Navigating Post-Natal Fitness: A Step by Step Guide

Well, you did it. You pushed a little human out of your ladyparts. Or, maybe they handed you your bundle of joy after cutting through your abdomen. But either way, you are a rockstar. You have fought the good fight, and regardless of how it all went down, you, Mama, are a hero. You are an active participant in the miracle of life, and that is no small task. If you are like me, sometimes you are amazed by all of it, and other times you are just plain exhausted and wonder when, oh when, will you ever feel like yourself again?! Just as every birth story is different, just as every baby is different, just as every postnatal mama is different, the answer to that question is as unique to you as your fingerprints. Let me tell you – even though it’s now been a year since I became a mom, I still feel sometimes like I’m shouting my questions into a deep, echoing abyss: “When will I fit into my old clothes?” “When will I feel strong again?” “When will my hormones settle the F*&! down?”

The reality is no one can answer those questions – mainly because everyone is different. There is no concrete answer, and our differences should be celebrated and welcomed.  But let me be very candid: there is just not enough research or credible information for women to fall back on. I have taken a very proactive approach to my own postnatal recovery and have been disappointed time and again by the lack of readily available, easy to read, science-based information regarding the stages of postnatal recovery. There are so many factors that play into a woman’s unique experience: hormonal changes, psychological changes, changes to pelvic structure, differences in center of gravity and balance, differences in strength and laxity of muscles, whether or not she is breastfeeding, genetics… the list goes on. Due to the lack of research driven information, we must get most of our knowledge and reassurance by sharing experiences with other women – a profoundly important practice, but also problematic. In doing so, we engage in comparison and feelings of “I’m not where I am supposed to be, what’s wrong with me?” Furthermore, many women don’t feel comfortable sharing or talking about their most vulnerable concerns (Give me a woot woot if you’ve peed your pants!), and so that deep, echoing abyss persists. We are still in the dark.

I will be the first to say that I am no researcher – I do not claim to have all of the answers. But what I do claim to be is persistent, inquisitive, and an active participant in my own recovery. I don’t know if what I write in this article will work for you. But by sharing what has worked for me, maybe I can shine a little light into the darkness for someone who just doesn’t know where to start or where to go from here. Herewith are the stages of postnatal fitness as I’ve experienced them.

Stage One: The Clean Slate

Most of us do not have clearance to exercise until at least 6 weeks after giving birth. But during that time you can still prepare your body for what’s to come. Carrying a baby wreaks havoc on one’s posture, and doing some simple posture exercises every day will help you rebalance and realign. Start reminding your neuromuscular system where neutral is. Neutral is the term I use to refer to proper posture and alignment – think about these things: feet evenly weighted, knees aiming over second and third toe and not locked, pelvis balanced so that your two hips are level, lower back lengthened so tail bone is pointing straight to the floor and hips are directly above pubic bone, lower abdominals pulling in and up, ribs directly over hips, shoulders also over hips, collarbone wide and long, and ears directly over shoulders.  I used to practice this as I stood in the shower, or in front of a mirror. And for good measure, use your breath – a long exhale – to try and pull your abdominal wall to your spine. Waking up your core strength and shifting things back into place will change how you look and feel immediately.

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Stage Two: Walk it Out

Somewhere around the 3 or 4 week mark I started walking. It wasn’t long or far at first, but it was a start. I began with my street, then my block, then my neighborhood.  Eventually I started walking stairs with a baby attached. Bonus points if you do your posture exercises while you walk.

This is also a good time to have a physical therapist or trained postnatal exercise specialist examine you for diastasis recti. (Not sure what that is? Read this. If you do in fact have diastasis recti, I recommend looking into the Tupler Technique, or adding sessions with a trained physical therapist or Pilates instructor to your arsenal.stairs

Stage Three: Get ‘er Done

Once I received the clearance to exercise at 6 weeks, I had to get creative with how I was going to make it happen. My husband was back to work, I don’t live near family, and I don’t have a nanny. Furthermore, my baby was still so little and I was breastfeeding, making it tough to leave her with someone (plus, who wants to pay a babysitter every day just to get to the gym?). But mama needed to move. So I thought outside of the box. When my husband was home, we would do partner workouts with the stroller at the park: one of us would push the stroller while the other one sprinted ahead on the path for 30 seconds. After the 30 second sprint, we would do a bodyweight exercise (like pushups, burpees, mountain climbers, or jump squats to name a few) until the stroller-pusher caught up. We would trade places, and go for 8-12 rounds. Just like that, BAM, you have an interval workout.  When hubby was off at work, I would create an interval workout for myself in our garage or basement while little one napped. I downloaded an interval timer app to my phone (I use the free version of Seconds), and invested in some small, affordable equipment. I have a TRX, a ViPR, a jump rope, a body bar, bands, a pull up bar, a Pilates ring, a balance trainer and a stability ball – those plus a couple fitness DVDs, bodyweight exercises and sprints down the driveway (thank god for the baby monitor!) were enough to keep me going for a good few months until I was able to get to the gym.

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Stage Four: Rev Up and Repair

About 7 months into my postnatal fitness adventure, I really tried to up the ante. I pushed myself hard, tired of carrying around a few extra pounds. I started getting impatient, frustrated and overall pretty bitter. Yep, I will admit it… now. I was kind of a bear. But despite my efforts, my body was not having it. I was still breastfeeding, and as soon as I started pushing myself to lose more weight, my milk supply plummeted and my weight plateaued. Well, the anxiety over my rapidly decreasing supply was enough to make me stop exercising altogether. And wouldn’t you know it? I started losing weight again, without much effort at all.

Now, I am not saying you should stop exercising. What I am saying is stop PREOCCUPYING. Don’t spend all your time beating yourself up – I truly believe that when we do, our bodies stop cooperating. Take a step back and just start observing your body’s natural process. For me, I looked back and realized that at the three month mark I had a huge hormone shift (read: my hair started falling out, I was weepy and weary, I could lose my temper in an instant, and my face broke out), and simultaneously, my body shed a few pounds. The same happened at 6 months when my period returned (yep, even though I was still breastfeeding. Got the short end of that stick, didn’t I?), and again at 9 months… for me. It won’t happen this way for everyone.hike

Stage Five: Save the Va-Jay-Jay

It was around 11 months that I started doing some extra research into pelvic floor rehabilitation. I was tired of leaking when I jumped or sprinted, and was not content to live that way for the rest of my life. I want to be able to jump on a trampoline with my kids – mama has a mean forward flip! Anyway, I had read a bit about pelvic floor disorders on the Katy Says blog, but when I found this article I was convinced I wanted to get checked out. After a few phone calls I found out that my insurance would cover sessions with a specialized pelvic floor physical therapist. LADIES, BELIEVE ME WHEN I TELL YOU: this is something every Mom should investigate. I wish I had gone BEFORE I had my baby, because it probably would have made my labor much easier. And here’s a mind blowing fact: KEGELS AREN’T FOR EVERYONE, myself included. It turns out some people’s pelvic floors are too tight – which ALSO causes leakage. But the only way to know for sure is to get checked out. It’s not intimidating or awkward- no worse than being at the OBGYN. And it turns out some conditions are pretty easy to fix. For me, my path to rehabilitation meant more yoga, more stretching, more relaxing…. now THAT is a prescription I can get behind. Do it, I promise you will be thankful you did. Special thanks to Pelvic Therapy Specialists in Boulder, CO.

Stage Six: Call in the experts

Everyone needs a jumpstart every once in a while. At 11 months postpartum, I started working out with a personal trainer, and it was around the same time that I started weaning my daughter. Strength training at this point felt so darn good – I was doing cleans and pullups and deadlifts… now let me back track a moment. I am a Pilates instructor. Heavy lifting is NOT in my wheelhouse. I do it, and I like it, but it does not come natural to me. I will probably always look like a dancer trying to lift an elephant over her head. But without a doubt, strength training during yet another hormonal shift yielded the most results when it came to changing my body’s overall shape. After just ten sessions, I was seeing the contours of my body start to return, and I felt strong, capable and confident. I couldn’t have done that alone though. I needed a coach, someone who told me “You are a warrior now, you have had a baby. You can do anything,” and gently pushed me when I wanted to give up.

An important disclaimer: be sure to request a trainer that is familiar with postnatal clients. There are still hormones affecting your muscle strength, control and laxity when you are breastfeeding, and for a while after you wean. Care should be taken to avoid injury.

And now, at 13 months post-delivery and with breastfeeding behind me, I have consulted with a nutritionist and decided to challenge myself with a four week clean eating program. I have paid attention to every other aspect of regaining my health and fitness except this. Now it is time to cut out the extra “I’m-breastfeeding-so-I-can-eat-whatever-I-want!” calories. And I think the timing is just right, because my body is responding.

The journey to your best postnatal self is not cut and dry. It isn’t one size fits all, and it isn’t predictable. You probably won’t lose weight consistently, you probably won’t feel “normal” immediately after exercising and you probably will have unforeseen challenges. But I’m here to tell you that if you take your time, work with YOUR body, try not to compare yourself to others, get creative and ask for help when you need it, you will be able to meet your goals. When you feel you have plateaued, change it up or try something new, just don’t give up. You will feel comfortable and confident in your body again – you are a Mama Warrior, after all.

Cheers to the post-baby body!

