Breastfeeding’s bottomless pit: Filling a tank that’s never full

There is no hunger quite like that of a breastfeeding mother.

It’s not the floor-drops-out-from-under-you hunger that happens the morning after Thanksgiving when your recently distended belly goes in shock at having less than 5 pounds of food stuffed inside it. It’s hardly even in the same category as the afternoon work munchies that prompt you to buy a bag of Cheez-Its from the vending machine.

Breastfeeding hunger is always there, humming as steadily as your refrigerator. Like a hangnail, it is either throbbing and at the forefront of your attention or just a mild annoyance that you can push to the back of your mind until the next bite to eat. Just when you think you’re satiated, a creeping sensation from the middle of your belly tells you it needs just another 100 calories to stay ahead of the always oncoming curve.

This wee baby, an 8-pound boy born two and a half weeks ago, is eating every few hours, sucking a sweet, rich liquid that just three weeks ago, my body wasn’t producing.

They say a breastfeeding woman is supposed to eat as many extra calories a day as a pregnant woman (about 500 calories, if I remember correctly), but during my pregnancies, I rarely felt my body asking, no begging, for those extra calories.

Now that Avery is here and eating three times as often as the rest of the humans in the house, my body is screaming for food and I’ve had to grant myself the permission to eat as frequently as I feel I need to just to keep up with the baby. You learn (or in my case, re-learn) pretty quickly that a sleeve of peanut butter crackers will take the edge off for an hour at most and that the “small” (or “regular,” depending on your perspective) portions you’ve trained yourself to eat just won’t keep the boat afloat.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how refreshing it was to watch Julia Roberts’ character in “Eat Pray Love” eat with abandon, but I’d forgotten how strange it is to actually throw all the self- and society-imposed restrictions out the window when breastfeeding duty calls. Having a baby recalibrates your body’s hunger meter, and it takes a few weeks to relearn how to read it.

In fact, I didn’t know how to read my hunger meter until I had a baby.

Pre-Julian, I thought I had a handle on portion control and weight management, even though I was still carrying around a few of the 40 pounds I put on in college. (It’s worth noting that 40 pounds is also about what I gained during both my pregnancies.) It took breastfeeding Julian to develop a new awareness of the amount of food my body needed to feed both my nutritional needs and those of my kid. Through that experience, I learned once and for all how to listen to what my stomach was telling me it needed versus what it wanted, and that’s when I finally lost the last of the beer-and-pizza poundage.

Breastmilk has 20 calories per ounce, and babies drink about 25 ounces per day. If it takes my body 20 calories just to produce one ounce of milk, think about the number of calories a breastfeeding mother will expend over the course of a year of nursing.

Woman, even eager eaters like myself, aren’t used to being allowed or encouraged to eat more. People often make that assumption during pregnancy (if I had a dollar for every, “Well, you’re eating for two” joke…), but as the baby grows, you can’t fit that much food in your compressed stomach. When the baby finally comes, you’re so busy trying to keep him and everyone else in the family situated that it’s hard to find time to feed yourself a normal amount of food, much less the extra calories needed to feed the baby, too.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a slew of friends bringing food over almost every day. If we were having to prepare (not to mention buying ingredients for and cleaning up after cooking) all those meals, I almost certainly wouldn’t be getting enough calories to keep up with my body’s needs. It is an incredible luxury to be a new mother and have so many people bring such delicious home-cooked food. I’m well aware that, despite our feminist dreams of equality, most moms are expected to resume the responsibilities of feeding her family not long after giving birth to its newest member.

I also know how lucky I am to be breastfeeding at all. Not all babies or mothers take to it as well as Avery, Julian and I have. They’ll get a food that’s as close to perfect as nature gets. I get a reminder in how to read my body’s own hunger gauge and the green light to fill it when the tank gets low.

29 responses to “Breastfeeding’s bottomless pit: Filling a tank that’s never full

  1. I can’t comment on breast feeding since that’s way out of my territory but I’m glad to hear that Avery has a good appetite and can’t wait to see the little guy!
    Take care,

  2. I remember being ravenously hungry at the oddest times…usually when Ryder would wake me in the wee hours for his meal. And thirsty…dear lawd I packed away the water during pregnancy and breastfeeding. My body was a sponge.

