Even while they're basking in the glow of new motherhood, most women are wondering how to drop those extra pregnancy pounds. But there are better reasons than fitting into your old jeans to make getting back into shape a priority: Losing excess weight may protect you from a heart attack or stroke, diabetes, and even some cancers. What's more, if you plan to have more children, starting out at a healthy weight may reduce your risk for serious pregnancy concerns such as gestational diabetes and preeclampsia (high blood pressure), according to a report from the March of Dimes. Babies born to heavy women also have a greater risk of prematurity, birth defects, and future problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
While losing extra weight is good for you, no one said it was easy. Babytalk asked experts in postpartum fitness, nutrition, and psychology to tell us their best strategies for attacking postpartum pudge. Here's what they said:
1. Eat healthfully and exercise Dieting alone makes dropping pounds more difficult, says Megan McCrory, Ph.D., research scientist in the Energy Metabolism Lab at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, in Boston. Studies show that postpartum women who exercise consistently lose more fat than those who don't.
Take it easy -- there's no rush
2. Ease into an exercise program Everyone knows someone who was able to work out within days of giving birth, but six weeks is closer to the norm, says Liz Neporent, the New York City-based author of The Ultimate Body. When you start depends on what shape you were in prior to pregnancy and whether you had complications during delivery. Women who've had a c-section, for instance, need more time to heal. Avoid comparing yourself with others and get your doctor's okay before starting to exercise.
3. Take your time "We used to think women could get back to their prepregnancy weight in five to eight weeks," says Dori S. Winchell, Ph.D., an Encinitas, California, psychologist who specializes in weight management. "But to expect your body to go back to its former self so quickly is a self-sabotaging notion." You're more likely to succeed if your weight loss is slow and steady; severely cutting calories can cause your metabolism to slow to a crawl. Experts suggest losing no more than a half-pound to a pound a week, particularly if you're breastfeeding. If losing a pound a week is your goal, cut 300 calories a day from your diet (which should be between 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day, plus an additional 500 if you're breastfeeding) and exercise moderately for 45 to 60 minutes, six days a week. To drop a half-pound a week, cut 150 calories from your daily diet and exercise for 25 to 45 minutes, six days a week, or trim 300 daily calories and exercise three or four days a week for about an hour.
4. Do more than breastfeed Despite what you may have heard, "breastfeeding is not the magic bullet for weight loss," says Kathleen J. Motil, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine's Children's Nutrition Research Center, in Houston, Texas. True, nursing mothers expend an additional 500 to 600 calories a day, but they usually have voracious appetites, too, and need the extra calories to produce healthy breast milk. Most studies show that mothers who breastfeed exclusively are no more likely to lose weight and are no quicker at the task than those who use formula. Nursing is wonderful for your baby, however, and research shows you can safely curb your intake without reducing the volume of milk you produce -- as long as you don't dip too low in calories. In one Baylor study, breastfeeding mothers fully nourished their infants and lost weight while consuming about 2,200 calories daily.
5. Form an exercise group "Being able to commiserate and collaborate with other new mothers often makes a difference in sticking with exercise and shedding pregnancy weight," says Catherine Cram, an exercise physiologist in Middleton, Wisconsin, specializing in pre- and postnatal fitness.
6. Reduce the stress of babycare "When you're stressed, your fat cells freak out and store even more fat," says Debra Waterhouse, R.D., the Oakland, California-based author of Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell -- After Pregnancy. Moreover, the stress hormone cortisol stimulates fat storage, especially in the ab region. Recruit family members or friends to help, and just skip some of the housework.
Get active -- avoid overeating
7. Avoid double-dinner syndrome It's all too easy to polish off baby's uneaten food, and then sit down to eat a real meal with your spouse two hours later. "I lost 20 pounds pretty easily at first then stagnated when my daughter started solids, because I was eating twice," says Anita Weil Bell, the Grand View, New York-based author of Get Your Body Back. Her advice: Have sex, not a second dinner.
8. Walk with your baby It's the easiest way to become active and the exercise you're most likely to do regularly. Women who walk with their infants lose more weight more quickly than women who try to exercise when their babies are asleep or when they have childcare, says Waterhouse. That's probably because both enjoy the activity, so Mom is more likely to keep it up -- not to mention that no sitter is required. Cram suggests starting with a 15- to 20-minute walk at an easy pace, three or four times a week. As you feel comfortable, add five minutes to your walk or increase your pace each week.
9. Eat the way your baby eats "Babies eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full -- a good lesson for lifelong weight control," says Susan L. Burke, R.D., director of nutrition services for eDiets.com, in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Signs of hunger: a nervous stomach, irritability, or headache, says Evelyn Tribole, R.D., an Irvine, California-based nutritionist. To recognize fullness, pause during a meal to see how you feel. And eat slowly: Your brain registers satiety minutes after your stomach does.
10. Work out with weights Aerobic exercise -- brisk walking, swimming, or running -- helps burn fat and calories. Weight training, however, builds muscle, which is more metabolically active than other tissue so it burns calories all day long. Doing both types of activity will get you slimmer faster. Waterhouse recommends at least three hours of aerobic exercise and one hour of weight training each week.