This week, I posted something on Facebook that clearly resonated with a lot of mamas. It wasn’t my intention to strike a chord, but I guess I did, and I couldn’t be happier. Here’s what I wrote:

“I have decided I really dislike the phrase ‘get your pre-baby body back.’  Partly because my body is different now, plain and simple. But mostly because a post-baby body can be pretty amazing too. What no one tells you is this: after giving birth, it’s like you have a required rest period and then a blank slate. You have a fresh start to make your body what you want it to be. Never in my life have I been able to do pull-ups, and now after working with some amazing trainers, I am *thisclose* to being able to do them unassisted. So do I have my pre-baby body back? Nope. But look at what my post-baby body can do!”

Eighteen months ago, when I was in the throws of pregnancy, I never could have imagined how I would look or feel at this point, almost one year exactly after giving birth. Looking back, this is what I would say to my pregnant self:

1)  Stop worrying. Easier said than done, of course. It’s hard to relinquish control over what is happening to your body as it grows to accommodate human life. But you need to take a deep breath and let go. Let go of your self-judgment. Let go of your comparison. Let go of your need to control your body. As long as you are making healthy choices, eating smart, and still moving, you will be fine. In the meantime, you must allow your body to do what it needs to do for your little one. If that means gaining 50 pounds- the healthy way- then so be it.

2) Let go of expectations.  And while you are at it, let go of timelines. You have not yet met your post-natal self, just as you haven’t yet met your baby. Becoming a mom will change you, and it will change your body. But how you change is not just chance. Part of it is up to you. Cross that bridge when you get there. For now, respect the wisdom of your body. It knows what it is doing.

3) Set yourself up for success. Start practicing now for an easier recovery later. Keep your body strong. Work on proper posture. Use your breath to strengthen your deep abdominals by pulling the baby to your spine with each exhale. Keep reminding your neuromuscular system how to hold yourself in space. Eat healthy food and avoid excess sugars. These things alone will jump start your postnatal routine.

4) It will all be ok. Sure, you will probably have to work to meet your goals. Sure, it could take a year before your feel like some semblance of yourself again. But you know what? You won’t be worried about it as much as you are now. You will have something (someone) else that will occupy your thoughts, heart and emotional space more than anything else you’ve ever experienced. Meanwhile, you will be on the downhill slope as pounds drop when you aren’t even looking. Take a deep breath. It’s not that bad, I promise. Before you know it, you’ll be doing pull-ups.

 

 

A Letter to Maria Kang

Dear Maria,

I’ve seen your “What’s Your Excuse?” photo all over the news and facebook today, and it got me thinking. A lot. So, I’ve decided to get some things off my chest. What good is a blog if you can’t air your thoughts, right? Well, I’m here to weigh in (terrible puns aside).

First, CONGRATULATIONS! Getting back in shape after having a kid is NO JOKE. I am learning this now. I too am a 32-year-old fitness professional, and I am 6 months postpartum. For one, witnessing our bodies go through unprecedented changes to spawn a child and then experiencing the recovery process is equally humbling, fascinating and awe-inspiring. Couple these crazy changes in our physical bodies with a crazy lack of sleep and free time and I commend ANYONE and EVERYONE who is able to fit in a workout – six pack or not. But the fact that you do, in fact, have amazing abs after three kids is fantastic. I know how hard you’ve worked to get there.

Now here’s where it get’s a little dicey for me. When I first saw your No Excuses photo, these are the thoughts that immediately went through my head:

1) Wow, she looks great.

2) Wait, how old is her youngest?!

3) WAIT, why is she doing the Sexy Straddle over that child…

4) “What’s your excuse….” {UGH. CUE MOMMY GUILT.}

5) I’m only six months out. Still have 2 more months to look like that. {CUE UNHEALTHY COMPARISON.}

6) Why am I feeling GUILTY? Good lord, I’m sore from my last workout and I’m already planning how to get one in today.

7) Actually, on second thought, I’m not really making excuses. I AM making time. I AM getting healthy. I AM losing weight. I’ve lost almost 3/4 of the baby weight already!

8) But still, I don’t look like this yet…..

9) I wonder if she’s nursing?

10) I wonder if she works full time?

11) She probably doesn’t eat. Yeah, they said she used to be bulimic. She probably doesn’t eat.

12) I wonder how long she works out each day? What does she do with three kids while she works out?

13) Is this a professional photo? Yep. Definitely photoshopped. She’s prolly a model anyway.

14) Well. She probably just has a… (insert appropriate superlative here)… life than me.

15) For the love of God,  I’m now LOOKING for excuses why I don’t look this way!?! I’m one of the full-time-working, no-sleep-getting, boobs-out-ALL-THE-TIME-moms that IS ACTUALLY WORKING OUT CONSISTENTLY!!!!

16) ….Was this meant to be inspirational?

So, as you can see, that tagline really got to me. I imagine this train of thoughts is not that far off from what a lot of other moms felt when they read “What’s Your Excuse?” – even if they aren’t making any.

But, I was nothing if I wasn’t intrigued. So I went to your facebook page. I went to your website. And what I found really, actually, inspired me.

I found your fitness evolution page, and learned that you aren’t all that different from me: A fitness enthusiast who, despite continual exercise through pregnancy, still gained 35 pounds (for me it was more like 38, but who’s counting). A wife. A mom. A woman with a social conscience. A blogger who tries to keep it somewhat honest and real.  I found your FAQs page and realized you, too, had struggled with breastfeeding. You actually have stretch marks. You also have the confidence to post photos of what you looked like right after giving birth, muffin top and all. And you sometimes still indulge in a donut.

These are the facts that inspire me. It’s not your photoshopped photo. It’s certainly not the “What’s Your Excuse?” tagline. It’s not the hot-mom status that you’ve been granted – in fact the same media that crowned you queen of the MILFs is also the media that has plastered your No Excuses photo everywhere, taking it out of context, offering you up for dissection by people who are sitting on their couches, more comfortable judging others than finding out the truth.

But I want to ask you a favor. Please, can we maybe alter that motto a little? I get it, I do. I understand your well-intentioned point. But here’s the deal: the last thing any of us mommies need is a second helping of guilt or shame. What we desperately need is a dose of encouragement and truth. Like I said in an earlier post:

There are too many people giving too much advice and too many women feeling too badly about themselves.

Please, for God’s sake, let’s support one another. We are all passionate about our children. We all want the best for them. We are all doing our best for them. Our choices may be different, but our motivation is the same. What works for one will not work for another. Please, be forgiving of yourselves. Please, be compassionate to others. Please, stop telling each other they aren’t doing it right. All we can do is all we can do.

If all of us, as mamas, come together and support one another, think of the mountains we could move. The choices you make aside—formula or breastfeeding, cereal or vegetables, cloth or disposable, daycare or stay-at-home—our children look to us to lay the groundwork for their perspective on the world. We directly have the power to make a cultural shift. If we begin by tearing others down, what example are we setting? Let’s welcome everyone to the table.

I’m ready to change the dialogue. I’m ready to help women realize that every body is different. When we focus on the perfect, idealized end result, we fail to recognize the truth: the fact that you woke up at 5am to work out despite the fact that your little one woke you every hour before that. The fact that your skinny jeans still didn’t button until four or five (or more?) months out. The fact that last night you were just too damn tired, and you decided you could only muster ten pushups on the living room floor and called it a workout. And yet tomorrow is another day. Fitness – especially as a mom – is a journey. One that is not consistent, nor always progressing. Sometimes there are setbacks and sometimes there are plateaus. No two people are exactly alike. But we can all strive for and achieve our best versions of ourselves.THIS is the truth. And yes, THIS is the inspiration.

I’m starting today, by posting pictures of my 6 month postpartum body. I took these in my hallway this morning. I hadn’t shaved my legs. I hadn’t even showered. The photos sure as hell are not photoshopped. But, this is my truth.  This is where I am, today. I don’t have any excuses. And I have a few more pounds to lose before I’ll be comfortable. It might take me 10 months, a year, or even longer to get my body where I want it. But it will happen.

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A Before Photo – our honeymoon

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37-38 weeks pregnant

6months

6months2 6months3 6 months postpartum

I am guessing, based on what I read on your facebook page and website, that you actually are a pretty inspiring person. And that you got the short end of the stick with all the negative comments you are getting. I’m sorry – haters will hate. I hope they do a little more research and look you up before they dismiss you. And yet, I hope you will join me in changing the message we are sending to moms everywhere. Instead of focusing on what they aren’t doing right, let’s focus on ways to help them do what they can. It’s not enough to say “I did it, so can you!” As fitness professionals, we need to show them how. Let’s be honest. Let’s give our vulnerabilites and our weaknesses as much air time as our victories. Let’s be REAL PEOPLE. And let’s celebrate the journey. Crossing the finish line is so much sweeter when you can look back at how far you’ve come.

Thank you for sparking this dialogue, and blessings to you and your beautiful family.

In health,

Saralyn

Postnatal fitness: an exercise in patience, priorities, perspective

They call it the fourth trimester, and for good reason. Raise your hand if you still feel like you are renting yourself out to a small human! Stand up if you feel like you are living in an unfamiliar body with a mind of its own! Can I get an AMEN!?

Whether you are nursing, up every hour in the middle of the night, losing your hair in clumps in the bathroom shower, smelling differently than you remember, or contemplating whether you should charge admission for those who ride the roller coaster of your emotions, you are probably still learning this new version of YOU.

