This is a sticky issue. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but after several people asked me, “How did you get back in shape so fast after having a baby?” I thought I’d share my thoughts.
First of all, I think it’s insane how much pressure is placed on women to “get back in shape” after having a baby. New mothers feel like a part of their self-worth depends on how quickly they “bounce back” and get their “pre-baby body back.” (Which is a ridiculous idea if you think about it: you had a baby, so your body is forever post-baby! You’re never getting your pre-baby body back, and that’s the whole point!)
The rush to “get back in shape”
How quickly our bodies recover after pregnancy depends on multiple factors (genetic make-up, environmental influences, past injuries, birth-related complications, hormonal fluctuations, etc.), and many of them are not in our immediate control. It’s not so much about doing the right things as much as it is about having patience while supporting your body in helpful ways.
I see a sad trend among new mothers to try to “whip themselves into shape:” women may do very intense exercise regimens that are very cardio-intensive and exhausting but don’t emphasize proper exercise form. As a result, women tend to get injured, which is not what you want when you’re carrying a baby around all day. High-impact exercise can also prevent the pelvic floor from healing properly, causing lingering problems.
What’s more, new mothers are already exhausted due to disrupted sleep, so the body is in a state of stress (lack of sleep is a stressor). High-intensity exercise is another stressor, which can be healthy for the body if the person is getting adequate sleep and recovering properly. But for someone whose sleep is disrupted, intense exercise is hardly a good addition because it adds too much stress to an already stressed system. It may interfere with post-partum recovery, hormonal balance, adrenal health, and milk supply (if the mother is breastfeeding). When a person is in such a state of stress, intense exercise also probably won’t help with fat loss because it will only increase cravings and cause the person to eat more.
In short, new moms don’t need to kill themselves with crazy exercise or super low calories! As you can see, I get very intense about this. I’ve seen too many women try so hard to increase exercise and decrease food, only to find it unsustainable after a few days or weeks. Then, they feel like failures and feel bad about themselves, when in fact the problem lies with the approach and not with them.
What did I do?
This is a description of what worked for me. I think the logic is pretty sound and should be applicable to more people, but always take in account your own individual situation.
The first thing I did is that I took care of myself well before pregnancy. I ate well, mostly whole foods that make me feel good (in my case, that’s vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, some fruit, and some nuts), I exercised regularly (strength training three times a week and some high-intensity interval training once or twice a week), walked as much as possible, and slept well.
Then, I also took care of myself during the pregnancy. I continued eating pretty similarly (except during the first trimester, while took me on a roller coaster ride due to nausea), I still strength trained three times a week and did some lighter cardio according to the Moms Gone Strong program, I walked quite a bit, and slept as well (as much as is possible with a big belly). This allowed me to retain some of my muscle mass, which is helpful with all kinds of things such as avoiding injury and keeping the metabolism active. It also meant that I didn’t gain too much weight, so I didn’t have a lot to lose after the pregnancy.
After the pregnancy, things kind of took their own path. I was focused on taking care of a tiny new human, and I didn’t have much interest in food, which is crazy given that I love food! Fortunately, we had healthy eating habits in place, and Jacob, my husband, cooked all of our food, while I was breastfeeding for hours on end. I lost a lot of water weight quite quickly after the birth (in the first few days or week), and the rest of the weight also came off as my body recovered (probably in the first 3 months).
For the first week post-partum, I was just at home, taking care of the little one and figuring out all this new stuff. After one week, I went out for a 15-minute walk for the first time, and that felt amazing! I didn’t want to overdo it though, so I took my time with building the length of my walks. I think that around 6 weeks post-partum I was doing a 1-hour walk or so but not longer.
I also started doing some very gentle exercises around 2 weeks post-partum (such as glute bridge and clam shell for my glutes and lower back), according to the Moms Gone Strong Program. The goal was to support my body’s recovery and add some light movement that felt good.
At 6 weeks post-partum, I started doing light strength training, again following the above program, and it intensified over time (the program lasted 40 weeks). I found the process super helpful as my body had lost a lot of strength during the pregnancy. I remember being shocked at how weak I felt about 1 week post-partum. I could feel that I had lost a lot of muscle and had many random aches and pains. Fortunately, my body recovered well from the marathon that is labor and birth, allowing me to regain my strength over time. It was great to have a program that guided me through the progressions safely and gradually, and I was amazed at my body’s ability to get strong and enduring again.
I also continued eating in mostly the way I had eaten before (except for some foods I had to avoid due to William’s eczema), so still emphasized vegetables, meat, fish, fruit, and nuts. Some people say that if you’re breastfeeding, you can eat whatever you want, and it’s certainly true that making milk takes lots of calories. I definitely ate more than before, but I still tried to eat quality food most of the time. When I ate food that made me feel good and worked for me, I had more energy, which was a great benefit since my sleep was disrupted and I was tired anyway. I appreciated any improvement I could get in my energy (caffeine was off the table since I was breastfeeding).
With regards to sleep, I tried to sleep as much as possible, which wasn’t ideal but was okay. In the first months, I took afternoon naps together with William. I’m not a big fan of naps though, so once his sleep became a bit more solid, I stopped napping. Instead, I went to bed earlier, which worked well for me.
And that’s kind of it! I feel like the main thing I did was to support my body and allow it to recover. At times when I wished my belly were flatter, I reminded myself that it would take time and the best I could do was to continue with my strength training and gradually get myself stronger instead of trying to change my body overnight.
I know that not everyone’s story is so straightforward, and some women will need more support than others. In particular, hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be real issues during the post-partum period as well as autoimmune illnesses. If that’s your case, then I hope you’re getting help for yourself! As new mothers, we’re often focused on our babies, but we need to pay attention and take care of ourselves as well.
I also want to offer others hope by saying that my labor wasn’t a piece of cake (it lasted for 34 hours, and it was tough!), but my recovery was still good. So even if you face challenges and difficulties, your body may still be able to recover well. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to support our bodies and work with them instead of trying to go against them and overpower them. Because the latter just doesn’t work.