Loving and caring for your postnatal body
by Viviane Höger
Anyone who’s attended one of my immediate postnatal fitness classes knows that I despise the “working out to get your body back” attitude. There are many good reasons to exercise in the postnatal period: to release feel-good hormones, to improve sleep quality, to re-strengthen your pelvic floor, to alleviate aches and pains, and many others, but to get your body back? You have a body - an amazing one that’s just given birth to new life!
I get it. Few things compare to the monumental changes your body goes through during pregnancy and childbirth. It can be difficult to embrace your new shape, and you’re definitely not alone. But while there’s nothing wrong with longing to feel fit and strong again, holding on to be belief that your body needs to somehow “bounce back”, is not only unrealistic but downright dangerous.
Women will recover physically and emotionally at different rates. It is important to listen to your body carefully, so that it has the opportunity to heal at its own pace. Some of the potential risks of doing too much too soon include: fatigue and exhaustion; injury resulting from reduced joint stability or poor lumbopelvic stability; a too wide separation of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) made worse by incorrect abdominal exercise, which could lead to diastasis recti; and the onset or worsening of stress incontinence or other pelvic floor weakness related issues.
It’s not shallow or vain to worry about weight gain, your changing shape or sexuality. It is in fact, a major factor in the process of becoming a new woman - the one who’s born when her baby is. But while it can be difficult to accept and embrace how your body looks now, shifting your perspective and learning to love your ‘new’ self, and giving it time to heal and get strong again, can be rewarding in many ways.
Here are my top tips for loving and caring for your postnatal body:
Focus on the wonderful things your body is capable of
Your body is amazing! Take a moment to look at the big picture and think about all the incredible things your body is capable of doing. It’s powerful enough to grow a tiny little human being. Your body means the world to your baby. It’s the reason for their being.
Resist the urge to compare yourself to others
Disappointingly, ridiculous standards for how a woman’s body should look after giving birth are all around us. We’re constantly bombarded with images of perfect postpartum bodies and articles about loosing baby weight in the media.
It is important to remember that celebrities who “drop the baby weight” very quickly have access to an entirely different set of resources, including staff whose sole purpose is to make sure their bodies look perfect at all times.
It’s hard to escape society’s pressures, but beginning to recognise and resist the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which women are made to feel inadequate about their bodies is the first step to breaking free of unrealistic and harmful body ideals.
Accept your body has changed, and it will continue to change
Most women will gain weight and see their bodies transform during pregnancy. It's okay to recognise that change for what it is. Try to keep in mind that your body has changed gradually over the course of the pregnancy. So it is only natural that it will need time to recover.
Current scientific research suggests that body image dissatisfaction may play a significant role in postpartum depression. A study funded by the American National Institute of Mental Health found that mothers’ body satisfaction worsened from one to nine months postpartum, and that postpartum depression was exacerbated by eating/appetite abnormalities, greater weight, and a lack of close social relationships.
So if you suspect your baby-blues is being caused by how you feel about your postnatal body - don’t be afraid to reach out for support. Your body is experiencing many physical and emotional changes that can be daunting, but are absolutely normal. Sometimes all it takes is to share your feelings with others. Connect with local mothers’ groups - chances are there are a number of other mums going through the same issues as you are. Always seek professional help if you don’t feel an improvement.
Not everything will look the same again, and that’s ok!
There are many ways in which a woman’s body will never be the same after pregnancy. But there’s no reason to believe your prenatal body should be your ‘best body’ either.
I may have new unsightly stretch marks and cellulite in areas where I didn’t before, but I feel more connected to my body having seen it go through change I couldn’t exactly control. I have a lot more respect for and appreciation for just how wonderful and strong my body is now, and so should you!
Focus on the things that you can change, and celebrate the beauty and strength of your postnatal body
In the early days, even though your main priority is getting to know your little one and fulfilling their every need, don’t forget you have needs too. Make time to do things that make you happy. After all, you cannot take care of someone else unless you’re taking care of yourself first.
Give your body the energy and fuel it needs by eating a well-balanced and healthy diet, allowing yourself the occasional treat of course. Squeeze in a bit of exercise, even a short walk outside can help release endorphins and boost your mood. Do your Kegels – seriously, you’ll thank me in 20 years time! Practice deep breaths when everything gets too much. Connect with other mums and leave the house. Talk about how you feel.
And most of all, respect your postnatal body. Always remember, not one person gets to define its value but you.
Viviane Höger is the founder of Well Mama, a business dedicated to the wellbeing of mothers and mothers-to-be. She's a qualified Personal Trainer, Pelvic Floor and Nutrition Coach, mother-of-two, and passionate women's health advocate.