Still carrying that baby weight? Don’t blame the pregnancy

April 13, 2017

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Women have long blamed their pregnancy for weight gain that hangs around well after their babies are born, but a new study suggests the demands of motherhood itself -- and age – are the real culprits.

A research team at the University of Michigan School of Nursing compared the long-term weight gain of childbearing women with the expected weight gain for women without kids. The data showed that a mom’s age and lifestyle were the real cause of those expanding waistlines.

Olga Yakusheva, associate professor in nursing at the university, led a team of investigators who examined the hospital records of more than 32,000 women who had delivered from one to four children in Wisconsin from 2006 through 2013. After analyzing the actual weight patterns among these women, they calculated what the weight patterns would be if the women had not given birth.

Yakusheva and her colleagues found that while most women never returned to their pre-pregnancy weight, their weight at one to two years after giving birth was nearly identical to what they could have been expected to weigh if they didn't have children. Both women with and without children gained almost two pounds a year, due to the natural process of aging. But once their children became toddlers, the mothers gained a full pound more per year than the women who didn’t have kids.

"We found that by one or two years after birth, women who had children were very similar [in weight gain] to those who did not," said Yakusheva. However, "from that time on, women with children were gaining weight at a faster rate than women without," she added. This faster rate of weight gain did not seem to be pregnancy-related, according to Yakusheva. She tentatively concluded that lifestyle changes related to parenthood caused that extra pound to sneak up on moms every year.

Women with new babies often don't exercise as much and don't eat as well, she explained. "Mothers tend to put the needs of their children first, so they might not be exercising or taking care of themselves, It might also be little things like finishing the food on their child's plate or spending more time sitting with their kids reading or watching a movie."

It’s not uncommon for women to focus on diet and exercise after giving birth, trying to get back to their pre-pregnancy weight. But like many dieters, they can get discouraged by the results. But Yakusheva thinks moms should “take a more holistic approach focused on a long-term healthy lifestyle before, during and after pregnancy.”

"Understanding the demands of motherhood and age-related weight gain is important for promoting positive expectations of body image after pregnancy," she said. "As long as women are healthy, that is what matters."

Yakusheva recommends that mothers should plan to attain a weight that takes aging into account, which means two or three pounds, on average, above their pre-pregnancy weight, a year after giving birth. 

A couple of factors work in favor of mothers. For one thing, breast-feeding can help a mom lose weight as her body works to create milk and then passes on the calories in the milk to her baby. For another, the rate of weight gain can slow down at five years, when the child goes to school.

If you started out at a normal weight and gained 25-35 pounds during pregnancy, in theory it shouldn't take more than a few months to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight  -- if you watch what you eat and exercise. But if you were overweight before pregnancy, or put on more weight than what your doctor recommended, it could take longer to get the weight off.  

If you want to lose a few pounds after giving birth, it’s a good idea to consult with a provider who can help you set up a healthy eating and exercise plan. You can find one near you in our provider directory.

Do you have any tips for losing baby weight? Leave a comment here.

The study, "Maternal Weight after Childbirth versus Aging-Related Weight Changes" was published in the journal Women's Health Issues.