Why Obesity Can Affect Breastfeeding and What You Can Do About It

Women dealing with excess weight were found to regularly have more difficulties with breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding - Photo by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová:
Breastfeeding - Photo by Helena Jankovičová Kováčová: 

Breastfeeding provides unmatched health benefits for babies and mothers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. This is primarily because breast milk contains antibodies that help protect against most childhood diseases. It also has the necessary energy-giving nutrients that an infant needs for the first months of their life.

That said, while the benefits of breastfeeding make it an essential part of baby care, some mothers struggle with nursing their children. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that around 83.2% of new mothers start out breastfeeding, but the numbers eventually dwindle down after a few months. Some of these rates can be attributed to mothers returning to work after their 12-week maternity leave, and they end up breastfeeding less due to work constraints.

Another reason why some mothers struggle to breastfeed is because they cannot produce breast milk. This can cause discouragement for some, as breastfeeding is associated with closely bonding with one’s child and being able to provide them with the right nourishment. However, National Geographic shares that up to 10% of all mothers are simply physiologically unable to nurse their babies. The production of breast milk is generally affected by numerous factors, including genetics, stress levels, and lifestyle, which makes it difficult to determine the exact cause of lack of lactation. That said, it has been repeatedly found that women dealing with excess weight falling into obesity were found to more regularly have difficulties with breastfeeding.

breastfeeding, nursing
Baby Breastfeeding

How Obesity Affects Breastfeeding

To understand how obesity affects breastfeeding, it is important to define this condition first. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health defines obesity as the measure of excess fat on the body as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is calculated based on the ratio of someone’s height to their weight, with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 being considered a healthy range. Being overweight is defined by a BMI between 25.0 to 29.9, while anything above 30.0 is considered obese. It is important to keep in mind that BMI cannot account for the different factors that affect individual health and weight status since it does not distinguish between excess fat, muscle, or bone mass.

Some of the common health risks presented by obesity include hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and body pains. All of these conditions can make the breastfeeding process more physically taxing for the mother. Aside from this, being obese also affects the body’s ability to produce milk due to inflammation. Some studies found that when a person is obese, chronic inflammation starts in the stored fat within the body before spreading to the organs and systems. This inflammation may disrupt the proper absorption of fatty acids from the blood into body tissues — for mothers, these fatty acids are also found in breast milk, and they provide fat critical in a baby's diet. However, women who experience chronic inflammation due to obesity not only struggle to produce milk, but the milk they do make lacks these essential fatty acids.

On a more societal note, research from Reuters reveals that obese mothers feel more scrutinized and less supported when it comes to breastfeeding. According to some moms, the lack of size inclusivity in basic items like breastfeeding tops or harnesses makes the process less convenient. At the same time, public judgment for breastfeeding in the open in light of their weight makes many feel self-conscious.

What Mothers Can Do To Breastfeed While Obese

Having excess weight may greatly affect a mother’s ability to breastfeed, but there are actionable ways to address these health issues. Adopting a sustainable weight loss approach is crucial, as losing weight in a healthy way ensures the well-being of both you and your baby. As such, here are a few recommendations you can consider for losing weight:

Set Realistic Goals

Weight loss is more than hitting a goal weight. It is a part of a broader wellness journey focused on improving overall health. With this, setting sustainable and realistic goals can help you maintain your motivation for weight loss and give you better incentives to keep going. Losing weight is not always the easiest or quickest thing to achieve — as such, it's important to work towards smaller but more attainable goals rather than bigger-ticket milestones that may feel overwhelming. For instance, you could aim to lose 10 pounds rather than 50 pounds first. Focusing on more reasonable achievements helps build your confidence while also chipping away sustainably at your long-term objectives. This is also kinder for new moms, who may often feel too busy to take on bigger goals.

beautiful baby
Baby looking up

Adopt a Custom Workout

When losing weight, more physical activity increases your metabolism since it converts fat into energy to enable more movement. However, exercising is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and it is important to have a workout routine and schedule that works for you. On top of considering your schedule as a mom, it would benefit you to find the kind of exercise routine that is compatible with your current physical fitness level to avoid the risk of injury. Some recommended exercises for women under the obesity scale include brisk walking, strength training, and low-impact exercises like yoga. These exercises are easier on the joints and cardio, so you're not likely to develop any pains, but you are still physically stimulated. Additionally, a number of these exercises can be done at home, so you’re still able to closely monitor your child while working on your weight loss journey.

Have a Reliable Support Network

Having social support is beneficial for a number of reasons. As a mom, it’s important to have people to help you deal with the challenges presented by raising and taking care of a child. For weight loss, it’s also important to have a community since you can receive encouragement to push on with your weight loss lifestyle and habits. In addition, people dealing with obesity also face weight-related biases. Having people who can support you can help address the effects of this kind of stigma and strengthen your resolve to continue building a healthy lifestyle change. If you're able to find a group of new moms who are also dealing with excess weight issues, you can even benefit from their advice and knowledge on the experience.