is harder to lose weight while breastfeeding that you may have come to believe. Stress affects cortisol, so try to have support in place and minimize your stress as much as possible. Above all else, use this important information to help you manage your weight loss expectations.

Your Harrison Healthcare team would be happy to connect with you to help support your health at any stage of your postpartum journey. Our teams can support your medical, nutrition, exercise and mental health as you care for your new child and work towards your health goals.


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