  3. I can remember getting in a fight w my husband b/c he wanted me to SPLIT A TURKEY SANDWICH with him after Ms. S. was born. Nearly stabbed him in the hand with my fork!
    Nice description of an almost indescribable feeling.

  4. I learned to keep tasty, energy-dense food in the pockets of the glider where I did much of Noah’s nursing. My favorite were the dark chocolate covered almonds I would never allow myself to eat at other time b/c they were $18/lb.

    Based in part on my experiences with nursing mama hunger, I offer to organize “food trees” for my postpartum friends. It’s essentially using google calendar or some other system to ensure everyone who wants to bring a meal doesn’t bring it on the same day, that they know the family likes/dislikes and preferences for food delivery (drop n run, stay n visit [and do some laundry while you’re here-hee!]). It’s a wonderful thing to nourish a new mama!

  5. And I thought I was ravenous last night (I’m premenstrual). In all seriousness, how does this hunger compare to the hunger when you’re PMSing? Last night I could. not. stop. snacking. It was nice knowing that today, I’ll be getting back to normal because I’m not trying to grow a human inside of me or feed one that way ;-) I can’t wait to meet Avery now that we’re back in town. Looking forward to dinner on Sunday!

    • My menstruation-related cravings haven’t ever been that noticeable, but these breastfeeding ones are impossible to ignore. You can just feel your blood sugar dropping and the flags go up that it’s time to eat — or else.

      Can’t wait to catch up with you! See you soon…

  6. Oh, I remember this hunger well and the thirst–I was drinking almost 100 oz of water a day between nursing, running and the TX heat :) We just found out we’re pregnant with baby #2 and since we don’t have much family or many friends in the area, I’m already stocking the freezer with casseroles, and other meals that simply have to be re-heated.

    And just as an aside, women actually only need 200-300 extra calories per day while pregnant but if your baby is exclusively breastfeeding, you need 500-600 extra calories per day. The extra hunger you’re feeling right now is spot on :)

    • Sounds about right… First 9 months made a 7 lb baby. Next 9 months, baby packed on 14 lbs… For a grand total of 21 lbs at 9 months old. It’s doing double time… And I feel my body breaking down its own fat when I don’t eat enough to support myself and my chub chub… It’s like starving gut followed by extra body heat, uncomfortable… Always dehydrated too :(

  7. Pingback: Required Reading: ‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton | The Feminist Kitchen·

  8. Thank you! I am currently breastfeeding and as we speak I am eating a hamburger – for dessert. It’s ridiculous! I am much hungrier breastfeeding than I was while pregnant. And it’s constant, like you said. I’m with a previous poster who said she likes to organize food trees. I always make sure a new mom has meals lined up – it’s a lifesaver.

  9. my daughter is now 7 months as of today and i am still breastfeeding her. but the last few days i feel like i am starving person from africa. no matter what i eat i feel like a botomless pit. i am hopeing it is just because she is going threw a growth spirt. cause this is and insane feeling..

  10. wow my wife wants to eat late at night. Breast feeding is a job just in its self. what are some of the things that she can eat and still get the rest that she need?

    • I know this is way late, but I’m glad you said that. Breastfeeding IS a job. They only difference is that you never get off, and no stores accept your pay for purchases.

  11. I am constantly hungry because I am breastfeeding. Is there a food that is more satisfying that will help me to stay away from the junk that I crave?! HELP! Hungry girl!

  12. I’m also almost at the 7 month mark.
    I just ate a bowl of cereal, and I swear, it’s like I haven’t eaten anything at all, I literally feel like I’m starving right now!
    On the plus side, Baby Girl seems to be going through a growth spurt, so all the extra calories are going to her, lol.

  13. Thank you ladies so much! I dropped tons of weight right away while breast feeding baby girl, but now those stored calories seem to have suddenly run out. I’m STARVING all the time and starting to gain weight back! I need to get some healthy snacks and big glasses of water to have at immediate hand.

  14. Glad to hear I’m not the only one with a ravenous appetite! I definitely don’t have any problem finding or devouring food but at least I feel less like a beast for wanting (err needing) to put away 2500+ calories a day. Thanks for the post :-)

  15. This is my situation to a “T”. (Down to the weight gain in college and in pregnancies) (ha). I am unable to keep the hunger at bay! Thanks for reassuring me that I’m not a food monster. Hopefully it stops once I stop breast feeding, I’m scared I’ll be use to my need to feed!

