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.
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.
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.
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.
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.