Yes, my dear, breastfeeding can make you insanely hungry and you're NOT crazy. It's normal to feel like a bottomless pit while you are nursing. Hunger is a crucial message of your body. Life or death depend on it. And while you're breastfeeding, it's even so much more important, as the health and well-being of your precious baby depend on it too. Your body is very wise.
I remember how incredibly hungry I felt, when I was breastfeeding my first baby. The food just disappeared in me. It felt like there was an endless hole in me. I remember how good everything tasted and how well my body was utilizing every crumb of food. I was thinking at that time "what an amazing mechanism!". I was in awe of how incredibly capable the body is of healing the traces birthing a baby have left. I was watching my hair and my nails growing incredibly fast for a few months. And I was absolutely blown away by how my body could feed this human being. For the first few days, this baby was living of such little amount of colostrum; then thriving on breastmilk exclusively for 6 entire months! What a wonder. I felt like I had superpowers for the first few days LOL.... till I started feeling the depletion soon after...
It just makes sense that a women's body in postpartum and especially during breastfeeding has much higher nutritional needs, macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.) She needs to account for blood loss and wound healing. So many changes are taking place in the body after birth. Hormones are changing. The uterus is shrinking back to is pre-pregnancy size. The breasts begin producing milk (whether the mother chooses to breastfeed or not). The connective tissue and the skin adapt to regain more elasticity. So even after pregnancy, nourishing yourself should remain a huge priority!
Women are usually being told that they need additionally 500 calories during breastfeeding. In fact, there is no one-size-fits all as with so many things. Every woman's needs differ and are dependent on her activity level, how much she's nursing, if she's pumping, etc. Research shows that the average cost to sustain lactation is actually upwards of 650 - 850 kcal/day! This is equivalent to running about 6 - 7 miles per day on top of your regular daily energy expenditure. Can you imagine that this would make you more hungry?
Also it's never as straight forward as 'calories-in-calories-out'. Please don't count calories, especially while you're breastfeeding. Trust your body and trust that when nursing a baby, there's something way more wondrous going on than our mind can grasp. Your body knows what it's doing and your baby also knows what she's doing. While it can be helpful to keep track of feeding your new baby (approximately every 3 hours), you might be finding yourself feeding her way way more often, and then sometimes she might go without milk for a longer stretch. You can trust nature and the individuality of your baby and of your body. You are the best expert of yourself and of your baby.
As a woman living in this diet culture where a tiny percentage of a certain body type is being displayed as the 'norm', it's easy to feel guilty about being so ravenously hungry. Getting quickly back to your pre-pregnancy body and losing the 'baby weight' ASAP are praised as accomplishments. However, this is not necessarily healthy for your physical and mental body neither for your nursing baby. A breastfeeding mother actually has even higher nutrient requirements than a pregnant woman! Nature has it designed so that a baby receives the nutrients she needs for the most part, even if the nursing mother is getting depleted herself. Pregnant and breastfeeding women can easily have problems with their teeth and joints for example, if their diet doesn't contain enough nutrients. This can have long lasting effects and can be difficult to recover from if not taken care of through a nourishing postpartum diet.
During breastfeeding, you might need to eat more than you think. My midwife told me I should eat about every 2 hours. I couldn't believe it, but that's exactly what I needed for the first few weeks of breastfeeding. I remember that with my first child, before I could even feel hungry, I all of the sudden became unbearably cold and felt like physically and mentally breaking down. It took me a moment to realize and by the time I realized, it was usually too late for me to act on it. It was worse than being hangry. I just needed FOOD NOW. I remember that when I told that to my husband and he did something else for 5 minutes before warming up food for me, I had already lost it by then. I really was desperate for food and it took us both a few dramatic situations of me breaking down crying or yelling at him, till he realized how serious it was for me. It took us a while till we had figured out my eating rhythm which totally felt crazy. I needed food 2 - 3 times even in the middle of the night! And I don't just mean a cereal bar, I actually needed a small meal every time. And at the same time I was even losing weight. That just blew our minds.
You might find yourself in the situation that you need to set yourself an alarm to be reminded to eat and even beforehand so that you actually have the food ready for when you need it. And even more than that, you need help. Hear me on this: YOU NEED HELP. It's nothing personal and it's completely normal. There's something really wrong with women and couples being without serious support of family and friends during this one of a kind time in their life. It took me reaching a real low point and drifting into postpartum depression to realize that I needed to reach out for help. It starts with the basics: enough quality food and sleep... and someone that can listen to you and gets you.
Unfortunately in today's culture, there's little regard for a mother in postpartum. Many traditional cultures have customary practices to nurture postpartum mothers. Even a mother needs mothering, then she take care of her baby even better. Often new mothers are subject to burnout and postpartum depression because of lack of support in today's society. They're made to believe that if they can't do it all on their own, they're a failure. Offering some comfort through providing nourishing food is one of the best gifts for a mother in postpartum.
So yes, please eat plenty, mama. Now it's not the time to get back into a shape you think you need to fit in. Eat nourishing foods, real foods - a balance of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Have nourishing snacks handy, focus on simple, warming foods, drink enough water, and enjoy this time. Eat real foods as much as you can and try to avoid the junk. A nutrient rich diet of real foods is key in this time where your body is focused on healing and on growing another human being (just outside of your body). Of course it does matter what you eat, so the more support you can get with your postpartum nutrition, the better you will do. There is actually an important link between nutrients and postpartum depression. “Perinatal depression, also referred to as maternal depression, can occur during pregnancy or up to 1 year postpartum. It is considered the most common complication of pregnancy.”