Now, that’s not to say that this YOU is permanent. I have to imagine that eventually, once the hormones are on their merry way and our babies are old enough to run around the house like banshees, we will feel like ourselves again. Of course that stage will present its own challenges, but for many of us, the fourth trimester is an unexpected purgatory between being pregnant, and being the SuperMom you always envisioned yourself to be.

Finding time, energy, and motivation to work out during this stage is a challenge to say the least. It usually goes something like this:

Scenario A: You finally have the energy to work out, and maybe even the time, if your baby is gracious enough to give you a nap longer than 30 minutes, or your partner gracious enough to take over for a bit. You are determined to up your intensity and give it all you’ve got in that small window of time to lose the spare tire. But… you can’t make it to the gym and back in that time frame, and if your sweetheart isn’t home, you sure aren’t paying for daycare just to hit the treadmill. Scenario B: Baby won’t nap. At all. Not to mention, baby didn’t sleep at all last night, which means mama didn’t sleep. Finally, baby settles and either a nap, a shower, or a glass of wine wins over a workout. Scenario C: You are really doing it. You’re a working mom. Power suit by day, silly faces by night. But by the time you pick up your little one at daycare, battle rush hour traffic, figure out something for dinner, feed the baby, read bedtime stories and rock her to sleep, it’s already 8:00 pm and all you have the mental capacity for is trolling facebook.

All three of these scenarios, and several other wildcard situations (um, the cat puked twice?! on two carpets!?) have played themselves out in my life in recent weeks. So what’s an active girl to do?

Well, I do have a few suggestions, which I’ll introduce today, and continue to build upon in coming weeks. But first, I think it’s wise for us to all take one step back, and reframe the way we view postnatal fitness. In other words, considering the new circumstantial and physical challenges we have to contend with, let’s set ourselves up for success.

Patience

….with yourself, with your body, with your baby, with your partner. Patience with losing weight. Patience with gaining strength. We all just need a little patience (cue Guns ‘n Roses). You’ve probably heard the adage “It takes 9 months to put it on, it will take 9 months to take it off.” Or, it might take more. Here’s the deal: feeling fit and strong is not going to happen overnight. Losing 15-30 pounds would have taken awhile even when you were childless and could afford the luxury of 2 hour gym sessions. Now, you have so much more to contend with. And here’s a lesson I’ve learned: if you are nursing, you may have to be even more patient. When I hit the three month mark, I decided to intensify my workouts with the sole purpose of burning fat. And guess what? My milk supply hit the skids. The main components of breastmilk are water, fat and protein. If you work out like a maniac, depriving your body of the first two, you might trade in a few pounds for a ton of anxiety and a screaming child. For me, it wasn’t worth it. My colleague Kristin McGee blogged about this very topic on the Rosie Pope blog – and in my opinion, every new mom could benefit from reading her take on holding on to the mummy tummy.

Priorities

So that’s just it. Breastfeeding, for me, was a priority over losing weight – at least right now. At the end of the workday, I’d rather spend 30 minutes on the floor with my Nugget before she goes down for the night than trying to get a run in before the sun sets. That said, on a Saturday morning, I try to get my workout over with before the rest of the day catches up to me: the laundry can wait. Cleaning the bathrooms can wait. Life is about balance, and it’s about prioritizing. Be clear with yourself about your priorities – make a deal with yourself that feels manageable, and then stick to it. And by sticking to it, I mean no self-induced guilt trips when the only workout you can fit in is a walk around the block. Believe me, this is easier said than done.

Perspective

It’s time we, as a culture, shift our focus. When we see the 4th trimester played out in the media, it’s usually either A) admiring a celebrity who has returned to a bikini-ready body about 6 nano-seconds after having a child, B) the newsworthy moment when some brave soul decides to show the reality (thank you Kate Middleton!), or C) articles, videos, and news segments about how to get back your “pre-baby body”. Let me just hop up on my soap box for a moment. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET BACK TO YOUR PRE-BABY BODY, becuase….. YOU’VE HAD A BABY. It’s not just about added weight. Your proportions might change, your proprioception and balance might change, for goodness sake, your hair might even change. It’s time we also change our perspective. Instead of trying to get back your pre-baby body, work towards your best body now. Think of it this way: being pregnant means that your body takes on a mind of it’s own in many ways – trying to accommodate the life will soon spring forth from its loins. You only have so much control. So afterwards, it’s like you have turned a new page, into a new chapter. Your body has pressed the reset button. You now have to start from scratch… but starting from scratch also means that you have a clean slate. Begin with the basics. Start with your alignment. Develop proper form. Rebuild your fitness foundation from the ground up, rather than trying to catch up to where you were before. Trust me on this one. You will be better off in the long run.

In the coming weeks, I will be adding some postnatal specific workouts to my Work It Out page and YouTube Channel. Yes – there are safe, time-efficient, results-driven workouts out there. But remember this postnatal motto: Something is better than Nothing. Take a walk with your partner and push that stroller a little faster than you would normally. Go a little further than you did yesterday. Walking is a great choice when you can’t sweat it out, and bonus – it might just put your kiddo to sleep, or help you brainstorm your next big idea. Please, whatever you do, stop comparing yourself to where you were. It’s time to look around, take it all in, and realize that where you are now is actually pretty damn great.

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Myths and Lessons Learned: The Breastfeeding Journey

I was talking to my cousin on the phone one day about 3-4 weeks after my little Nugget was born. She had a baby two weeks, to the day, after I did. “I don’t know about you,” she said, “but I feel like breastfeeding is the most unnatural natural thing ever.”

Yep.

I can tell you: I prepared for labor and delivery more than a lot of people (chalk it up to my OCD tendencies – needing to feel in control when I am not at all in the driver’s seat!). But one thing I was not prepared for was learning how to breastfeed. I just assumed, like most women I know, that it would come naturally. That it would be relatively easy. That it would be icing on the cake after pushing a watermelon out your hoo-ha.

Nope. Not necessarily true.

How many of us visualize our labors, thinking that after the baby makes his or her grand entrance into the world, we will be lounging on a chaise, sipping a cool beverage in one hand while cooing and smiling at the little person who tenderly nuzzles into your breast? Well, sure… when it goes right. But for a lot of us, it takes a long time to get it “right”.  And then just when we find our groove, something changes. My Nugget just turned five months, and I’m still learning. So, I’m here to share my story – to help you prepare, and accept, if things don’t fall into place right off the bat. While I’m at it, I might as well share a few of the things I’ve learned, and a few of the things I’ve learned to disregard.

Please note: I am NOT a lactation consultant, I have never been one, and I am not nearly as smart as one. All of what I write is based on my own experience, and just as with any other advice you might receive, 1) consult your chosen expert, 2) take what works for you and forget the rest. 

Myth #1: Breastfeeding is painless.

Eventually, this is true. But those first couple weeks are tough. From what I gather, it’s normal to have some pain when that little mouth is sucking away, before your nipples become used to it. The level of pain is what you probably want to pay closer attention to. I used to do a mental checklist to see if the pain was normal or something I should look into: 1) Check her latch. Often re-doing the latch several times makes the pain worse, so try to adjust as much as you can while baby is on the breast. Dr. Jack Newman has a great article on proper latching. 2) Does the pain subside after a few minutes? 3) After two weeks, are you still in so much pain that you either can’t nurse without ibuprophen, or dread feedings? If this is the case…

Lesson #1: SEEK HELP

I cannot stress this enough. Number three above? That was me. By week four, the pain was getting worse and worse. I had visited the lactation support group at my local hospital, and while it was nice to get some support from the other mamas in the room, I was disappointed with the advice I was getting from the nurses and more confused than ever. Supposedly her latch was great. She was still gaining weight like a champ. I was told that the pain would go away eventually, or told that I probably wasn’t experiencing pain, but just tingling (really?! Last I checked I knew what pain felt like.) Everyone seemed to be giving me conflicting advice.

Enter Amanda Ogden, at the mama’hood in Denver. My co-worker had enlisted Amanda’s expert advice when she gave birth to twins 7 months before, and swore up and down that she wouldn’t had made it without her. “Uh-huh, ok,” I would say when I was pregnant, and shove the post-it with Amanda’s contact info in my purse. But after enduring 4 weeks of increasing pain, I looked her up. I found that the mama’hood offered drop-in lactation group classes led by Amanda and her team – an affordable alternative to a one-on-one session. I knew that this was my last resort. If they couldn’t help me, I was giving up the boob.

Within 5 minutes of arriving to group, one of Amanda’s lactation superstars, Ginny, came up and introduced herself. I was undressing the Nugget, getting her ready for the weigh-in, and she was screaming. Immediately, Ginny noticed that my precious Nug was tongue-tied – and quite prominently. She explained how that could be the root of my intense pain, gave me a referral for a pediatric dentist, and made me feel like I was, in fact, SANE. After 2 hours at group, I walked away with so much more knowledge about all things breastfeeding, a plan for addressing my vasospasms (my pain even had a name!), and  some much needed emotional relief. So I wasn’t the only one that felt like this “natural” experience was totally difficult and unmanageable? Everyone in that room had an issue of some kind! And yet when I left, I felt reenergized to keep trying, and to figure it out.