11. Do mini-workouts... Even if you don't have forty-five minutes to exercise, you can still benefit. "Study after study has shown that several short bouts of activity are as effective as one long session," says Neporent. They may even be more so. When researchers from the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, compared people who walked 15 minutes twice a day with those who walked a half-hour, they found that the twice-a-day group increased their fitness level faster. Short sessions may provide added benefits because you work harder in less time.
12. ...and longer ones According to Waterhouse, every minute beyond 30 releases fat from your body's fat cells, and they actually shrink. But don't overdo it. After about 60 minutes, your fat cells go into defense mode and stop releasing the fat. They're programmed to provide an insurance plan for your body in the face of extremes like overexercising and may prevent fat loss.
Sneak in extra nursing sessions as well as exercise
13. Sneak in exercise at home Gently dance with your infant. "If you're holding a 10-pound baby, that's the equivalent of two five-pound weights," Bell says. And when he's older, put on a children's exercise video (such as Elmocize or Sesame Street Get Up and Dance) and follow along with your child. To make it more challenging for you, use small hand weights or jog in place.
14. Nurse whenever necessary Researchers used to think that exercise altered the taste of breast milk, making it unappealing for nursing infants. Not so: A new study from the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, found that babies accept the milk of exercising mothers -- and it doesn't matter if you nurse the baby before or after working out.
15. Eat in moderation "Don't cut food groups; instead, cut the size of food portions," says Waterhouse. While you can eat your fill of fruits and vegetables, you'll only lose weight if you're eating realistic serving sizes of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates: A serving of meat should approximate a deck of cards, while a serving of rice or pasta (choose whole-grain when you can) is about the size of a closed fist. But even chocolate has a place in a healthy diet, says Waterhouse -- just don't go hog-wild.
16. Don't skip meals Eating irregularly may cause you to become overly hungry, which is more likely to make you overeat at the next meal, according to McCrory. Going a long time without food can also cause your fat cells to protect their stored pregnancy fat, hindering weight loss, adds Waterhouse.
17. Fidget, fidget, fidget That's right, a Mayo Clinic study found that a daylong stream of tiny movements -- pacing with your baby, tapping your feet to music, even shifting in your chair -- burns as many as 700 extra calories in a day.
18. Get your abs back Although your stomach may never appear as flat as it was before pregnancy, exercises -- gentle pelvic tilts at first, crunches later -- can tone your abs, making them look trimmer, and provide support to your back, which helps prevent strain. But pregnancy can cause diastasis recti, a separation in the abdominal muscles which run from your rib cage to your pelvis, and, Cram says, it's important to check the width of the separation of these muscles before you start any ab work. To do so, lie down with your knees bent and feet resting on the floor. Press the fingers of your hand horizontally just above or below your navel and feel for the gap between the two harder bands of muscles on either side. Breathe in and exhale as you raise your head and shoulders from the floor, then feel again for the gap. This time, press down and see how many fingers fit into this soft spot. Ideally, the distance should be less than the width of two and a half fingers. If it's wider, check with your doctor before beginning abdominal exercises.
Invest in your workouts
19. Wear a pedometer It can be gratifying to see how many steps you take in a day and that will help to keep you going. An inexpensive new model, the Micro Pedometer ($15), tracks your every move in steps, miles, or kilometers and also calculates calories burned. For more information, go to www.freestyleusa.com
20. Keep a food journal Recording your intake helps you tune in to your hunger and establish healthy eating habits. This proven method of weight reduction is particularly helpful in shedding baby weight, Waterhouse says. A study from the Center for Behavioral Research, in Chicago, found that women who kept food records lost 80 percent of their pregnancy weight during a six-month period, compared with 44 percent of those who didn't.
21. Invest in a good sports bra You'll need the support, and if you're comfortable when you work out, you'll be more likely to keep it up. If you're breastfeeding and exercising with your baby in tow, wear your sports bra over your nursing bra, suggests Bell: "If you need to feed the baby, lift up the sports bra, unhook the nursing bra, and voilà."
22. Pop in an exercise video Postpartum workout tapes offer a safe start to exercise. Bell's fave: Denise Austin's Bounce Back After Baby. When you're ready for a new challenge, Neporent suggests Tamilee Webbs' I Want That Body Toning Series, which offer two 15-minute workouts per tape. Another good one to try: The Ten Minute Solution includes five different short workouts -- boot camp, pilates, ballet, kickboxing, and yoga.
23. Learn to love your body The truth is, you may never shed every pound you gained during pregnancy. The average woman holds on to two to five pregnancy pounds for years after birth. But many women come to accept their postpartum figure when they reflect on the miracle it has performed. "Making it through labor and delivery was enough for me to revel in my body's strength and power," says Waterhouse. Self-acceptance may not make you slimmer, but it can make the extra weight a little easier to bear.
Beth Howard, a writer based in North Carolina, lost her last pound of baby weight a year after the birth of her daughter.