Milk & Muscle: Exercise During the Breastfeeding Period

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What if you’re a breastfeeding mother and want to exercise? Then you’re ten steps (or Zumba classes) ahead of the rest of us, fit mama!

We know gymnurstics doesn’t count as working out… so what does? Walking, jogging/running, biking and other forms of cardio, swimming, dancing, lifting weights, yoga, pilates, low impact exercise like stretching, home workouts, strength training, kick boxing, hula hooping, whatever gets your body moving and blood flowing.

How Does Exercise Impact Lactation?

Physical activity does not negatively affect the ability to lactate. How did your body manage to manufacture colostrum while you were building a human, or when you were in the throes of labor? If the hardest workout of your life wasn’t in the labor and delivery ward, your gym must be located in the psych-ward! (I’m kidding…but seriously, are you a demon?).

In any case, researchers from this study say that health professionals should encourage breastfeeding mothers to exercise. For new moms, couches are for nursing sessions, piles of fresh laundry, and not so much the couch potato-ing, which isn’t always good for the freshly postpartum bum.

One study found that lactating women who were vigorous exercisers actually had greater volume and energy output in their milk than the milk of sedentary women.

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What About Lactic Acid?

In an older study, it was found that lactic acid (a supposedly bitter tasting byproduct created by fitness activity) does present in breast milk for up to 90 minutes post-exercise. However, it’s only noticeably increased after incredibly high-intensity (not moderate) exercise, and babies are not more likely to reject milk that contains a greater level of lactic acid.

It’s worth noting the ‘unscientific’ study received criticism from many in the health community for failing to portray a realistic situation in which the average breastfeeding woman exercises (which is not to the point of exhaustion).

Even if lactic acid does increase in a mother’s milk, it poses no health risk to her baby. It would merely be a theoretical risk of her baby temporarily refusing to nurse if he couldn’t get past the altered taste. If a baby does seem fussy, distracted, or disinterested in nursing after his mother has exercised, his behavior is more likely the result of correlation than causation.

According to Breastfeeding USA:

“A couple of small studies10,11 found no difference in immunologic factors after moderate exercise, but they showed a decrease in immune boosting proteins after exhaustive exercise. Levels return to normal within an hour, and the impact on baby is unlikely to be significant.”

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Via Jy Bra

Handy Tips

1). Invest in a supportive sports bra (or two).

Years ago, I could’ve jogged without a bra until my iPod battery ran out (I didn’t dare, but I could’ve!). Then right after my first baby was born, I found it impossible to simply exist without a bra.

I used to hear friends freak out because they forgot their ‘second sports bra’ for yoga class. I finally understood a bit of the struggle.

Fast forward to second baby: I typically forgo bras as part of my daily ensemble, but I still find even low impact exercise like stretching is more comfortable when my breasts are packed away in something leak-proof and jiggle-proof.

Thankfully, there are tons of nursing/sports hybrid bras on the market for women of every size and budget. These are a great idea because they’re usually made less restrictive than traditional sports bras, they have fold-down cups for easy nursing access, and they don’t feature wires or bulky seams that could harm ductile tissue.

2). You might want to keep the (non-milk) drip to a minimum.

Some babies don’t like nuzzling up to a sweaty chest (is this why men aren’t tasked with breastfeeding babies?), so you might try lightly wiping away the proof of your labor if baby seems turned off by sticky post-workout perspiration. A quick rinse or towel-off can remove the extra salt on your skin.

3). Get thee nursing pads if thou tend to leaketh.

Or don’t. Because hey, seems like you’ll be in good company with the other gym rats proudly outfitted in drenched crop-tops.

4). Plan for childcare.

The hardest part about all this exercise business might very well be finding time to separate from the nurslings for long enough to get in that fitness zone.

Many gyms have a Kids Club where staff watch patrons’ children. The perks: Your baby will be in the same building as you, which makes on-demand nursing and diaper changes much easier. The drawbacks: These clubs often cost an additional fee beyond membership, many won’t accept young babies, many have time limits, you may prefer that your baby avoid any stealthy viruses mingling among the kids, and you don’t get to choose who looks after your child.

If gyms aren’t really your thing, you’ve still got options:

  • Consider a Mommy & Me class (baby can participate by mimicking mama’s movements or hanging out in a carrier). Baby Boot Camp classes incorporate strollered babies into their routines.
  • Try following a fitness channel on YouTube or use exercise DVDs at home. (Check out this one I was featured in! Just because. 🙂 It was a strictly volunteer gig — I have never received/do not/will never receive any money from the DVD).
  • Would a trusted mama friend be interested to swap babysitting so you can take turns exercising?
  • Then there’s the most classic exercise form of all: Walking! Roaming ’round the neighborhood while babywearing your little one does a body good (and he can eat on the go this way!).

5). Start slow and pay attention to how you feel.

First, make sure your health care provider has cleared you for exercise. If you’re still shedding lochia, or healing from a cesarean, tear or episiotomy, your care provider will likely recommend you hold off on aerobic activity. Physical depletion can leave a new mother exhausted, which can make breastfeeding quite stressful.

The early weeks after birth are a time for healing, resting, re-nourishing your body, bonding with your baby, and establishing milk supply by nursing frequently. If you totally want to milk your sacred postpartum rest period for as long as possible, just listen to your body.

Don’t give in to pressure to regain fitness before you’re ready!

When you are ready, have realistic expectations. No need to jump into your previous routine immediately.

6). Breastfeed or pump before exercising.

This maximizes the amount of time you can be separated from your baby. You’ll also feel more comfortable working out if your breasts aren’t engorged.

7). Plan your ideal types of exercise in advance.

If you’re prone to plugged ducts, excessive repetitive arm movements (such as when lifting weights) may cause issues.

Take precautions to protect yourself from injury. Ligaments may still be loose if you’re newly postpartum. Confirm you do not have a diastasis recti or umbilical hernia before diving into core workouts.

8). Keep eating and drinking.

Sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to forget these basic things in the go-go-go life of new parenthood. It’s one thing after another all day long, and it could be dusk before you realize you’ve been ‘hydrating’ on coffee since breakfast. Don’t be that person (me) — be smart. Hydrate like your breasts depend on it!

For a woman at a healthy weight, any postpartum exercise should focus on maintaining health and sanity for the nursing mother rather than a push for weight loss, as breastfeeding already burns an estimated 400-1,000 calories per day (depending on individual anatomy, metabolism, supplementation given, and the age, number and dependency of nurslings).

If you have a typical breastfeeder appetite, chances are you won’t need encouragement to snack on all the things. But you should prioritize ensuring all those healthy, delicious noms actually make it into your belly throughout the day to keep up your energy (at least as quickly as your nursling drains them).

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