Often we don’t seek help because we feel like we may be failing. We don’t want to expose our vulnerabilities. We are afraid we might be the only one who can’t get it right. But in reality, not seeking help may isolate us even more. Finding this group got me out of the house, it allowed me to meet other moms and babies, it gave me answers to my questions in a safe environment, with expert advice. Nothing was off limits. It helped me grow more confident and empowered and made me feel like, with a little support, I can provide for my child the way I imagined I would. In eons past, women used to teach other women how to feed and raise their babies. They would sit together and share stories, share advice, and even share milk. Now, we all expect we will figure it out on our own. Take it from me. Seek help. And if you can, do it before the baby is born. Put a recommended lactation consultant on speed dial. Because you may find yourself looking at your watch, realizing you have to feed your little one in another 2 hours, and having no idea how you’ll do it.

MYTH #2: Breastfeeding is the easiest option.

Cheapest? Yes. Most convenient? Yes. Easiest? Ha!!!

At about 3-4 weeks, I hit a wall. It was about the same time I was in pain… and sleep deprivation was at its peak. I had told myself “You just need to get through the first three weeks, and then you will be off and running.” Let me tell you, that worked for… the first three weeks. Then, when there wasn’t some magical epiphany, no spontaneous shift at that three week mark, my hormonal self came crashing down. Wait – you mean she still isn’t sleeping through the night? Wait, are you telling me I still have to pump or feed the baby every three hours? WAIT, you mean I can’t just go out and have a couple – few vodka gimlets to take the edge off?? I called or texted every woman in my life that has breastfed, and desperately pleaded. “This is going to change right? When do they start sleeping eight hours? When do I get to decrease the number of feedings? When can I HAVE MY LIFE BACK!?”

My pleas were met with encouraging words…. a lot of “you can do it” and “it does get better”…. but no concrete answers to my questions. Because, there aren’t any. Every baby is different, every story is different. The reality is this: when you are breastfeeding, it will be the closest you will ever be to your baby. Literally and figuratively, for better and for worse. You are living in a symbiotic relationship, which is sometimes Really. Freaking. Tough. Add to it the dietary restrictions you may have to take on if your little one has reflux (yep, right here) and it feels even harder. For me, giving up cheese and ice cream induced a few extra meltdowns.

But sometimes, it is absolutely beautiful. Like, take-your-breath-away-beautiful. When your baby starts taking breaks during feedings just to look up at you, smile and coo, your heart melts, and you realize, these are the moments that make it all worth it. It amazes me when I wake in the middle of the night, before I hear a cry, and think “She will need to eat soon…”. And without fail, five minutes later, she awakens. We are in synch. Two peas in a pod.

And it does get better, and quicker. Five minutes in the middle of the night is much more palatable than one hour. One or two glasses of wine is better than none. Giving up dairy has helped me shed some pounds. By four or five months, these kids are pros, and you feel less inhibited. Sure, some days I still think “It would be so much easier if I could just go away for 48 hours and not have to think about my boobs.” But then I remember, in the grand span of my life, this is actually a very small window of time.

I’m not here to tell you the reasons why I’d recommend breastfeeding, despite the difficulties. There is plenty of research if you’d like to school up. But I won’t be the one to tell you, because…

LESSON #2: Don’t Judge

There are too many people giving too much advice and too many women feeling too badly about themselves. Please, for God’s sake, let’s support one another. We are all passionate about our children. We all want the best for them. We are all doing our best for them. Our choices may be different, but our motivation is the same. What works for one will not work for another. Please, be forgiving of yourselves. Please, be compassionate to others. Please, stop telling each other they aren’t doing it right. All we can do is all we can do.

If all of us, as mamas, come together and support one another, think of the mountains we could move. The choices you make aside – formula or breastfeeding, cereal or vegetables, cloth or disposable, daycare or stay-at-home – our children look to us to lay the groundwork for their perspective on the world. We directly have the power to make a cultural shift. If we begin by tearing others down, what example are we setting? Let’s welcome everyone to the table.

MYTH #3: Pumping and Dumping 

Ok. So this is more about the actual Pumping part. I’ll get to the Dumping in a minute. Firstly, pumping is not as easy as you might think. In fact, in my case, my body seemed to hate the pump for the first few months I used it. My poor Nugget was being inundated with milk every time she ate, yet I would get next to nothing out of the pump. Our bodies are super smart. Why would I put out if I’m not getting that hormone high from that sweet little bundle resting on my chest? The mechanical whoosh-whoosh-whoosh just doesn’t give you the same warm and fuzzy feeling. This can make going back to work especially tough. I was losing ounces every day as Nugget increased her intake and I pumped less than what she was getting. Back to group I went. Now, armed with new membranes and new tubes for my pump, Mother’s Milk tea, the power of breast massage, videos of my baby on my phone and oatmeal for every snack, I’m starting to win the battle yet again.

So that is why when I hear my not-yet-mom friends say “Come out with us! You can always pump and dump!” I kind of cringe a little. Yeah, I’ve done it once or twice. But the thing is, when you have to work so hard for that milk, the LAST thing you want to do is dump it. In fact, I HAVE cried over spilled milk before: when I accidentally knocked over a freshly pumped, 6 oz bag. There are few things that create more anxiety for a breastfeeding mama than watching the freezer supply dwindle. Now, I’m slowly, slowly adding to my freezer supply… so that sometime in the future, when the next wedding or concert or girls weekend is upon me, I might actually be able to skip one feeding. But even so, I may not feel like sacrificing my liquid gold. Which brings me to…

Lesson #3: Breastfeeding is a Journey

Before I gave birth, I mistakenly thought that once you were past the first few hiccups, breastfeeding was mastered. Now I know better: it is an ongoing adventure. My timeline went a little like this:

Weeks 1-2: Mastered latching and positioning

Weeks 3-4: Mama still in pain – headed to the mama’hood breastfeeding group for help.

Weeks 4-5: Post tongue-tie frenulotomy (you think shots are bad, try watching your baby get her tongue clipped!): WAY less pain, baby relearns to latch and suck using her tongue. Mama and baby still attending group to keep tabs on weight gain and help decrease vasospasm.

Weeks 6-12: Baby gets fussy at breast during every feeding, can’t control milk flow. Not sure if it’s oversupply or fast letdown or both. Back to group to figure out how to help her manage.

Month 3: Baby develops reflux. Back to group when she won’t stop screaming. Mama reduces cow proteins and caffeine in her diet. Baby sees doctor for prescription to help acid reflux. Simultaneously Mama starts intensifying her exercise and wonders if there is a dip in supply. Back to group we go.

Month 4: Mama returns to work. Goes back to group when pumping was netting a loss in ounces during the work week.

Month 5: Baby seems interested in solid foods, and daycare starts suggesting cereal. Mama isn’t sure she wants to start solids until 6 months. Back to the mama’hood for the starting solids class.

….and now here we are. Month five, and new challenges. I’ve come to expect that every stage along this journey is going to be different and difficult in its own way. Yet, each stage will bring new beauty. Now, she laughs when she sees the breast -she gets THAT happy. My heart swells to know I can provide for her in a way that brings us closer, develops a lifelong bond, and keeps her healthy. This is what keeps me going. I also set short term goals for myself: I will try to breastfeed for six months, then re-evaluate. Who knows what will happen then. As I said before…. all I can do is all I can do. And that is probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned from breastfeeding: take each day as it comes. Despite the challenges,  breastfeeding my Nugget has been an incredible journey, and one I will never regret.

A Birth Story

It’s hard to believe that your entire life and your perspective on the world can change in just one moment. I had heard others say that about becoming a mother, but until it actually happens, it’s nearly impossible to imagine. Even in that moment when my child entered the world, the adrenaline and emotion that I felt gave me the sensation of floating outside my body; the feeling that what I was experiencing was so much greater than a physical moment in time. It was as if my heart left my body at that very moment, grew legs of it’s own and began living on the outside. My mind couldn’t even keep up with or comprehend the depth of what my soul was experiencing… it wasn’t until just now, looking at the photos in my last post, that I realized: pregnant Saralyn feels like a lifetime ago. Already I feel – and even just one week after I felt the same – like a different person… maybe not different, per se, but enhanced. Expanded. Changed in a way I could never have ever anticipated or prepared myself for.

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…And boy did I try to prepare. There is something very legitimate about the nesting instinct. Around my 36 week appointment, when my doc told me I was already 1.0 cm dilated and 70% effaced, it hit me: if this baby came today, I would be bringing him or her home to a messy house. Tom and I had been preparing on a much larger scale, getting our finances in order, checking off home improvement projects, washing little baby clothing and decorating a nursery. But to-do list aside, I hadn’t done OUR laundry, hadn’t cleaned our floors, hadn’t cleared the dust bunnies from the closets. Realizing this sent me into a nesting frenzy like no other. I found myself on my hands and knees, scrubbing corners that had never seen the light of day. I knew I was overboard when Tom offered to help, and I had a near break-down, saying “You just won’t do it the way I want it done”… and then proceeded to take the shower curtain liner down to the laundry room, sprayed Shout on the soap scum, and wash it in the washing machine.

20130628-093720.jpgBy week 38, I had cleaned every last inch of our house, but still no baby. I was 2.0 cm at that point, and still felt pretty good. I was lucky I didn’t feel the aches and pains or swelling a lot of women feel by this time (I swear exercise does the body good! Even if it’s just a few side leg lifts!), and I wasn’t miserable. At work, I still had plenty to do to prepare for maternity leave and that kept me focused. Meanwhile at home I was so prepared that I began looking for new projects to occupy myself, looking for any distraction to take my mind away from analyzing every minor cramp I felt. We knew we were ready, and the waiting game was just beginning.

