It was the day after giving birth to my son. I was still in hospital. I left him sleeping in the bassinet next to my bed as I went to the bathroom. I lifted my shirt and stared at my stomach. It was bloated and swollen. I looked at it from each angle. Ran my fingers over the stretch marks. Cupped my enormous breasts in disbelief. I looked like I was still pregnant. I was already trying to think of an action plan in my head to lose the ‘baby weight’. My son was not even 24 hours old.
Fast forward twelve weeks of waiting for the all clear from my doctor, and I was back to bootcamp. I was looking forward to getting back into shape after impatiently giving my body time to heal after giving birth. I cautiously did some lunges. A little sore but okay. Lifted some light weights. Still okay. Did a squat jump. Woosh. Ohno. I officially peed myself. How awkward. That had never happened before. Thank god for black tights and using my baby as the excuse to make a hasty retreat.
I had just spent twelve weeks trying to eat a healthy and balanced diet while breastfeeding around the clock and walking the baby to sleep for three hours a day. I was focussing so much on losing weight, that I forgot about what really mattered. That is strengthening my body and pelvic floor and abdominal muscles after being pregnant and giving birth. Nothing like peeing yourself to bring the realities of my post baby body to light.
It is no secret that pregnancy puts an enormous strain on our bodies. And as our babies are born, get bigger and go through sleep regressions and start walking, we spend so much of our time bent over, getting up and down off the floor, rocking back and forth and literally chasing our kids across playgrounds. These are all extremely physical activities that puts a repetitive strain on our bodies day in and day out. I may not be running a marathon, but my hips and back sure feel like it. I creak like an old woman of eighty.
By focussing on getting stronger after a baby, and not just losing the ‘baby weight’, our overall mental health and quality of life will be greatly improved. Unfortunately, women are often pre dispositioned to think that only being thin matters, and there is such an enormous pressure to ‘bounce back’ the moment our babies come screaming into the world.
Because I am definitely not a fitness or health expert, (more a netflix and walking with the pram expert), I chatted with two incredible women who are both experts in the field of health and fitness, to talk about our post baby bodies and why the focus needs to be on getting stronger and not losing weight.
Briony is a physiotherapist and owner of Be in Blossom, a Pilates studio in Brisbane that is run specifically for pregnant and new Mums. Kari is a qualified personal trainer with over ten years experience and owner of The Mvmt Studio in Melbourne. I have personally trained with both of these women and they have changed my life for the better.
When asked about what the biggest change is to our bodies after having a baby, Briony says:
“While every woman has a unique pre-baby body, pregnancy and birth experience, overall, I would say the biggest change is in posture and body awareness. When we hold a newborn, we tend to drop our hips forward, lean our trunk back and round our shoulder forward to support our babies while they are still to develop head control. We have less abdominal support and are sleep deprived, so that combination makes us fatigue quickly, being less capable of sustaining a more upright body. It is easier to “hang” into our hips with a sway back and laxed abdominals”.
Briony then goes onto say that common problems women often experience are weakness or relaxed pelvic floor muscles, weak buttock muscles, a more rigid rib cage, reduced movement control or balance.
This all sounds extremely familiar to me. I cannot tell you how many times after laying my son in his cot that I could barely stand back up again. I went from having quite minimal physical problems, to constantly complaining of a sore back and hips.
While recovery after giving birth is always going to be unique to each individual (some women may have had a traumatic or difficult birth resulting in a c section, perineal tear or ongoing prolapse symptoms) there is still a common focus that health and fitness professionals want women to do to strengthen our post baby bodies. As a physiotherapist, Briony says she likes to spend time in her classes correcting posture and learning to connect breathing with pelvic and deep abdominal muscles.
An exercise that Briony likes women to do during class, is put their hands on their body to reconnect with it again. To really feel where the muscles are being activated so we can correct muscle imbalances and strengthen our buttock and pelvic floor. All of this is great preparation for our new lives as Mums, where we do a lot of squatting, lifting and getting up and down from the floor.
While Briony agrees that it is difficult for women to not focus on losing their baby weight, as it is all over social media, she would love women to value function over aesthetic and to see the importance of having a body that is strong enough, nimble enough and fuelled enough to do the things we love to do for ourselves and for our families.
As a personal trainer and expert in both pre and post natal training, Kari says she has many Mums coming to her after having a baby just wanting to fit back into their pre baby jeans. But similarly to Briony, she believes that women need to stop the pressure to look a certain way after giving birth, and instead wants women to focus on getting stronger by activating pelvic floor and glutes, having a strong posture and getting their body ready for when the baby grows in toddlerhood but still wants to be picked up.
Before I became pregnant I made it my mission to get in the best shape possible. Having a very strained relationship with my body, I was terrified of gaining weight. What I see in the mirror, and what my body actually looks like, are two very different things. I trained with Kari five days a week, where we focussed on strengthening and lengthening my body in areas that needed to support the growing baby. This included glutes, pelvic floor and upper and mid back. But as the reality of my post pregnancy body hit me, I put pressure on myself to just instantly drop the kilos. I did not like my ‘Mummy tummy’. It has taken a lot of soul searching to come to the realisation that having a restrictive diet to lose weight is just ridiculous, considering I am a busy and breastfeeding Mum, and no amount of kale and spinach smoothies will fix my bad back and weak pelvic floor.
While I still worry that my obsession with having a flat stomach will always plague me, if being the mother of a rambunctious and extremely fast moving toddler has taught me anything (and my episode of peeing during squat jumps!), it is that it doesn’t matter if I lose another few kilos, it matters that I am strong enough and capable enough to tackle the physicalities of motherhood. And this is ongoing as well, not just the first few months after giving birth. I now strive to eat a healthy and fulfilling balanced diet and participate in exercise that makes me happy, stronger and takes into consideration my post baby body changes.
What is another benefit to shifting our focus from losing weight to getting stronger? The mental health benefits are enormous! Learning to accept the changes in our body is hard enough, without the added pressure of bouncing back before we are physically or mentally ready. To feel strong, capable and supported by other women would go a long way in improving our general wellbeing. Kari says that she wants women to use exercise after a baby to become part of a community in a space to talk to other women, as well as creating ‘me time’ to focus on ourselves and being a happier and healthier Mum. How wonderful does that sound? So much nicer than pounding it out at the gym and crying over pictures of Kim Kardashian and reading the caption ‘How I got my body back in nine days’ or something equally as ridiculous.
So ladies, let us focus our energies going forward, not obsessing about losing weight, but being happier, healthier and stronger Mums. Mums who look damn fine in our sexy Mum jeans with our messy bums, curvy bellies and massive smiles. After all, we are all Super Mums, some of us just need a bit more of a reminder than others.
If you are interested to read more about how to strengthen your pelvic floor after giving birth, please read the article Your Post Baby Pelvic Floor: A Wee Problem and How To Fix It. It is written by Bettina Rae, who is a yoga teacher and counsellor who specialises in fertility, pregnancy and early motherhood. Now she is sharing with us the ins and outs of strengthening our pelvic floor muscles.
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