Read time: 10 minutes
Losing weight can be a challenging process, but for moms, it can be even more difficult. Between managing a household, caring for little ones, and possibly balancing work outside the home, you’ve got a lot going on.
“Even if a partner is involved, the ‘maternal instinct’ and the mental work of parenting doesn’t seem to completely shut off for moms, at least for me,” shares Johna Burdeos, RD. “Multiple competing responsibilities can make it tough to prioritize your health.”
While the stress of motherhood affects people regardless of how they became parents, if you became a mother through pregnancy and giving birth, you have hormonal and other physical changes to contend with as well. The physical and emotional transformation can be overwhelming.
“While most women understand that weight gain during pregnancy is necessary, the psychological impact of these bodily changes can pose a challenge,” shares Sherri Holzer, integrative nutrition health coach. “The adjustment to a new lifestyle alone is significant, as a new mother no longer has the same time to focus on her own diet and physical activity.”
Whether you had a baby a month ago or a decade ago, trying to lose weight as a mom is not always easy. If you feel like you’re doing “everything right” and still not seeing results, you’re not the only one. We speak with experts about the unique challenges moms face when it comes to weight loss and offer tips to help you achieve your goals.
Reason #1: Sleep deprivation
When we talk about what it takes to lose weight, we often focus on eating well and moving our body, but there’s a third factor that can make a huge difference: getting enough sleep.
It's no secret that moms often struggle to get enough sleep. Whether you're up late with a crying baby or waking up early to get your kids ready for school, sleep deprivation can take a toll on your body and make it harder to lose weight.
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to increased levels of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and decreased levels of the satiety hormone, leptin, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt your metabolism and increase the hormone cortisol. This can cause your body to hold on to fat.
The solution: It can feel like a tall order, but it’s essential to prioritize sleep as much as you can. Different people need different amounts of sleep to feel rested, but aiming to get at least seven hours of rest each night is a good place to start. Avoiding alcohol and turning off your screens a few hours before bedtime can help your body prepare for rest.
Reason #2: Hormone imbalance
Hormones play a critical role in pregnancy and birth. During pregnancy, your progesterone increases to ten times the normal level. Estrogen, the hormone responsible for fat storage and reproduction, increases dramatically as well.
As soon as you give birth, your progesterone and estrogen levels start to drop, making way for new hormones that support breastfeeding. Though this initial hormonal fluctuation can be extreme and immediate, a complete recalibration doesn’t happen overnight. For some women, it can take up to a year or until they finish breastfeeding for their hormones to return to normal levels.
“High levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone can slow down the metabolism which makes it difficult to lose weight,” explains Dr. Krutika Nanavati, RDN.
When estrogen levels are high, it can promote the storage of fat, particularly in the abdominal area. While this is helpful during pregnancy when your body needs extra fat to make a baby, the effect can be frustrating postpartum when you’re trying to get back to where you were before.
Excess estrogen can also contribute to increased water retention and bloating, making you feel heavier and affecting the shape of your body.
The solution: Connect with a healthcare professional who can evaluate your specific hormone levels and give you tailored recommendations. They might suggest interventions such as hormone replacement therapy. In the meantime, Nanavati recommends focusing on eating plenty of healthy foods like lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables while avoiding processed and sugary snacks.
Reason #3: Underactive thyroid
As if the mood changes weren’t enough, the massive hormonal recalibration that happens postpartum can affect your thyroid function, too. Thyroid hormones play a crucial role in regulating metabolism, the process by which the body converts food into energy.
“Low levels of thyroid hormone can slow down metabolism,” explains Burdeos. “When the metabolism slows, the amount of calories needed goes down. But if you’re not sticking to a calorie level that your body needs and instead, over consuming, then that can lead to weight gain.”
This type of thyroid dysfunction can sometimes be called postpartum thyroiditis. It’s a relatively rare condition affecting approximately 5% of people who’ve given birth, but it can have a big impact on your emotional health if you’re trying to shed weight and not seeing results.
The solution: If you’re feeling any other symptoms of hypothyroidism in addition to weight gain—fatigue, trouble tolerating cold, joint pain, dry skin, slowed heart rate, or depression—it’s important to check with your healthcare provider who can diagnose the condition through blood tests and provide you with the appropriate treatment. Thyroid hormone replacement therapy can help restore normal thyroid function.
Reason #4: Emotional eating
“Being a mom can be incredibly stressful, and that stress can lead to emotional or comfort eating,” says Karen Reyes, board-certified nutritionist. “When you add in the easy availability of cheap and unhealthy food options, as well as the physical and hormonal changes caused by pregnancy and breastfeeding, which can trigger cravings and fatigue, it becomes much more difficult to stick to a healthy diet and exercise routine.”
