Why we shouldn’t focus on ‘bouncing back’ after a baby
Our media today is obsessed with the ideal of new mothers’ bodies ‘bouncing back’ to their pre-baby shape, strength, stamina and productivity as soon as they’ve given birth, and it places huge pressures on new mums to look a certain way as soon as possible.
I sometimes wonder if this pressure has something to do with our feminist ideals of women being equal to men, and strong, and fearless, and powerful – I might be wrong, but there is a dangerous trend of us celebrating mums who, just because they’ve had a baby, don’t let it stop them getting back into the gym within a matter of weeks, going back to work full time or managing their own business with their baby gleefully bouncing on their laps, having dinner ready for their husbands AND fighting for equal pay in the workplace at the same time.
And as a result, postnatal fitness is a hot topic at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong…
…for me as a postnatal personal trainer it’s great that it is so ‘on trend’, but I’m painfully aware that this is mostly due to it being seen as the quick and easy route for new mums to be seen to be ‘bouncing back’.
But there is no quick and easy route, and we shouldn’t be focused on bouncing BACK, because there is no ‘back’. Your life, your mind, your heart, your body – they’ve all changed for good now this little person has arrived. There is only ‘through’: through the early days of healing, the broken sleep, the tsunami of hormones and the newfound anxiety, through the period of adjustment to being a mother of one (or two or three), through the sometimes turbulent days of changing dynamics within your relationships, and through the changes that your body has gone through.
The changes to the body is where I come in
I truly believe that the stronger we are in ourselves, the stronger we are as mothers.
If we’ve got a sore lower back, or we’re experiencing symptoms of a pelvic floor weakness or a prolapse (like leaking), there’s no denying that our lives are going to be restricted. And sadly these are all examples of what can happen if we try and do too much, too soon.
You might get to the stage after having a baby when everything looks like it’s back to normal, baby might be sleeping better and you might have found your groove in this whole ‘motherhood’ thing and all you want to do is get back to your gym class that you went to every week before you got pregnant, just to feel a bit more ‘you’ again.
But are you ready?
If you’re not, you will only cause yourself long term damage. Now is the time not to push ourselves to breaking point, but to build a strong foundation for the rest of your life. You might not want to think about getting older just yet (none of us do!) but as women, fitness can play a vital role in preparing our bodies to deal with the hormonal changes that occur later, as we approach menopause. If we don’t address the weaknesses that can arise after pregnancy and childbirth, it will be then that these weaknesses start to show, and prolapse is a very real problem in menopausal women who haven’t given a second thought to their pelvic floor health!
So my biggest piece of advice for new mums…
…when it comes to their physical recovery, is to go and see a women’s health physio before you even think about stepping into a gym. Whether you’re symptomatic or not, it allows you to get a better picture of where your body is at in this healing process. I mean, do you really know how well your pelvic floor is firing? Do you know if it’s actually capable of supporting your pelvic organs if you go and try and do a minute’s worth of jumping jacks or burpees? Please don’t find out the hard way. Although sadly, unlike in France, women’s health physio is not available to all new mums on the NHS, you can request a referral if you feel like things aren’t right – and if you’re not getting the answers you need, the best investment you can make would be to go private.
A check up at 12 weeks would be the best place to start before starting any gym programmes (the spontaneous healing process after birth is said to be 8-10 weeks, please, please let your body do what it needs to do!) and then another check at 5-6 months would be advisable before you start throwing yourself into high impact exercises.
My next piece of advice…
…would be to look into a postnatal specific exercise programme, whether that be 1-on-1 with a well qualified trainer (look for someone who’s done advanced training with organisations such as Burrell Education…scarily it’s actually very easy to get the basic postnatal exercise qualification and still not know what the pelvic floor does). This is for anyone, not just those desperate to slim down to get back into their pre-pregnancy jeans, because postnatal fitness should not be based on weight loss.
A good postnatal exercise programme should address:
- Your alignment: your posture will change dramatically during pregnancy, to accommodate your growing body, and to enable it to give birth – your ligaments will loosen and may not get back to pre-pregnancy strength for up to two years after giving birth. By working on the stabilizing muscles around the knees, hips and shoulders though you can help this process and in turn, avoid some of the very common aches and pains that are associated with early motherhood!
- Your breathing: the breath controls so much in the body, it has an effect on your central nervous system, and helps the core function properly. Too often us women suck our tummies in to try and flatten them because society tells us that’s what we need to look like – but our core functions WITH the breath, so if we want to get the core functioning again properly after nine months of stretching and carrying some serious weight, we need to breathe properly, and that means breathing in deeply, letting the tummy relax, and lifting and engaging the pelvic floor as we exhale.
- Your core strength and functioning: the core muscles that matter are not the six pack muscles that we all think of when we consider ‘ab workouts’. The focus should be on the deep core, which includes the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the tranversus abdominus (which wraps around us and acts like an internal corset) and the multifidus (little muscles that run up either side of our spine). And because the core really is the powerhouse of everything we do, learning how to activate these properly will mean you’ll be able to withstand the pressure that is placed on the core in day to day life – think lifting car seats and buggies, we just can’t avoid it – and thus allow it to heal and get stronger day in and day out.
- Functional movement patterns: you need to learn how to put all of the above into practice, so while you’re moving and not just lying on a mat. Your life as a mummy will involve lots of bending down, picking up and carrying (and the rest!), so whatever of what you do in your one hour gym session should be relevant to what you do the other twenty three hours of the day.
We are all too quick in this day and age to dismiss any feelings of vulnerability after having a baby as signs of ‘weakness’, despite the fact that we are awash with hormones, our minds and hearts are being pulled in each and every direction as we adjust to life with a small person by our side, and our bodies have gone through some monumental changes.
But don’t dismiss these feelings, be kind to yourself. You’ve just done an amazing job mamma, of growing and birthing another human being. And your amazingness doesn’t stop with birth. But in order to be able to be the best mamma possible, give your body that little bit of attention, patience and love it needs to allow it to recover in peace, and you’ll be a stronger mother for it.