On the last day of my 38th week, a Wednesday, I woke up with a terrible sore throat. It was Murphy’s Law – I knew it: I would go into labor sick as a dog. Fantastic. Everyone wants to bring home a newborn while they are sick, right!? I worked from home, trying to focus on getting as much done as possible, hoping to beat the clock. I felt like there was a ticking time bomb inside of me, waiting to go off, and I was trying to get healthy and wrap up my last work tasks as fast as possible. Meanwhile, some friends and family attributed my head-cold symptoms to a sign of imminent labor – saying my body was trying to prepare by cleaning out all systems. It seemed plausible, and a few hopeful Google searches later, I decided to buy into that theory to keep myself from feeling more sick.

Going back to work on Thursday, day one of week 39, my co-workers started treating me a little differently, saying I “seemed off”. Everytime I got up to go to the bathroom, I came back to 5 pairs of inquisitive eyes, wondering if everything was ok. Even if I wasn’t near labor, it sure felt like everyone else thought I was.

Friday I worked from home again, with a head that felt like a mucous-filled balloon, and a body that felt 39 weeks pregnant. Never have I been so happy to stay in my sweats all day. I put on real clothes only to head to the doctor, finding out that I was 2.5 cm dilated, and ready to go any day, whenever the baby decided to make his or her grand entrance. Despite feeling under the weather, that ticking time bomb feeling remained, and Tom and I decided we would go out for dinner, for what might be our last date night without hiring a babysitter. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of that meal, cleaned my plate and then some, and enjoyed a perfect night with my husband and best friend. We talked about the baby, wondered if it was a boy or girl, and finally agreed on a girl name. After 39 weeks of not knowing girl or boy, and after deciding on a boy name in the first trimester, we finally found a girl name that felt right to both of us. The last item was checked off the list.

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Saturday was a gorgeous spring day, and rather than waiting around inside, hoping for my water to break, Tom and I decided to work on the lawn. We went to the garden center and bought a trumpet vine to plant in front of our porch. Hoping that the quick-growing vine would take off this year, climbing the slats that surround our front porch, we dedicated it to our new baby. We ran errands, played in the dirt and spent the day together, and although I needed to take little breaks here and there, and asked Tom to walk a little slower, overall I felt relaxed and happy. At one point, out of the blue, Tom turned to me and said he was proud of me. I will never forget that moment: walking through the Home Depot, feeling slow and big, and hearing my husband say that he was more impressed with me than he’s ever been. My heart swelled.

And then Sunday arrived, and I felt awful. Not awful like sick, or even tired. I felt awful like I was grumpy, crabby and emotional. The sun was shining, it was 70 degrees, and as we sat on the back porch that morning I started crying. It was the first time that I was DONE. I was over it. For the last few weeks, I accepted the inconveniences of the last few weeks of pregnancy and took them in stride (it wasn’t as bad as the first trimester, after all). Most people assumed that by now I was fed up with pregnancy and ready to be back to my normal self. Sure I had moments, but never before had I experienced an overwhelming feeling of frustration. But Sunday, April 7, I did. My mom asked me to take a 39 week pregnancy photo, but I just couldn’t do it. I wanted nothing to do with cameras, pregnancy or phone calls. I didn’t want to talk to family, I didn’t want to talk about the waiting game, I just wanted it to be done. I started feeling nauseous and crampy, all at once. That night, we sat on the couch and watched Lincoln. By the end of the movie I had torn my cuticles to shreds – a bad, anxious habit I had broken since getting pregnant. But there I was with at least 5 bleeding fingers. Not sure what was going on, I just didn’t feel like myself. I was just off.

And then…. it all made sense.

Sometime around 3:00 am on Monday I woke up with what felt like Braxton Hicks combined with menstrual cramping. The first time I felt it, I awoke halfway, but only enough to dismiss it as just another random 3rd trimester pain. Dozing back off, I woke up again shortly after, with another contraction that felt the same, but a little stronger. This time I woke fully, but confused. I slid back into sleep, and then woke with a start when I felt a third contraction, this time strong enough that I couldn’t possibly sleep through it. I got up to go to the bathroom, making sure I wasn’t dreaming, and checked the clock. 3:23 am. Hesitant to get overly excited before I knew if this was the real deal, I went to get my phone off the charger to start timing the contractions. I crawled back into bed and waited. Sure enough 9 minutes later, another contraction. Another 10 minutes, another contraction. I woke up Tom, who at that point was starting to stir, sensing my movement. I said “Tom I think this might be it, I think I’m in labor.” Drowsy but excited, he asked for details. But, I said, the contractions were still roughly ten minutes apart, so we had time. I told him to get some more sleep, and I would keep him posted. By this point the contractions were strong enough that lying down was not comfortable, so I got up, went into the nursery and sat in the glider in the dimly lit room, staring at the stars on the ceiling, getting excited. I had downloaded a Hypnobirthing podcast a couple weeks back to help calm my mind in preparation for the big day; for an hour in the early morning twilight I rocked in the nursery glider, listened to the relaxing podcast and breathed purposefully through each contraction.

After the end of the podcast, the contractions started getting more intense – to the point where I was uncomfortable sitting still. The ticking time bomb feeling was starting to become more visceral. I went back into the bedroom to wake Tom again, and told him I thought it was about time that we start showering, eating breakfast and getting ready. He agreed and got up to shower. I headed to the kitchen to make breakfast, but on the way, stopped to lay down with our 12 year old dog, Kaiser. I wanted to tell him what was happening, prepare him for our new arrival, and for spending a couple days with our friends. I stretched out across his bed, wrapped my arms around his big great dane neck, and he started licking my arm. And then, immediately, I felt a POP! from deep within my abdomen… and then a guuuuuusssssh. My water broke! I yelled, “Tom? TOM! TOOOMMM!!!!” and ran to the toilet. Checked the clock – 5:56 am. The water came out quickly, and without pause – not at all like I had pictured from watching TV! I kept thinking, when is this going to run out?! But it didn’t. Tom brought me my phone, and I called my OBGYN’s office. They told me to go to the hospital immediately, which heightened my anxiety – you mean no breakfast?? No shower? They appeased me with the shower, and told me to get there within the hour.

As I dried off, my contractions were coming more and more quickly, at about 7 minutes apart now. Tom was frantically rushing around the house to shower, get the dog ready for pick-up, and call family (he also tried to fry me an egg… I knew I wasn’t supposed to eat in case of puking it back up, but I also know how HANGRY I can get and it is not pretty). I called out to him again as I was leaving the shower, saying, “I think we need to get to the hospital SOON!!”

Tom was mid-shave. ” Ok, give me 5 minutes!”

“I CAN’T GIVE YOU FIVE MINUTES!!!!!!!!!”…… yep, that was my freak-out moment. The only time the whole labor where I screamed at my husband. But I couldn’t help it. I felt like the baby could drop any minute and I just wanted to be safely at the hospital, with the nurses and my carefully thought-out birth plan. I just wanted a *safe zone*.

My freak-out lit a fire under both of us and we hightailed it to the car by 7:07 am… and wouldn’t you know it, rush hour traffic started early that day. It was worse than I had ever seen – bumper to bumper, stopped entirely on the highway. Meanwhile I timed my contractions and started writing them down. 6 minutes apart, give or take. I started breathing through each one, focusing on the INNNN and the OOOOUT. Tom eyed the shoulder, and almost made a break for it, but then we started moving. Slowly. A trip that normally takes 25 minutes took us over an hour!

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Finally we pulled into the hospital and checked in at the desk. We, being rookies, looked as if we were going to move in. In general I am a planner, a think-out-all-possible-scenarios-and-be-prepared-for-all-of-them kind of girl. I overpack every time I go on a trip, and this was no different. But, as we waited for our hospital room, I started to wonder why we brought all that stuff. Apparently the previous night had been one of the busiest the labor and delivery unit had seen in a long time, and not a single room was available. Whether they were occupied or being cleaned, it meant we had to wait. Again. In the hospital hallway. For 45 minutes. I reached down deep into my yogi mindset and tried to focus through the ever-increasing pain, now accompanied by rising anxiety of still not being in the safe zone. And then finally, they called us in.

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I felt such a relief as we got settled, met our nurse Kelly and her student nurse Marta. It was around 9am by that point, and I remember wondering how far along I was. As a first timer, it’s a strange feeling: not knowing what to expect, and having nothing to gauge your pain level against. My contractions were about 5-6 minutes apart, and quite painful to where I needed to stop and breathe through them, so I thought I must be getting close. But just like when I run on the treadmill and cover the console with a towel so I can’t see the time, I was afraid to find out. It’s like pulling the towel off and realizing you’ve only gone a mile when you plan to go five. Checking too early can make you lose stamina for the long-haul. So I waited… Tom set up the iPod with Pandora, and the first song wafted through the speakers: I Shall Be Released, sung by Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan. Shortly after, as I continued wondering how far I was, and how much further I had to go, Let It Be came on. I teared up, realizing that all the anxiety and emotion I had felt in the last weeks were leading up to this. This profound, divine and challenging experience. We were doing it. I knew then that the iPod was going to be my friend through this journey.

During the first hours in the hospital, I managed my pain with movement. Prior to labor, I had a feeling this was going to be the case – I’m not one to sit still. I’d rather be an active participant than sitting back and letting it happen. For this reason, when I wrote my birth plan, I was very clear that I wanted as few interventions as possible, and no oral or IV pain meds. I wanted to let my body progress on its own as much as possible; I wanted to participate and be present in what I was experiencing. I knew I couldn’t possibly predict what would happen, so I didn’t disregard an epidural altogether, but I thought of it as a last resort. I had a mental plan of the order of operations – I would start with movement, walking, leaning, and the birthing ball. Then I’d move onto squatting, kneeling, massage, hot or warm packs, deeper breathing. Finally I’d move on to the bathtub and my hypnosis podcast as it got more intense. So, the nurses got me set up with waterproof, mobile monitors, allowing me to leave the room if I wanted.

