Breast is best for weight loss?

Breast-feeding guilt trips aren't limited to talk of babies' health. What about the new mom's figure?

Published November 12, 2009 11:18PM (EST)

Today, the New York Times introduces us to a new reason to make mothers feel bad about not breast-feeding: all that fat around their bellies. "Breast is best" used to be just the ticket to send a new mom directly to Guilt Island, but now you don't even need to invoke the health of her formula-fed baby. Instead, just point out that she's still wearing those stretchy maternity pants to hide her post-baby pooch -- because, apparently, the hot new regimen for postpartum weight loss is expelling milk. That's right: Breast pumping instead of pumping iron.

The Times' Catherine Saint Louis begins the article with the tale of Jessica Jochim, a woman who "was the envy of her co-workers at Babies 'R' Us" because she returned after three months of maternity leave wearing size 4 jeans. "Yet, exercise was a pre-baby relic. She wasn’t dieting, either," says Saint Louis. "In fact, every two hours, she snacked as if on cue." Intrigued? Jealous? Feeling homicidal? Salivating in anticipation of her weight loss trick? She continues: "What was her secret? Breast-feeding her newborn James on demand, and using a breast pump to take milk home to him." Voilà! Babies: The new miracle weight loss pill. Or, as Saint Louis calls it, it's the "Get Out of Dieting Jail Free card."

As with any hot new thing, there are celebrity converts. Saint Louis reports that supermodel-turned-actress Rebecca Romijn "called breast-feeding her new twins 'the very best diet I’ve been on'" and Angelina Jolie "said that [breast-feeding her babies] had helped her regain her figure." But a couple of endorsements by skinny famous people doesn't make it scripture. A recent Danish study found that more breast-feeding is linked with more weight loss, but the research doesn't prove causation, just correlation. Saint Louis also points out that other studies have found "breast-feeders don’t necessarily shed fat quicker than women who feed their newborns formula"; and one study "found that non-lactating women lost more body fat than lactating women at six months, and at a faster rate." So, just as with any Get Out of Whatever Free card, skepticism is appropriate.

That isn't to say I'm opposed to educating parents about the benefits of breast-feeding. I'm a total believer in the research behind "breast is best" and, hey, if breast-feeding does prove to help women lose weight after giving birth, we should let 'em know that, too. (Knowledge is power and stuff!) But the issue has too often been used as a way to scold new moms without regard for personal experience or circumstance. It's yet another way to blanketly determine whether a woman is a "good" or "bad" mom. This pseudo movement links that contentious topic with another very sensitive subject for new moms: weight. Pregnant women first come up against the Goldilocks-like dilemma of putting on the pounds: They can't gain too much or too little; it has to be juuust right. Then follows the postpartum slim-down ritual so reliably cataloged in the pages of Us Weekly. Whether it's those pampered celebrities with a cadre of personal trainers or that bitch at work who is already wearing her skinny jeans three months after giving birth, these miracle weight loss cases are the standard by which women are expected to judge themselves. (Just as the mother who has copious amounts of time, breasts overflowing with milk and a baby that latches on perfectly without causing her any pain is the standard for breast-feeding.)

So, forgive my defensiveness, but I've witnessed too many of the moral and legal battles over whether (and how and where and for how long) mothers breast-feed to react without a touch of cynicism.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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