In 2017 I decided to compete in my first NPC bikini competition. I was living in Columbus, OH, and the Arnold Classic had me motivated to step on stage. I hired a coach, cleared my schedule, and started in on my first prep. My first order of business was to work my calories up nice and high so that I would have plenty of excess to come down from. I discovered that, prior to prep, I was eating about 850 calories a day. Yikes. Add in the grueling 2 hour workouts plus 30+ minutes of cardio I was doing daily, and I was in the midst of a metabolic disaster. I hadn’t had a period in much longer than I could remember, and I was chronically hungry and tired. Proper and responsible coaching from Matt Jackson, owner of M.E.A.T coaching, turned things around for me quickly.
Suddenly, I was eating food again without guilt and getting stronger by the day. My metabolism started to come alive, and my hormones were finally roaring again.
And that’s when I got pregnant.
I came back from an extended vacation to Portugal and couldn’t shake some grueling jet lag. I couldn't hit my macros, I couldn't keep water down, my workouts were lackluster. I never suspected that I was pregnant! When I finally called my coach to tell him the news, he wasn't surprised. He could see from tracking my food, sleep, and exercise what I didn't realize was right in front of my face. I was pushing to build the body of a competitor, while my body was working to build a body that would incubate another.
Unexpected, but certainly not unwanted! My husband and I were thrilled. I hit pause on the competing. In fact, I assumed I would never even attempt to compete again. Is that something moms even do?!
When my daughter was around 7 months old, I stood in front of a mirror and took stock of my body. It was looking pretty good for having just had a baby! I was hitting the gym lightly but effectively, and my baby weight was long gone.
I had the time. I could conjure the energy. Maybe I could compete again? There was just one important issue: Breastfeeding. I loved breastfeeding. It came easily, naturally, and with abundance. I produced so much that I even had the opportunity to donate about 3 months of milk to another mom who couldn’t breastfeed. It was important to me that I was able to continue breastfeeding throughout a prep, but it seemed nearly impossible.
Can a mom maintain a supply when her body fat plummets? Will it cause baby to self wean? What supplements can I take while breastfeeding? Is it responsible of me as a new mom to push the limits of breastfeeding? Was I willing to give breastfeeding up, if it came to that?
And, the question I was most curious about: Has anyone ever done this before?!
I took to the internet. Much to my dismay, every forum or article I came across made it clear that breastfeeding while competing was simply not possible. Ain’t gonna happen. No way. Kiss breastfeeding goodbye or pick a show to do after you’re ready to give it up.
The thing is, I had a feeling that if anyone could make it happen, it was me. My supply was amazing. Baby was a great eater, I was making milk by the gallon, and I had a coach with no reservations about taking me through a prep with milk supply as a limiting factor.
I picked a show, bought an Angel Competition Bikini suit, and jumped in!
I was careful to keep an eye on my supply, but week after week as I lost weight, it was clear that my milk supply wasn't going anywhere. I was continuing to nurse throughout the day with an additional overnight feeding or two. I made it a priority to try to avoid dropping feedings, but even with a baby who was beginning to transition to many more solids than nursing sessions, my milk supply remained.
When show weekend came around, I picked up some pasties on Amazon to wear under my bikini so that my spray tan wouldn't come in contact with any skin that baby would be nursing from. My skin looked totally ridiculous underneath of the suit, but it worked! I also avoided putting bikini glue under my suit to keep even more chemicals away from little girl. The show itself and nursing on competition day went smoothly. I placed first in both of my divisions. I rocked some sick ab veins. I walked off stage, picked up my baby, and fed her just as easily as I ever have before. What an amazing feeling! Moms are so capable. The human body is spectacular, and more resilient than you think.
I’m here to tell you that, if this is you, if you’re thinking of competing but still breastfeeding, you can do it! It takes some work, but you can make it happen. Read below to see what I found to be successful for me.
(Keep in mind that everyone’s breastfeeding journey, body, and baby are different, and your outcome may be different! Take time to put ample consideration into whether a competition is worth it to you if you end up losing your supply and needing to wean.)
Tip 1: Consider your supply.
