10 Surprising Facts About "Bouncing Back" After Giving Birth

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

In a slightly ironic but brilliant turn, Janice Min, new mom and editor of US WEEKLY, recently ripped into the pressure on new moms to be super-humanly slim and sexy soon after giving birth:

“One of our greatest virtues as humans is our desire to constantly improve. But in the same way that women can have it all, the notion that instantly stick-thin figures after birth are normal is untrue. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived nights, I ponder our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom we’ve created and wonder how to undo her. Even just a little bit.”

Her plea for a more sane approach to our postpartum physiques — published in the New York Times last weekend — sent out waves of cheers and hoots though the mom-o-sphere. But it left many expectant moms asking, if all the celebrity stuff is whack, what should we expect of our new mom bodies? Doctors seem as interested in pregnant women keeping weight down as the celebrity magazines are. New moms are advised to work-out and breastfeed (it burns calories!). But we’re also told to take it easy and eat more. Part of the reason it’s confusing is because everyone is different. But part of the problem is that we’ve lost touch with what it means to have a baby. Hey, the CEO of Yahoo is going to dash on back into work within weeks. There’s definitely no paid maternity leave in the U.S. and sometimes no unpaid maternity leave. The culture acts like once the baby is out, it’s all over and you should be back … in your office, in your jeans, etc.

I work with new moms all the time and can plainly see that making a baby is NOT DONE when that sucker comes out. You are still very much in it — physically, emotionally, chemically — for weeks (at least) after the birth. If we want to send Frankenmom packing, we need to have a better understanding of all that we’re doing. Then we’d be more likely to A.) feel damn good about our accomplishments and B.) stop obsessing over erasing all signs of them.

So now, on a more practical note, here’s a super realistic guide to what you can expect from your body in the weeks and months after giving birth, covering everything from whether breastfeeding really does make you lose weight to why doing lots of crunches is actually a bad idea.

After giving birth, it’s normal to look … pregnant.

No matter what body type you have, right after the birth there’s still a sizable bump. During pregnancy flesh and organs and skin have all adjusted or moved to accommodate the baby. The uterus has to “involute” or shrink back to a very, small non-pregnant size, organs need to find there place in a newly uninhabited torso and stomach muscles need time to drift back together. This can take about 4-8 weeks or more, depending.

Some moms seem to re-configure faster and there are countless factors explaining this from genetics, age and body type to number of babies mom has had. “Working out” vigorously won’t speed this part of the process up, nor is it advisable for most women this early on.

Post-pregnancy weight loss varies tremendously.

All women can expect to lose about 10-12 pounds (baby, placenta, fluids, etc) right after giving birth and then continue to see weight loss in the first week– several pounds or more– mostly from losing extra fluids accumulated during pregnancy. After that, weight loss rates are all over the map.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that after 6 weeks, a pound a week loss with a healthy diet and some exercise is realistic. Many experts say give yourself 9-12 months to get to pre-pregnancy weight. Some women lose weight much faster than this and are surprised. Others don’t. There are many factors: pre-pregnancy weight, pregnancy weight gain, activity levels, genetics, amount of breastfeeding, difficulty of birth, temperament of newborn, quantity of sleep, amount of support, how your body/brain responds to stress and whether you had a c-section.

When you look at this list you can clearly see weight loss involves a lot more than an individual mom’s motivation (or laziness). When evaluating where you are, look only at your situation, respect all that you and your body are doing right now and give yourself the time you need whether it’s weeks, months or more. Unrealistic expectations can make you feel like a failure and give up on even trying to stay fit. Realistic expectations can require patience but, in the end, this way of thinking will make it possible to reach goals and maybe feel better about yourself along the way.

Not every woman loses weight breastfeeding

“The pounds fly off while breastfeeding!” “I didn’t lose weight until I weaned.” You’ll hear both these stories. And they are both true. About half of women find they lose lots of weight nursing, even without much effort. According to Florence Williams, author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History women who tend to gain their weight in the tummy are more likely to notice breastfeeding-related weight loss than those who gain in the hips and thighs. All women burn calories breastfeeding, it’s just that some women see weight loss others don’t until weaning.

This is actually a time to eat more, not less.