At 11:50am, the doctor came in to check me, and I was. Though I was dismayed I wasn’t further along, I tried to focus on the positive. I had it under control. We were in good shape.

As morning turned into afternoon and the contractions increased in pain, they were still only 5 minutes apart. The ball was a savior at times, taking pressure off my pelvis. Kneeling was also a savior, as was applied pressure on my back. Tom successfully lightened the mood, and tried to keep me smiling, “Well, if this teaching gig doesn’t work out, I could always become a doula.”

By 2:15 the nurses checked me again, and I was 6 cm, even though the contractions held steady at 4-5 minutes apart. I was thrilled with the progress, but the pain of each contraction was now surpassing what I had ever imagined it would be. I continued to breathe through them, tried to remember to relax, and ride the wave. And waves they were. As the end of the 4-5 minutes neared, the pain level gradually increased, like a siren starting to sound across an open field. I tried to avoid the instinct to brace myself, and instead tried to dive below the wave, like in the ocean, letting it pass over me. In order to dive below, I had to close my eyes, quiet my mind, and surrender to my body’s natural process, trying to observe the sensations from outside my body rather than from within. It was the most difficult meditation I have ever experienced. Meanwhile I started getting the shakes after each contraction waned. I had never heard about this phenomenon: apparently as the hormones course through your body you can begin to shake, uncontrollably. and shake I did. Simultaneously the iPod turned into a distraction, with Jimi Hendrix’s frantic guitar jam wailing over the speakers, after Johnny Cash had just rattled through I’ve Been Everywhere Man. “Enough music,” I said, and headed to the bathtub.

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For the next two hours Tom held my hand as I sat in the warm tub, meeting my body’s challenge as best as I could. We listened to the Hypnobirthing podcast twice over, and her voice helped me dig deep. The lighthearted excitement that we felt between contractions during the day was now tempered by the severity of each contraction. I couldn’t help but moan during some of them, and the four minutes between started to follow the pattern of catching my breath, dozing off in relief and pure exhaustion, then trying to stay calm as I felt another contraction begin. I was starting to lose the mental battle, realizing I still had a ways to go, and feeling so tired that I wasn’t sure how I could manage any more. I was 12 hours in, each contraction was about a minute long, and I was losing composure.

“I want the epidural,” I said.

“Are you sure? I think you can make it through another one. Just get through ten more minutes then re-evaulate.” Damn it, he was doing exactly what I told him to do last week. If I say I want the epidural, tell me to keep going, I told him, then.

“No, I really want it. I mean it.”

“Ok. But you can do this, you can get through four more cycles.”

So I did it. The only way I could make it through was to literally leave my body. I had to mentally escape, go deep within myself, turning off all thoughts, all feelings, all observations. Everything. It may have been the only time in my life where I have ever successfully done that…

And, as if on cue, at the end of the 4 cycles, my doctor arrived. I was so happy to see her. I wanted her to tell me that it was time to push, but instead she said, “So how are you doing?”

“I think I want the epidural. I wanted to go without it but I think I have to. I’m too tired, I won’t be able to push, but I don’t want to have a C section and I don’t want to prolong labor…..” I rambled.

Sensing that I was feeling defeated, she suggested that we check my progress first before making a decision. It was just after 4pm, and I was still just 6 cm. Discouragement set in. I felt like I was quitting, but I also was at the depths of exhaustion. I knew I wasn’t even in transition yet. It was going to get much worse before it got better and I had already been going 12 hours.

“Is it going to make labor longer and more difficult??” I asked, almost begging for assurance of the opposite.

“Well,” she said, “In your case, you do so much exercise, I think your pelvic muscles might be very tight. They aren’t letting you progress at this point. The epidural might help you to relax.”

So, banking on her advice, I ordered the epidural at 4:00, and waited….and waited…

I had forgotten that it would take 45 minutes to see the anesthesiologist. And in my case, the nurses insisted on giving me two bags of IV fluids before the shot was administered. In a nurse consultation, over the phone a week earlier, I explained my health history, including several heart and cardiovascular tests that I’ve undergone. While I’ve never been diagnosed with anything conclusive, I have dealt with exertion migraines since I was about 12. They are brought on by strenuous cardio and characterized by a spike in my heartbeat, sometimes as high as 170-180 bpm after only 20 minutes of running. When I trained for my last half marathon in 2010, it was at its worst, with symptoms like nausea, tunnel vision, blood pressure irregularity and arrhythmia. Considering all of this, I wasn’t sure how the epidural would affect me during an already strenuous endeavor (an epidural can cause all if those same symptoms). Obviously the nurses wanted to be uber-cautious, which I appreciated, but it made the wait that much longer….

It’s crazy how we are programmed to forget the most intense pain we’ve ever experienced. Within a week of delivery, the memory of that hour spent waiting for the epidural was already a blur. It’s so foggy now; I remember retreating into silence, my eyes closed, people talking around me, leaving the room in all but physical presence. I remember the shakes becoming convulsions, and thinking that relief was coming. After 13 hours of using movement to blunt the pain, now I was hooked up to IV, chained to the bed. I was entering transition, and when it was finally time to receive the epidural, sitting still was near impossible.

And then, slowly, the medicine washed over my lower body, and each contraction became progressively less intense. It was like waking up to the present moment again. I looked at the clock- almost 5pm. Slowly the smile returned to my face as I realized- we are really having a baby. Thankfully, I had received a low dose epidural, and they gave me a button to up the dosage if needed. I felt the hospital staff truly respected my wishes to stay active in the birth process- I could still move my legs and could still feel every contraction come and go, but the feeling was pressure not pain. With each coming wave I concentrated on opening, opening, opening…

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And my body cooperated. Just as the Dr had proposed, the epidural did in fact help relax my pelvic floor, and I dilated three more centimeters in one hour! By 5:45 I was at 9 cm, and as if on cue, my mom arrived. The travel gods had blessed her with an easy cross country flight, even though it was booked last minute. Even more impressive, the weather report was calling for a spring snowstorm, and my mom made it to Denver before the snow did, just in time for the last phase of labor.

But we weren’t there yet. The nurses’ were changing shifts, and we met Amanda, our new go-to. At first Tom and I were skeptical- our previous nurse, Kelly, was so calm, friendly, and laid-back. Amanda had a different vibe entirely; though she was friendly and informative, she was more intense- all about business. We decided to make the most of it though, because really, what choice did we have? Amanda quickly took charge, urged me to get some rest, and ushered my mom to the waiting room while Tom went to find his first meal of the day.

I had just closed my eyes when Amanda came in again, and went directly to the monitors.

“I don’t want you to be concerned, but…” Great. Just what every laboring momma wants to hear.

“The baby’s heartrate is dropping pretty low with each contraction. This could be a sign that either the cord is wrapped around baby’s neck or baby is gripping it.” She went on to explain that since my water had broken so early in the morning, there was no fluid left to create buoyancy in the womb, and the cord was getting pinched as a result, stressing the baby. They quickly set me up with an intrauterine catheter, to pump saline solution back into the womb hoping the cord would loosen. While no one said it at the time, I now assume this was a last ditch effort before a C section. I quietly prayed, and tuned into the baby’s heartbeat monitor. I listened so intensely that I could still hear the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh pattern for days afterward. Amanda sat with me for a few minutes to see what would happen, changing my position to ease the pressure on the baby, and thankfully, it worked.

No sooner did we recover from that little glitch than did the doctor come in to check my progress. At 6:30pm I was closer to 10 cm, but baby was sunny side up- facing the wrong way. This can make pushing longer and more difficult, stress the baby and worst case, result in C section. The nurses told me they would come in and roll me from side to side, every 20 minutes, until it was time to push, in the hopes that baby would decide to turn over. Again I said some prayers and talked to my little one, “Please turn for mama, one more time.”

When I felt the baby roll over, I smiled ear to ear. It was like the baby and I really were working together. We were doing it.

By 7:30 pm, the rain had started, and my contractions were still 4 minutes apart. Amanda wanted to give me pitocin, saying that she wanted my contractions a little closer together just to make the pushing easier. She worried that with 4 minutes between each push I would fatigue and lose steam. But I was not convinced. I knew I wanted to avoid pitocin at all costs- I had done my research and knew that I could impede bonding, up my chances of postpartum depression, and make breastfeeding difficult. Plus, it didn’t seem necessary. Pushing was what I had looked forward to all day. It was going to be a relief- a chance to actively engage and Get. This. Baby. Out. I was not planning to “lose steam.” I was so close!

But Amanda was a little stubborn. She wasn’t sure if my body would dilate the last centimeter, either. We negotiated, and I convinced her to let me have until 8pm – half an hour – to let my body do its work.

When 8pm came and Amanda checked me, I was fully dilated, the baby had flipped, and we were ready to try the first pushes. Nevertheless Amanda persisted with the pitocin- she said she would give me the lowest dose possible, and hopefully it would be enough to bring the contractions closer together and make pushing easier. I gave in, trusting her experience, and agreed to .5 ml.