Reaching for your favorite chips or cookies when you’re stressed is a natural and understandable coping mechanism. Research shows that these fat- and sugar-rich foods really do ease the body’s stress-related response and tame one of the main stress hormones, cortisol.
Emotional eating only becomes a problem when it’s our primary way of coping with stress or difficult emotions, which can lead us to eat past the point of fullness. If you’re trying to lose weight, the extra calories from overeating to deal with stress can make shedding pounds more difficult.
The solution: Before reaching for your favorite comfort foods, ask yourself if you’re physically hungry. If the answer is yes, then by all means, enjoy your snack. If the answer is no, take a moment to ask yourself why you might be feeling the way you’re feeling and brainstorm non-food coping strategies. Getting some fresh air, doing five minutes of deep breathing, or even giving yourself a hug can be just as calming as eating and can help you stay on track with your weight loss goals, too.
Reason #5: Negative body image
Every day, we’re bombarded with images of celebrities who appear to return to their pre-pregnancy weight overnight. This onslaught of seemingly effortless weight loss can take a very real toll on you if you’re not seeing your own immediate results.
“As a dietitian, I see many women who want to lose weight and ‘bounce back’ after having a child,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN of Bucket List Tummy. “And while this may seem like the norm in society (and what society promotes and showcases), it's far from easy.”
Comparing ourselves to others online or in real life can lead to a negative body image. When there isn’t love and respect for the body, it’s hard to be motivated to take care of it in a consistent and balanced way.
Feeling shame or disliking your body can spark self-destructive behaviors like excessive exercising or overly restrictive diets, which can harm you in the long run and keep you even further from your goals.
The solution: The first step in changing your relationship with your body is to become more aware of how you think and talk about your body. “Notice the words you use, both in your mind and when talking to others, to describe your body,” encourages Stelzer. “If you find yourself using negative self-talk often, start to shift your language from criticizing to language that is more neutral, acknowledging ways that you are grateful for what your body does for you.”
Reason #6: Too much stress
Parenting is immeasurably rewarding, but it can also be incredibly stressful. A recent report found that 66% of working parents meet the criteria for parental burnout, which means you’re so exhausted you feel you have nothing left to give to your children.
“When we’re stressed, our bodies release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which create a physiologic response to escape the stress,” explains Wendy Schofer, MD, pediatrician, lifestyle physician, and founder of Family in Focus: The Weight Coach for Your Whole Family. “However, with our modern life, we can't escape the stress of the to-do list and the mom's mental burden. The stress hormone elevation continues as we carry it with stress within us.”
Elevated cortisol levels can lead to increased appetite, cravings for sugary or fatty foods, and a tendency to store fat around the midsection. All of this can make weight loss even more challenging.
The solution: “Question all the B.S. All the stress that we think that we ‘need to’ do: according to whom?,” says Schofer. “Experiment with what you can drop. The answer to weight loss is always do less, as opposed to our general do-more weight-loss grind that is perpetuated in our society.” As you brainstorm what you can drop to alleviate stress, also think of what self-care strategies you can add to help you get through the day. Seize every small moment you can to show yourself some love.
Reason #7: Lack of support
They say it takes a village to raise a child. The same can be said about reaching weight loss goals. Whether it comes from friends, family members, coworkers, or a support group, having plenty of social support is critical in helping you stick to your weight loss plan.
“Having the support of family and friends is critical when it comes to losing weight,” says Nanavati. “Without it, moms can easily become overwhelmed or give up on their weight loss journey.”
Social support could take the form of a friend offering an encouraging word or a relative watching your child, so you can fit in a workout. Social support also provides an external source of accountability for your weight goals. Accountability plays a crucial role in staying committed and focused on making healthy choices.
The solution: Let your friends and family know that you’re on a weight loss journey and fill them in on exactly how they can support you in reaching your goals. You might also consider support beyond your immediate circle. “To find the support you need, try joining a local mom’s group or online community to share your successes with others who are going through the same things,” suggests Nanavati.
The Bottom Line
Losing weight as a mom can be challenging, but it's definitely not impossible. Hormonal changes after pregnancy, sleep deprivation, negative body image, emotional eating, and a lack of support can all contribute to weight gain and make it hard to shed the pounds.
“Make self-care a priority and set aside time for yourself each day,” encourages Stelzer. “When your schedule makes this seem impossible, remember that your health and well-being are always a top priority and investing in yourself will provide more return on your investment than almost any other activity.”
Putting yourself first from time to time isn’t selfish, it’s an act of love. By investing in your own health and well-being, you’ll be able to show up for your family as a stronger, more resilient, and compassionate parent.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Hanna Rifkin, RD, CDCES, clinical health coach at Robin by One Drop.