If you have a really strong supply, you might be just fine! You probably have a good amount of wiggle room and your body may respond to a drop in body fat without putting up much of a fight. If you struggle to maintain your supply, you may find yourself losing a bit of milk as you lose weight. Keep in mind though that the body of a nursing mother is extremely intuitive, and, although you may be losing body fat, if baby still needs to eat, it may know to continue to produce milk. It is also sometimes difficult to determine how much milk we have just from feel alone. An “empty” breast doesn’t mean you’re out of milk. The body makes milk on demand, so running completely out isn’t likely.
In general, if supply issues were or are an issue for you, I would consider what the impact of losing your supply would mean for you and baby. If you’re not physically, emotionally, or financially ready to give up breastfeeding, find a show that will be happening well after you are comfortable giving up nursing and shoot for that.
Tip 2: Hire a pro-breastfeeding coach.
The fact of the matter is that most coaches have little to no experience coaching a nursing mother. In fact, many competition coaches available today have shady at best coaching tactics and are willing to push you to extreme levels of caloric deficit, program problematic cardio schedules, and encourage unnecessary drugs. These coaching strategies will take a huge negative toll on ANY body, especially the body of a woman who is feeding a baby. I hope it goes without saying, but using ANY type of performancing enhancing drugs while breastfeeding is dangerous and should never happen! It is in your best interest to hire a coach who has worked with pregnant women or women who are breastfeeding. If you inquire about a coach's experience in that area and they seem surprised by or uncomfortable with the idea, move on to the next coach. Find a coach who feels confident and unphased by your request, and perhaps has coached nursing mothers before.
Tip 3: Hydrate constantly and consistently.
Good advice for any nursing mama, and great advice for an exercising and dieting nursing mama! Your coach will give you recommendations for water intake, and most likely it will be far above and beyond what you will need. I typically aimed for about 1.5 gallons of water per day, although I wasn’t usually spot on with hitting that quantity. Some coaches may recommend tapering water down during peak week and show day. You will probably be okay going a day or two on a lowered amount of water, but be wary of going extended periods of time on little or no water. If you need to step on stage fully dehydrated to have a chance at being competitive, you probably have some more dieting to do.
Tip 4: Prioritize whole, nutritious foods.
What you eat creates the foundation that will be the contents of your milk supply. If your diet consists of processed foods and junk, you’re not maximizing your milk making potential, and baby is ingesting the caloric foundation of that junk. Because your food quantities will steadily go down as you diet, making the most of the food that you are eating is key. Whole foods, foods found in their most unprocessed form, are beneficial to both your dieting body and babies growing body! Try to avoid the hyper processed protein foods on the market. Powders, bars, and protein infused products are great to hit your macros in a pinch, but you are much better off getting those grams of protein through real, whole foods! Maximum vitamins and nutrients, minimum calories and inflammatory ingredients—great for both a competitor and her nursing little one!
Tip 5: Eat a high fat diet.
Milk supplies love dietary fats. Your breast milk is creamy and carby—it’s like ice cream for babies! It thrives on healthy fats. Of course, even women with low fat diets make plenty of high quality milk to feed their babies. However, when calories are coming down and milk supply is in a delicate balance, obtaining more calories from fats can do wonders in making sure that milk production remains, and that your milk is as nutrient and calorie dense as it can be.
Tip 6: Remove most supplements.
Remember: Most supplements have never been tested on pregnant or nursing women. Err on the side of caution and give your wallet a break by abstaining from most supplements.
I am not a fan of most supplements to begin with, I’ll be quite honest. But I know that for most women, supplements are important to them. While prepping, I took creatine on a daily basis, protein on a very irregular basis, and a greens or beet powder most mornings. That is all. I never took BCAAs, stimulants or preworkouts, fat burners, fat loss anything, PEDs, SARMs - none of it! You can do it all without them! Creatine is an incredibly well studied supplement, perhaps the most studied outside of protein powders. It’s safe, effective, and has no documented negative effects on milk supply or the contents of that supply. It’s my favorite supplement, and I take it mostly year round. (Pro tip: Ensure consumption of caffeine and creatine are spaced apart from one another for best creatine absorption!) Protein is also fine for pregnancy and breastfeeding moms. I prefer to get my protein from whole food sources like meats and yogurts, but it’s great in a hurry or if you’re competing on a budget. BCAAs are also probably totally fine to use while breastfeeding. But keep in mind that if you are eating ample protein, you are probably hitting your BCAA needs without trying. Save your money and skip the BCAAs, especially because studies suggest that overdoing BCAA consumption can have negative effects on energy and mood. Skip anything stimulating—caffeine can cross into your milk when overdone, and most stims on the market give you insane doses of caffeine.
