Now that your new baby is here, you have a lot to think about: when to feed her, what to do if she cries -- and how to get rid of those extra pounds you packed on during your pregnancy.
If you started out at a normal weight and gained the 25-35 pounds your doctor probably recommended, it shouldn't take you more than a couple of months to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight if you watch what you eat and exercise.
If, on the other hand, you were overweight before your pregnancy or you put on more weight than your doctor advised, it could take much longer -- up to a year -- to get the weight off. Any baby weight you don't take off could stick with you for a long time.
"It's very critical that you do get the weight off, because if you don't it has been associated with overweight and obesity 15 to 20 years later in life," says Debra Krummel, PhD, RD, endowed professor in the University of Cincinnati department of nutrition.
And although every new mom is eager to look like her old self again, one of the most important things to remember is to be patient with yourself. Your favorite celebrity might have gone straight from the delivery room into her size 0 jeans, but she may not have done it in a way that was good for her body.
"All the magazines ask, 'How did she do it?' The more important question is, 'Why did she do it?'" says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). "They do this with very, very strict diets, and a lot of them do it by getting back into activity before their body is really ready for it."
Johnson advocates a more gradual approach to weight loss. "The number one thing new mothers have to have is a certain amount of patience with their body," she says. "It took nine months to get there. It should take at least that long to get back to their fighting weight."
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you lose weight after pregnancy and fit back into your old jeans -- whatever their size.
It may sound strange, but going on an official "diet" could derail your post-pregnancy weight loss goals. Feeling deprived of your favorite foods while you're already stressed out by your new role as mom could actually cause you to gain weight, Johnson says.
"If you go back to eating healthy and eating for your hunger, most women find that the weight comes off pretty naturally," she says.
Instead of dieting, she recommends eating a well-balanced variety of foods. Keep different snacks in the house to keep you from feeling hungry and give you energy throughout the day. Apple slices, carrot sticks, and wheat crackers are all good for noshing.
No matter how much you want to lose weight, try not to dip below 1,800 calories a day, particularly if you are breastfeeding. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid site can help you design a personalized eating plan based on your age, activity level, and weight loss goals. The site even has a special section for breastfeeding moms.
Load up on "super foods."
When you're a new mother, your body needs maximum nutrition, especially if you're nursing. Choose foods that are heavy in the nutrients you need and light in calories and fat.
Fish is one of these "super foods" because it's packed with DHA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid that helps your newborn develop a healthy brain and nervous system. The best sources of DHA are cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna (stick to canned light tuna because albacore tends to be high in mercury).
Milk and yogurt are also super foods because they're high in the calcium you need to keep your bones strong. And don't forget the protein. Lean meat, chicken, and beans are low in fat and high in protein and fiber. They're good for you, and they'll keep you feeling full for longer.
Whether breastfeeding can actually help you lose weight is still up in the air -- some studies find that breastfeeding exclusively can help you return to your pre-baby weight faster, while others find no difference in weight loss between women who breastfeed and those who bottle feed.
What is for sure is that breastfeeding is good for your baby, boosting immunity and providing a number of other important health benefits. And nursing exclusively lets you add about an extra 300 calories a day to your diet (you can add slightly more calories if you have a really big eater or twins). Just make sure that if you do breastfeed, you don't use it as an excuse to eat whatever you want.
Drinking plenty of water throughout the day prevents you from getting dehydrated. It also fills you up so that you don't eat as much, and some research has found that it may speed up your metabolism.
Whether you need the often-recommended eight glasses a day isn't certain, so Johnson recommends using the color of your urine and how often you need to go to the bathroom as guides. If you're drinking enough fluids, your urine should be relatively clear, and you should be going to the bathroom about every three to four hours.
Diet is important, but it's only one part of your post-pregnancy weight loss plan. You also need to incorporate aerobic and strength training exercises after pregnancy to burn calories and keep your muscles and bones strong. "Exercise, beyond helping you lose weight, provides so many benefits to a new mom," Johnson says. "It helps with depression, it helps with the sleep issue ... it helps in relieving stress -- and having a new baby in the house can definitely be stressful."
You don't have to hit the gym to get back in shape after pregnancy -- taking a brisk walk with your baby in the stroller is enough to get your heart pumping and muscles working. "You want to shoot for at least 150 minutes a week," says James M. Pivarnik, PhD, FACSM, professor of kinesiology and epidemiology at Michigan State University and president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine. With a new baby, finding 30 minutes in a row might be impossible, so Pivarnik suggests breaking up the time into 10-minute increments. Then try to work your way up to 20- or 30-minute sessions.
Lugging around a baby all day is itself a workout, but you still need to add some strength training. Use light weights -- or even a couple of soup cans -- as resistance. Many health clubs and community centers offer "mommy and me" classes that will let you incorporate your baby into your workout routine. But before you start any exercise program, get your doctor's approval, especially if you had a C-section.
Get some sleep.
It may seem impossible to get a full eight hours of sleep when you have a baby summoning you like clockwork throughout the night, but being sleep deprived could make it harder for you to shed the baby weight. In one study, new moms who slept five hours or less a night were more likely to hold onto their extra pregnancy weight than women who slept seven hours. When you're tired, your body releases cortisol and other stress hormones that can promote weight gain. "Also when you're exhausted, you don't feel like taking good care of yourself," Johnson says. "You're less likely to choose healthy food. You're more likely to grab something through a drive-through. You're also less likely to get physical activity."
Your friends or family members may have told you to "sleep when your baby sleeps," and that's good advice. Catch as many naps as you can during the day and go to bed early -- at least until your baby starts sleeping through the night.
Ask for help.
If you're struggling to lose the weight, enlist the help of your doctor and a dietitian. The dietitian can help you design an eating plan that will let you lose weight safely and effectively, while the doctor can guide you on how much weight you need to lose and when you can start exercising.