As the pitocin took effect my contractions started coming about 3 minutes apart- not quite the result that Amanda was hoping for. She upped the does to 1 ml and prepped me for delivery. The doc had gone home after she last checked my progress, but assured us she lived just around the block and would be back as soon as we called. Amanda wheeled in the delilvery cart and explained how to push; who knew there was an actual technique? But the more she explained the optimal body position (posterior pelvic tilt, rounded back, knees into chest, upper spine curling up) the more it started sounding like a Pilates exercise. It was like every Rolling Like a Ball exercise I had ever done was going to lead up to this! I was stoked. Finally something familiar, where I could actively participate and affect the outcome. Amanda coached me through two “practice pushes,” as she held my left leg and Tom held my right. It turns out it’s hard to figure out how to get things going down there when you have been nearly numb for the last few hours. So Amanda’s advice was to push like I was pooping… and, well, let me just say that I did it right. I was embarassed for a split second, and apologized profusely. When my husband looked me in the eye and said, ” Don’t worry about it, we have more important things to think about,” I took a deep breath, and let it go. Funny – one of the things I worried about most before going into labor was the embarassment of pooping during a push, and once it actually happened, it wasn’t that big a deal. He was right: there were way more important things going on.

Like, for instance, the fact that after the third practice push, Amanda started to lose her composure ever so slightly. “I think it’s time to call the doctor. Ok, DON’T PUSH on this next contraction and just sit tight while I get her here.” She hustled out of the room, and I asked Tom excitedly, “Does that mean that the baby’s coming?!” Amanda had seen the head, and it was time. Game on.

As we waited for the doc to arrive, the contractions continued to come, and I could feel the pressure descend upon my pelvis as the wave washed over me. My heart rate was beginning to spike with each one, as expected, to where the nurses couldn’t tell whose heart rate was getting picked up by the monitor, mine or the baby’s. Amanda sat with me, distracting me from the natural urge to push. Her anxiety was palpable as she went to check to make sure the doc had been called. When she opened the door, as if on cue, Dr. Johnson glided into the room, slapped on a pair of gloves and took a front row seat between my legs.

At 8:45 I began pushing “for real.” A small audience of nurses descended into the room – two more to watch the monitors and one from the pediatric ward. Amanda was still holding my left leg, and Tom my right. I was dying of thirst at this point, and the ice chips Tom gave me between each push were heavenly. Dr. Johnson took charge, coaching me to push three times with each contraction, with quick inhales in between each push. They suggested I hold my breath to bear down, but it felt so counterintuitive to me… so I exhaled. Hard. To where eventually those exhales turned into grunts and wheezes. But I had to do what my body had to do, even if I was going to be hoarse the next day (and I sure was!). After a few contractions, Dr. Johnson gave me the MVP advice of the night. And for all you pregnant mamas out there, listen up: with each push the baby moves forward ever so slightly. But after the third push in a round of three, when it’s time to rest, those tight pelvic floor muscles suck the baby up again. It’s like two steps forward and one step back. So Dr. Johnson advised me to push 75% with the first push to get baby back to where we left off, then focus the majority of my energy on making progress during the second and third pushes. This was exactly what I needed to hear – it helped me focus. The nurses continually asked me if I wanted a mirror to see the progress…. uh, no. I didn’t. I didn’t need that image etched in my mind forever. But it did feel a little bit like I was shooting in the dark without knowing how close I was to getting that head out. Focusing on the strength of each push helped.

And yet my contractions remained 3 minutes apart. Apparently this is super unusual, because it’s all they talked about. I was happy about it though, and I believe it was my body’s wisdom kicking in to self-regulate the spikes in my heartrate. With each contraction my bpms would skyrocket, and the three minutes in between was enough to let me catch my breath, rest for a second, and take the oxygen mask that Tom handed me in between ice chips. The oxygen helped to bring me back to baseline before the next contraction, and then we did it all again. While this prolonged the pushing stage of the delivery, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Eventually the baby was crowning, and although Dr. Johnson had been stretching my perineum with each contraction, there was no room left for it to stretch.

“You can feel the contractions when they come on, right?” she asked me.

“Yes, I think so, I can feel the pressure.”

“Ok then we are going to remove these monitors to make room, and rely on you to tell us when it’s time to push.”

They removed the baby’s heartrate monitor and the intrauterine catheter, and even still I started to tear. I knew we were getting close. I kept asking Tom how much longer?! The energy in the room was elevating as each push brought us closer and closer. Amanda remained vigilant and down to business, every moment the level-headed, non-emotional coach. One of the other nurses who had come in for the delivery was her perfect counterpart, all red hair and feathers and tattoos, and the voice next to me cheering me on, saying, “You got this mama! You are doing such a great job! You are so close!” I had never seen this woman before in my life yet she and Tom were vying for the role of biggest cheerleader. “You would think you had done this before!” she said. It was just what I needed to hear to feel like I was really doing this. I was pushing this bowling ball out of me. I was really having a baby!!

As the baby crowned, Tom described to me a head of dark hair, and it started to become real. The nurses asked again if I wanted a mirror, and I still declined. Though when they asked if I wanted to reach down and feel the head I obliged, even though I wasn’t so sure. I just wanted to hold my baby, not feel its head between my legs!

The next couple of moments went by in a blur. Suddenly Dr. Johnson was saying, “Ok Saralyn just one more big push.” And I said something to the effect of, ” Wait is the baby here?!” But I pushed, and pushed hard. I pushed longer and harder than I thought I could, pushing after I thought I needed to stop, and then suddenly, Dr. Johnson slid a cold and jittery, slimy and beautiful little baby out from under the sheet over my knees. Tom announced that it was a girl, and as Dr. Johnson held the cord up for Tom to cut, I frantically ripped my birthing gown off, ready to hold my baby in my arms, skin to skin, and soak in every second of this amazingly perfect moment.

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Our baby girl cried, and stuck out her pouty bottom lip – a demonstration of a personality already established, a soul already written in the stars. She was absolutely perfect. As they laid her on my chest, I couldn’t decide between laughter or tears. In the background, Bob Marley floated from the iPod: ” Thank you Lord for what you’ve done for meeeee….” The pure elation, a heart open and bursting, that I felt was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. And even still, I’ll never forget the shared emotion Tom and I felt at that moment. He was in love with his daughter, yet over and over he showered me with love, telling me how proud he was of me, how great I did, how I made it. He thanked me for giving birth to our baby girl, and my heart swelled even more.

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Finally I agreed to the mirror, so I could watch the baby’s face as I felt her breath. Dr. Johnson stitched me up as we enjoyed our first few moments as a family, before they even took the baby away to clean her up. That time is absolutely the best prize I could have ever hoped for after 19 hours of labor and it will be a moment I cherish until my dying day.

Ivy Jayne Ciolek was born on April 8, 2013 at 10:05 pm, in Denver, CO as the first flakes of an April snow storm began to fall. She was 20 inches long, 5 pounds and 14 oz. Our lives were forever changed by her arrival, taking on a new, more profound meaning. My dad used to sing me Edelweiss before bed when I was a wee one, and the lyrics have now taken on an entirely new meaning for me:

Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow,

Bloom and grow forever

Ivy Jayne, Ivy Jayne,

Bless this baby forever

dayafter

Third Trimester Park Workout

Spring has finally arrived in Colorado and I’ve been itching to get out of the house! Its the best time of year- when exercise doesn’t feel like exercise but instead an excuse to get fresh air, soak up some rays and enjoy this gorgeous world.

Though my workouts are definitely much different than they were in the beginning of my pregnancy, I notice that my body feels much better when I’m keeping up my strength. I have shifted away from heavy cardiovascular sessions; my SI joints (where your pelvis meets your tailbone) were not having it, and all the added bladder pressure made it pretty uncomfortable. At about 35 weeks, I noticed my hip flexors would be all jacked up for a couple days after “doing cardio”…. And realized it was time to shift my focus.

At that point, strengthening exercises – using little more than my own body weight or an elastic band- felt so good. After weeks of feeling like my joints were spreading and stretching, pulling them all back in with muscle strength and control was just what I needed to feel like I was still making progress, and quiet the burgeoning aches and pains.

This park workout has been one of my recent favorites- just enough to get the blood pumping and to fatigue my muscles, but still leaves me feeling strong and pain-free at the end of it. You can make it difficult or simplify it as needed, day to day, depending on how you feel. Get creative and try to move your body in as many different planes of movement as possible to achieve a full body balancing effect. Here’s what worked for me:

1) Start with a brisk walk to the park (about a mile) where there is a 3/4 mile gravel-paved loop.

2) At the first bench, do a set of ten tricep push-ups, elbows in and legs a little wider than hip distance. Holding plank is always a good option to modify.

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3) As I walked I added in some lateral arm circles to hit the deltoids…

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4) When I got to the picnic table, I did step-ups on the bench. Start with one leg leading for ten reps, then switch sides for ten. Try to keep the hips as level as possible rather than hiking the hip on the way up. Use your arms in front of you for counterbalance but try to avoid pressing down on your thigh to get up. This is great for the glutes, core, and hamstrings when done correctly!

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5) At the next bench, I did some tricep dips, keeping my legs slightly bent to modify.

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6) Continuing around the circle, at the next picnic table it was side step-ups and lateral pelvic tilts. I have been trying to focus on glute medius strengthening, to take some pressure off my piriformis and relieve the hip aches and pains as my pelvis spreads. What does this mean? Lots of one-legged balancing, side leg work, and keeping my hips as level as possible!