The hoo-ha over “momshells” and Jessica Simpson’s weight loss deal can make it seem like all you’re supposed to do after giving birth is diet, diet, diet. But generally speaking this is not a time for dieting, but eating well, often and staying hydrated. The general recommendation is that new moms eat about 500 extra calories a day to help fuel breastfeeding (this means about 2000, to 2500 calories a day, depending). Most moms who breastfeed find they have a terrific appetite. It’s not recommended that a new mom “diet” until at least 8 weeks. But if a mom’s intake is 3500 calories a day, then 2500 calories a day sure would feel like a “diet” to her. Likewise, if a mom is used to eating 1,500 calories a day she may find she is suddenly ravenous for larger meals. It’s all relative but one of the best things about breastfeeding is the robust appetite (“I feel like a 13 year-old boy, I can just eat and eat!”) so enjoy real, good food in a variety of flavors — studies show that babies exposed to milk of mom’s who are eating diverse ingredients while breastfeeding have a more open mind to different foods later on in life!

Hitting the gym “right away” is not always a good idea.

ACOG states that if you’ve been working out all along — pre- and during pregnancy — you can continue postpartum. But even gym-loving new moms need about a month before genuinely “working out.” Most women do well to start slow and focus on being active. Other factors as to the timing of working out include how the birth went — if you have a c-section the recommendation from ACOG is to wait until at least 6-8 weeks before exercising — and whether this is your first baby. Second-time moms with more straightforward vaginal births can be up and moving much faster than first time moms.

Your core is weaker, so take caution with the crunches

It may seem like crunches are a great idea for targeting post-pregnancy girth, but not so fast. Many women (a third of first time moms, and many more second time moms) find they have a gap between their stomach muscles after pregnancy. Lie your back, press down near your belly button and lift your head slightly: can you feel a space that’s more than a couple finger widths wide between your stomach muscles? That’s called diastasis recti — separation of stomach muscles. The muscles almost always drift back together in time — maybe in 8 weeks or more, depending. Crunches can actually disrupt this process and cause the muscles to remain separated so avoid them and other ab exercises that require you to pike your body. Instead, you can focus on cardio activities, pelvic tilts, kegels or other postnatal exercises to help with your core.

Exercise is great but making it happen can require some creativity on your part.

Beyonce and Gwyneth didn’t just have nannies to help but all manner of other paid support to enable sleep, healthy eating, exercise, stress-reduction and a smooth recovery (personal massage therapists at home, etc). Most of us are struggling to fit in a shower, let alone a 1.5 hour yoga class.There are lots of things you can do that are healthy and may not require hours of childcare. You can take the baby for long walks. Rocking your newborn can be a genuine workout — focus on your positioning when you’re carrying the baby to make the most of it. Swimming is divine if you can find a place to do it. Postnatal yoga can be incredibly beneficial either in a studio or via DVD or the internet. In fact, there are tons of Internet workouts designed for new moms. Pelvic floor exercises are proven helpful for all manner of problems and can be done anywhere, anytime. And if you’re exhausted from a bad night’s sleep, focus on getting a nap! Sleep-deprivation can make us crave lousy foods that, ironically, cause us to crash even more.

Posture takes a hit … but you can work on that.

Being pregnant, nursing and carrying a baby in your arms, brings a lot of attention and focus to the front of your body such that your back and shoulders can start to curve around this new and substantial center. This can lead to slouchy posture, back ache and a weak core. When you’re nursing/feeding, sit upright with pillows wedged against your lower back for support. When you’re carrying the baby in a harness make sure it has some lower back support. Bend from the knees when you pick up your baby. And generally think about throwing your shoulders back from time to time to avoid the new mom slump or take a yoga class whenever you can to help bring attention to these areas. Posture is a part of fitness and something you can be aware of all the time — it’s not just something you work on “at the gym.”

Women crave foods while breastfeeding, just like during pregnancy.

In new moms groups I lead, I hear all kinds of cravings: milk, cheese, more milk, raison bran, fruit and lots of milk … many find they drink a lot of tea and other beverages as breastfeeding makes you feel thirsty all the time. It would make sense that milk-making moms crave protein and calcium and fluids, so enjoy these cravings. Generally your body will tell you what it needs so don’t be afraid to listen to it. If you find you want ice-cream all the time you can always substitute a low-sugar yogurt or low-fat smoothie. But occasionally you get a scrambled message: if you find you want sugary carbs all the time, it could be sleep-deprivation. These foods may give you a hit of energy but ultimately they will contribute to a larger crash. Go for whole grains and no-sugar instead.

You don’t have your post-baby body until you’re … post baby.

For the first several months you are still very much physically involved in the process of ‘having a baby.’ You have neither a pre-pregnant nor post-baby body yet. You are still doing substantial work — your uterus is involuting, your hormones are shifting to accommodate breastfeeding, you’re sweating out extra fluids form pregnancy and fluids given during labor, your organs are shifting … Sometimes we are given the impression that post-baby bodies are to be realistically obtained before you are, indeed, post-baby.

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