  16. Um, so my son is going to be 12 months and still nurses approx 5-6 times a day. I am also now menstruating again. I am ravenous. Is this normal or am I just a pig? :( For breakfast i had two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a banana….then he didn’t finish his slice of cinnamon toast so I ate that….then I made him 4 eggs (which I knew I’d eat half of) and I ended up eating about 3 of the eggs because he only ate one. Then….2 hours later, I ate 4 strawberries. Holy cow!

  17. Its so reassuring and validating to hear other people dealing with this. I am trying to stop night eating cause i gained a bit of weight during the pregnancy (45 pounds), lost a bunch but have plateaued. I wake up and eat almost every night. Have 20 more to lose. I thought it was habitual but i just woke up ravenous and had two PBJs. I’m exercising enough but it’s the calories,cravings and hunger that are preventing me from losing any inches. I have to start fitting into my work pants again, going back in a few weeks. Ay advice? Or should i calm down and wait to lose weight later? The weight gain and stretch marks have taken a toll on my self esteem, keeping a distance from mirror

  18. My daughter just turned 6 months old a few days ago and I have been painfully aware of what I’m eating and how much. But today, I seemed to have fallen off that cliff. I’ve eaten 2 days worth of breakfast and lunch before lunchtime today and I feel terrible. Not physically (surprisingly), but emotionally. I couldn’t stop. :( And I haven’t lost any weight either since pregnancy. In fact I thinkI’ve gained close to 40 pounds since delivery. I feel out of control. On top of that, I feel alone and down. Anyone experience any kind of postpardum depression/baby blues?

  19. You have written exactly what I feel right now. I have 11 week old baby at home and I have rejoined work. I had a heavy breakfast at 9 and kept on munching till 11 am, its 11:20 and I am ready for lunch …. That is the story everyday :) surprisingly I am losing weight fast as well, despite all the “filling this bottomless pit”. Thanks for sharing. Also I love this pic of baby saying breastfeeding rocks ! I am sure my 12 pounder is saying that all the time :)

  20. Thank goodness it’s not just me, I’m permanently hungry! I always was a 2nd breakfast kinda gal before but now… since I got up at half 7 I’ve eaten four slices of toast, a hummus and salad sandwich, a bacon sandwich, a chocolate digestive, a load of mixed nuts, raisins, a Jaffa cake bar and I am still ravenous. It’s only 6 and I can’t have dinner until my hubby gets home from work at eight.

  21. My daughter is 16 months now ..I plan on breastfeeding until she gets all her teeth. Anyway Im hungry all the time and at 187 pounds my husband is starting to make comments and feels that I need to slow down on the food…

    I want to lose 10 pounds but it’s hard because after I eat let’s say an hour I’m ready to eat again…

    My husband ordered a large pizza last week half with his toppings (meatlovers) and I had my half with extra cheese.. I ate my half and he got mad..he asked how could I eat that much so fast? Lol its my half what does it matter , I responded? He’s said well you could save some for tomorrow and not eat like a pig!

    I think he’s trying to tell me something..


    Maybe I could make better food choices. ….maybe I could eat a bit less…whatever the case maybe the bottom line is I feel I need to do something…

    Thanks for reading…


  22. I feel the same way! Especially about the peanut butter crackers omg. I thought I was alone in this feeling of hunger. Unfortunately, I always crave… Well, not even crave. Its actually the most type of food I have in the home… carbs 😑😔. Bread, rice, pasta… But especially bread.. I hate it.. I’m just coming to self realization and will try my best to control those urges.

  23. My little one was born in November and was 9lbs 8 ounces. She is nursing like a champ but I am hungry ALL THE TIME…I don’t gain weight, in fact if i wasnt snacking on anything in site I’d probably lose it. I pump 34 ounces a day (5 times) and nurse her 3 times a day at an average of 6.5 ounces each time. She takes 3 bottles at daycare and nurses with me 3 times. I pump after she eats in the morning and before I go to bed because she sleeps 11 hours. Doing the math you provided…680 calories she is taking from me and 680 calories to nurse/pump…a deficit of 1300+ calories, no wonder I ate 2 cheeseburgers for dinner the other night. I wish i could find healthy, filling snacks for work that were easy to pack. I feel you though!

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