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7) Continuing the walk around the loop, I added a shoulder rotation exercise and a row- always trying to counteract that rounding and hunching of my upper body! The key when doing these sans resistance? Don’t let your ribs pop open or your back arch. Isolate the movement in the shoulder joint only and you’ll feel much more.

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8) I took a break at the next bench to do hold plank, and side plank as long as I could… Reverse plank is another great choice which will open the chest, and work the back side of the legs. And as always, plank on the knees is a great option.

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9) Finishing out the loop, I did ten walking lunges on each leg, aiming to keep my ear, shoulder, rib, hip and knee in one line, and hips even with each other.

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Some days I do the whole circuit again before heading home. But if I start feeling more Braxton Hicks, I call it a day and walk the mile back to my house.

Remember to be adaptable. Maybe running five miles doesn’t feel good anymore or your hour long power vinyasa class is leaving you achy and sore. Or maybe you are a couch triathlete whose body is starting to hurt more as your pregnancy progresses and moving a little is just what you need. There are many different ways to add exercise into your day- the key is to remain open, listen to what feels good, and get creative. Your body and baby will thank you!

Welcome to the Pelvic Floor Revolution, Part Two

So, now that you’ve had a moment to digest the news that will rock your preggers world, I wanted to show you three ways you can add deep squatting into your prenatal fitness routine. The best part is, you need very little equipment, and you can do them in your living room! In fact, I demonstrated in mine.

1) Use an exercise ball to help you learn the movement

Start with your lower back against the ball, and the ball against the wall. Your feet should be about 25-30 degrees in front of your pelvis – this is so that, when you bend into your squat, your knees stay over your ankles and not in front of them. Your legs should be slightly externally rotated, into a position that feels natural to you. Bend your knees, aiming to bring your body to a straight vertical position, allowing your upper back and neck to roll onto the ball. Continue to push evenly into both feet, making sure your heels and toes equally carry your weight. Be sure that your knee caps are aiming directly over the second and third toe of your foot, trying to avoid internal rotation. Go as deep as you can support through the legs, keeping the core engaged by drawing the baby in towards your spine, and then engage your glutes (that means your BUM!) on the way back up. Aim for 10 repetitions, gradually increasing reps as you get stronger. And if you want a bigger challenge, you might add in a few arm exercises as you squat – say, anterior deltoid raises or an overhead press.

Starting Position

Starting Position

Squat Position

Squat Position

2)  Use your arms to help you go deeper

Once you have the feeling for the squat, use your arms to hold something in front of you. This more closely mimics the position of squat without assistance – notice that my body is pitched forward a bit more. Meanwhile you want to try to keep your chest lifted, and your shoulders back to maintain the neutral alignment of the spine. In this example, I’ve used my coffee table for support, but that means that as I stand up, I won’t have anything to hold onto. If you notice that you have a hard time balancing, you may want to use something that you can hold throughout the motion. For example, I love doing these while holding onto the TRX suspension trainer, with a very light grip. The lighter the grip, the more you are training your lower body to perform the work. Always remember to fire the glutes as you stand up, and watch your knee-to-toe alignment.

Remember to engage through the upper back, keeping the shoulders from rounding forward!

Remember to engage through the upper back, keeping the shoulders from rounding forward!

3) Use a towel when you are ready to let go

If you need just a little support under those heels in order to hold your squat comfortably, go for it. A rolled-up towel or yoga mat works well. As you descend into your squat position, keep your back long and your chest lifted. When you arrive in the squat, you may put your elbows on the insides of your knees, and gently press into the legs. This will allow your hips to open and spread wider. Not only is this a great exercise for toning the lower body, but this is a great way to begin preparing yourself for labor and delivery. Try holding this position for a few deep, cleansing breaths, and as you exhale, visualize your body opening up from the inside out. When you are ready to stand up, push equally into the toes and the heels, feeling the muscles on both the front and back sides of your legs contract. As you approach vertical, engage the glutes a bit more, and lift up through the abdominals, aiming to bring your pelvis to neutral (though, it probably won’t make it all the way there! A slight anterior tilt to your pelvis is just fine in pregnancy, but try to support it with some muscle strength in the core and bum!).

Aim to hold this position for 2-3 deep breaths with each repetition.

Aim to hold this position for 2-3 deep breaths with each repetition.

Stay tuned for more glute and prenatal exercises to come on my Work It Out page!

Welcome to the Pelvic Floor Revolution

silouhetteAt this point in your pregnancy, I’m sure you’ve heard or read something about Kegels, or the pelvic floor. Maybe this is your first introduction to the world ‘down under’ (there are muscles where!?) or maybe you’ve heard it all before. But I bet you haven’t heard this before: Kegels – long prescribed as the best exercise to tone the pelvic floor – are most likely NOT the be-all, end-all of pelvic floor health. Yep that’s right.

New research is showing that Kegels, when coupled with a weakness in the glutes, may actually contribute to pelvic floor disfunction. Before we get into the hows and whys, let me break down the terminology for all of you who aren’t familiar with the topic.

1) Pelvic Floor – a group of muscles that sit at the bottom of your pelvis like a hammock. Or, if it helps to envision your pelvis as a bucket, the pelvic floor are the muscles that create the bottom of the bucket. They surround the vaginal walls, the perineum, and the anus. When they are working properly, these are the muscles that help you control the flow of urine, prevent you from passing gas, and contribute to the strength of your orgasm. But they are also the muscles that must release in order to give birth. And yes – men have these muscles too – they cause “shrinkage” in cold water, if you know what I mean.

2) Kegels – These are exercises that are done by tightenting your pelvic floor.  Imagine an elevator travelling up inside your pelvis to the 5th floor, all while holding in a fart. That’s basically a Kegel; the point being to continually get stronger and tigher, pulling these muscles in more and more as you progress.

3) Isometric contraction – holding a muscle tight and strong for an extended period of time, not allowing it to change lengths or release. Iso = same, metric = length.

As a Pilates instructor, I’ve talked about the pelvic floor a LOT in the last ten years. It’s not uncommon to hear me musing over the way these muscles work at the dinner table (my dear sweet husband has certainly gotten used to his anatomy-geek wife! He barely bats an eye at this point!). For years I’ve told my clients to keep their pelvic floor muscles engaged, at about 30% contraction, as often as they can….and I said this because this was what I was taught. However, as I learned more about the body, this logic confused me. There is no other muscle in the body for which we prescribe an isometric contraction, all the time. Why would we do that with the pelvic floor?

When I teach anatomy to my future Pilates instructors, we discuss the importance of muscle balance: contractions that both shorten the muscle (concentric) and lengthen it (eccentric), as well as how each mobilizing muscle (agonist) works with an opposing muscle (antagonist) to create harmony of movement. For a joint to move effectively, with optimal efficiency and ease, the muscles on either side of it must take turns contracting and releasing in tandem, creating equal and opposite actions. In an ideal situation, it’s as if the muscles are creating a perfectly balanced tug-of-war; and though the tug-of-war is constantly shifting and moving, it’s always balanced. When a joint is balanced in such a way, we create a sense of stability for the joint at hand – our risk of injury and chronic pain is minimized. Most of the work I do as a Pilates instructor is carefully studying the movement habits of my clients, to see where there is an imbalance, or pathology. Then, I am able to choose exercises that will help them not only correct, but maintain muscular balance in various areas of their bodies over time.

Many new Pilates instructors, mindful of the term “stabilize” (which we use all too often) and lacking an experienced eye, will often confuse stability with rigidity. They hear terms such as “stabilize your pelvis,” and immediately think that holding the pelvis in a certain position (whether it be neutral, or the slight posterior tilt we refer to as a “scoop”) will achieve that goal. However, thinking back to the image of a balanced tug-of war, we realize this is not the case. The body and all of its components are meant to move – a concept that originates in the very cells of the muscle fibers, where a contraction is optimized only when myacin and actin have enough leverage to create traction; in other words, those little grippers inside the muscle that create contraction can only grip well when they have enough length to grab onto. Therefore if we approach stability from the standpoint of isometric contraction (holding still), we are not allowing the muscles to do their job, and in essence, creating inherent weakness. We are intended to be dyanamic, moving bodies, with the ability to react and respond to changing stimuli from outside our bodies. If someone accidentally bumps into you, and you try to stabilize by standing perfectly still, you will fall over. On the other hand if you try to stabilize by letting your body absorb the blow, take a step, and then recover, you probably won’t lose your balance. With these concepts in mind, I’ve tried to teach my clients to adapt their positioning for optimal stability as they move through the exercises.

So, to treat the pelvic floor as if these muscles function differently than every other muscle in the body perplexed me. To teach my clients to hold these muscles in a constant state of contraction when I was teaching something else for every other muscle group felt incorrect, but I couldn’t find any research to inform my instruction differently. The reality was, I just didn’t know any better. And now I do.

So without further delay, let me introduce you to some revolutionary information, presented by biomechanics expert Katy Bowman of Aligned and Well, who explains it better than I ever could. I invite you to read the two articles below and chime in – I’d love to hear your thoughts! If you read no further remember this: to prepare for pregnancy and post-natal rehab, stop Kegeling, and start squatting. Your body with thank you!

http://breakingmuscle.com/womens-fitness/stop-doing-kegels-real-pelvic-floor-advice-women-and-men

http://mamasweat.blogspot.com/2010/05/pelvic-floor-party-kegels-are-not.html