Tip 7: Keep up your nursing schedule.
If you and baby have a consistent and sustainable nursing schedule, try to keep up with it. Now is not the time to start dropping feeds like crazy. Keep those overnight feeds if you have them, and focus on hitting your morning feeds. Milk stimulating hormone prolactin is highest overnight and nursing then will lead to higher amounts of milk in the early morning. Those are key feeds to keep your hormones up and keep you producing milk. Don’t panic if night feedings drop or solid foods take baby’s focus from breast to plate. You can trust that your body will make the right amount of milk for baby as they make transitions. During our breastfeeding while competing journey, my daughter went from waking up every hour to two hours per night to nurse to sleeping almost the entire way through the night. She also dropped a few day time feeds in favor of solid foods. This was a huge drop in milk stimulation, and thus a drop in supply for me. I didn’t necessarily have extra milk after a feeding, but I certainly had enough. Baby never seemed to complain and I seemed to still produce and let down just fine!
Tip 8: Rest and recover
Rest and recovery can make or break any new mom. You don’t get enough of it to get you through a normal day. Now add in a caloric deficit and strenuous workouts—forget it! You’ll feel tired down to your bones unless you allow and account for rest and recovery. When I decided to compete, I was in the midst of one of the most unrestful and recoveryless times of my life. My daughter woke up every hour to every two hours all night long, co-slept, slept on my chest, and still woke up screaming all night long. I slept 3–4 hours straight through about once a month. I was a walking zombie. I was a mess. Somehow, I was able to conjure enough energy to commit to effective, albeit short, gym time, and was able to make some muscle building progress. Muscle memory is really cooll! I don’t recommend deciding to challenge your body to a competition unless sleep and rest is a regular occurrence for you. I dealt with stalled weight-loss, inflammation and puffiness, sluggishness, and rampant headaches in the early phases of my training when barbells were heaviest and recovery was most vital. It worked out fine, but I can imagine that, had I been in a more restful state and not awake on an hourly basis all night long, my prep could have been maximized. (Thank you Joanna at blissfulbabysleepcoaching.com for remedying THAT little sleep issue!) Make sure you can get sleep. Make sure that you have the resources and time to recover. You risk injury and illness when you become deficient in your capacity to recover. Mastitis can be a huge red flag that you are pushing too hard. If mastitis becomes a chronic occurrence, pull back on exercise and take a few days off from exercise to recover.
Tip 9: Get some pasties to protect from spray tan.
Spray tan makes the body look great on stage, but it’s pretty nasty for your body to ingest. It’s full of chemicals, and care should be taken to make sure that your nipple and surrounding skin is free from spray tan. This will keep it from going into babies mouth. I purchased some pastie petals from Amazon and cut them to make sure they wouldn't stick out beyond my competition suit. Before I went in to the spray booth, I simply put them on, waited for my tan to dry, and then removed them. I did the same thing the next day for my second coat of tan, and it worked perfectly! My two toned skin was hidden by the suit and baby could nurse without having direct mouth to tan contact.
Tip 10: Lower your stress.
This is great practice before a competition regardless of breastfeeding or not, but will be especially helpful in keeping cortisol down and supply high. Sleep is of major importance. You’ll be anxious and excited and nervous for your show, but make it a priority to sleep plenty on the week leading up to it, and also on the night before! Many coaches will recommend sauna time prior to a show in hopes of encouraging rest and calm. Use the sauna time to visualize your posing and think positive thoughts. Take walks and get fresh air. Talk to other competitors about what to expect to calm your nerves. Make a list of everything you will need for show day, pack your bags before you’re about to head out the door, and double check that you’ve registered with your federation! Being prepared, even over prepared, will ensure a smooth show day. Don’t forget to pack a pump, if needed! Take a deep breath, know that the hard work is over, and go crush your show! Be proud of yourself—you’re a breastfeeding, badass mother!