Despite what celebrities and the media may have us believe about bouncing back after a baby, for most women that bounce back just isn’t reality. In terms of size and shape, it usually takes the length of a full-term pregnancy to start to feel like yourself—and that doesn’t include the journey to making peace with your post-baby body (and body image) as a whole. Experts agree that there’s no magic bullet for postpartum weight loss. Every woman is different. And factors such as age, metabolism, workout schedule, and relationship with food all play an important role. Keep these do’s and don’ts in mind as you return to healthy eating habits and exercise after baby.
Do give yourself plenty of time.
“It took the entire pregnancy to put on the weight. It doesn’t happen overnight, or within a few weeks,” cautions Dr. Alison Mitzner. “It’s true [that] you can lose about half [the baby weight] quickly in the first month or two, but the remainder can take months or even a year.”
Jaime McFaden, an Aaptiv trainer who specializes in pregnancy workouts, recommends that clients allow themselves about nine to 12 months to make a “comeback” physically. She also reminds new moms to prioritize sleep and self-care over gym time, which can be mentally challenging, but optimal in the long run.
Similarly, after having twin girls and gaining 60 pounds, Aaptiv trainer Rochelle Moncourtois realized she’d have to be patient and set realistic goals. A difficult cesarean section added to her recovery time. “It’s now almost a year later, and I have about ten pounds left,” Moncourtois notes. “I found that letting my body fully recover from my c-section was the best thing for me.” Sometimes labor and delivery circumstances might push your own personal timetables back, which is totally fine.
It’s also vital to trust that your body will eventually find its new equilibrium. “Give your body time to return to what it was before baby,” says Tatiana Boncompagni, mom of three and founder of Sculptologie. “Focus on slowly cleaning up your nutrition and getting back to the gym or your favorite fitness classes, rather than just wildly trying to drop dress sizes. That said, I strongly and fiercely believe that your body can be even better than what it was like before having children; I know mine is. I have a better butt, tighter waistline, and better figure overall than I did before having kids. And I owe that all to eating and working out—not harder but smarter.”
Don’t rely on breastfeeding for a quick fix.
Some mothers assume breastfeeding will help them shed pounds fast, which can be true but only to an extent. “Breastfeeding does burn calories,” says Dr. Mitzner. “But many moms are hungrier while nursing, as they are burning more calories. I experienced this, as well. It took me a lot longer to lose the baby weight because I was always hungry!”
If you’re nursing, then it’s important to avoid cutting calories since you’ll need plenty of calories to maintain your milk supply, she adds. You’ll want to eat enough to keep your metabolism revved up in general, and be mindful of nutrition because what you eat impacts the milk your child receives. (And, if you’re working out while breastfeeding, keep these tips in mind.)
For Boncompagni, breastfeeding did help with weight loss, but for reasons unrelated to vanity. “I had to make sure I was taking in plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein,” she shares. I couldn’t starve myself or crash diet because that wouldn’t have been good for my babies—forget me! As a result, I lost weight slowly, steadily, and with a healthy mindset.”
Do clean up your diet and focus on nutrition.
One thing that’s easy to forget post-baby? Your body is naturally losing weight right off the bat. “You do initially lose the weight of the baby, the amniotic fleet at birth (which can be up to ten pounds!), and then water weight in the first few weeks,” says Dr. Mitzner. “Thereafter, you should focus on your new baby and recover from delivery before any focus on weight loss. Small frequent meals, as opposed to three larger meals, helps. Also, remember to drink a lot of water. I always had a water bottle near where I fed my baby so I didn’t forget!”
What doesn’t work? Gimmicks, such as juice fasts, and poor food choices. Occasionally, McFaden sees clients accidentally gain unwanted pounds after delivery because they’re still eating high-calorie items and blaming lingering pregnancy cravings. Instead, she advocates for well-balanced meals that are full of vegetables, fiber, and lean protein. (Aka, skip the processed snacks and sugary drinks!)
Once you’re cleared to exercise by a doctor—typically around six to eight weeks after delivery—you’ll probably lose about one pound a week with a healthy diet and exercise.
Don’t obsess over the scale.
“Muscle weighs more than fat,” says Boncompagni. “You can look better in the mirror, and feel better in your clothes, but weigh more on the scale. Also, we all naturally go up and down in weight because of water retention. It can be hormonal or because of something you ate or because you’re dehydrated. But, seeing the numbers on the scale bounce around can be so frustrating. My advice? Don’t weigh yourself often, and go more by how you’re fitting and feeling in your clothing than your weight.”
The bottom line? Don’t let a measly number define how you feel about your body.
Do embrace your current shape.
Look at exercise as a way to celebrate your current form, not a punishment for gaining necessary baby weight. “As a new mom who was used to being in good shape, I knew pregnancy took a major toll on my body,” says McFaden. “I was appreciative of the work my body was able to do to create, grow, and give birth to my baby, so I tried not to be hard on myself after delivery. I didn’t try to rush and lose the weight. Instead, I first started with some mellow recovery pelvic floor work. Minor stretches and simple walks around the block. Within weeks, I was extremely antsy to get back to my typical workouts but I knew I should take it slow. So, I only allowed myself a fraction of the pre-baby workout I was used to.”
McFaden chose to embrace her body in its current post-baby state. She implemented rest days and proper nutrition before easing back into her familiar routine. “Listen to your body—if you feel tired, take a nap; if you’re hungry, eat,” she says. “Try your best not to stress over weight gain or body changes. The time flies, so just be present and enjoy quality time with the beautiful baby you just created.”
Don’t forget to set fitness goals versus weight loss goals.
As always, focus on goals associated with fitness, not appearance. “Per your doctor’s approval, you can walk briskly or do elliptical work, practice belly breathing, or [perform] squats and bridges,” suggests Aaptiv trainer and maternity expert Candice Cunningham. “This will help weight start to fall, but also keep the focus off a number on the scale.”
Boncompagni says weightlifting is equally important as cardio workouts. In her opinion, many women overdo cardio because they’re afraid of getting bulky from weights, which isn’t actually the case. “Weightlifting is perfect for new mothers because they can do it at home with minimal equipment,” says Boncompagni. “Aim to spend about 30 minutes, three days a week, lifting weights at home. I love lunges, squats, and deadlifts for the legs. [To work] the upper body, shoulder presses, biceps curls, and tricep kickbacks can be combined with planks, mountain climbers, and reverse crunches for a fun ab and arm workout. Round out your week with two days of doing whatever kind of cardio you enjoy—running, spinning, boxing, rowing, stair climbing, or whatever else.”
Do make time for yourself, minus the guilt trip.
Unanimously, every single expert we spoke to reiterated two things: it’s okay to make time for yourself and listen to your body.
“I wish more mothers knew that it’s not easy to lose baby weight and [it] will require work,” says Moncourtois. “I want women to be proud of their bodies and not compare themselves to others. Every woman is different and it will take time, but you can get your body back. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.”
“Working out and eating nutritiously will give you more energy, not take away from it. Just stick with it in the beginning when it’s not yet second nature,” says Boncompagni. “It will get easier when it becomes a habit. When you feel good in your body, that makes you happier. Working out makes me more patient and loving, gives me more energy, and, just as importantly, sets a good example for my children.”