Wow! This little person has arrived full of tiny fingers, cute little toes and a gummy smile. Life is amazing, incredible and you’re in awe. You no longer have a baby inside of you so you thought your tummy would be flat hours after birth, right? Nope! How about in a week? Uh huh.
The reality, is that there is a space where the baby was and your womb is still needing to contract back to the size of a pear and right now it’s an empty watermelon. Your pelvic floor needs time to heal and any stitches or injuries from birth need time to repair.
You may have even been awake for days during labour, so you are desperate for rest BUT this little angel wants milk desperately and you are just trying to get your head around how this works. It’s not as easy as the pictures look and it isn’t as pretty as the movies! Sound familiar?
Welcome to the world of motherhood, it’s breathtaking, trying, exhausting and inspiring.
Benefits of physical exercise
I understand the last thing you probably feel like is exercise but actually movement is the BEST thing, and after having my two babies I can vouch for this – physical activity helps. Like the survival situation in an aeroplane – about putting your oxygen masks on first before helping another – the same applies to a new mum. For you to be able to look after another little person well, you need to be able to look after yourself. A healthy mama means a healthy happy bubba!
Physical activity will help you be the best mama you can be. Here are some of the many perks of exercising after having a baby;
- A faster rate of healing and recovery
- Improved mood and sense of wellbeing (endorphins to combat some of the hormonal blues that can come post-natally)
- Energy and stamina (to pace the hallway night after night with a restless bub)
- Improved sex life down the track (yes please!)
- Improved flexibility, tone and strength (essential for carrying a quickly growing baby)
- Healthy posture (looking after your lower back)
- Helps you return to your pre-pregnancy weight
Doing a bit of exercise helped give me the drive to get up each morning and cope well with the growing demands of my babies.
But approach is everything, so remember to A.S.K…
A is for Approach
First things first: before you start any exercise you must have medical clearance.
That means consulting your doctor or midwife before you begin any postnatal exercise program. Exercise readiness depends on individual factors. For instance, if you have had a caesarean section or venteuse delivery, you may be advised to wait until after your six-week postnatal check-up. In other cases, especially if you were exercising regularly throughout your pregnancy, you may be able to return to exercise sooner than that – perhaps within the first month. But whenever you start, you must start gently. Why? Because the pregnancy hormone relaxin is still at work in your body for up to three months afterward (think of yourself being in the fourth trimester) so your body’s systems are still soft and fragile.
That woman you may have seen on Instagram flaunting a six pack and holding her two-week old baby is not a healthy role model, and unlikely real. And what is concerning, is that she may not even know the risks. Knowledge is empowering, especially when rebuilding your body, and a few months taking the right and safe approach can save you years of agony. Understanding what your body has gone through, means you have realistic expectations of what can be achieved, and by when. If you start slowly and carefully, you will get there, in one stronger-better-piece.
As a woman, you can be proud of your body, it is incredible what it can do and recover from. But for this wonderful body and ‘house of life’ to keep serving you well, it is important to get the foundation right. We build our homes on concrete for a reason, so before you go sprinting around the block, lifting any big weights or even picking up that curious and attention-seeking 15kg toddler, pause! Spend some time getting that trunk strong, and the benefits will last throughout your lifetime. Getting your abdominal strength back means, better posture and things like lifting your baby in and out of the car become easier.
Exercises all mums should avoid:
(up to three months or more postnatally*)
- sit ups
- full planks
- heavy weight lifting
- any high impact activity: aerobics, running, jumping or jogging
Why avoid these? Because doing these could put you at risk of abdominal hernia, lower back injury, urinal or faecal incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse – some things you seriously do not want to risk.
An important safety alert is to check for diastasis recti. This is a separation of the muscles in the abdominal wall, which means if you show symptoms, you may need to take extra precautions during exercise.
*Diastasis can be identified by lying on your back, tucking your chin into chest and lifting your shoulder blades of the ground like the first part of a sit-up. Place two fingers in your belly button and palpate your stomach in the centre working upward. You should feel a small ditch or gap between the Rectus “six-pack” muscles. If you can fit 2 or more finger widths down the midline, you may have a diastasis that has not yet recovered and you must consult a medical practitioner or physiotherapist before undertaking any exercise other than walking.
Exercises that are safe to start:
(with medical clearance or from 6 weeks)
- Light walking (start with 5 minutes)
- Aqua aerobics
- Prescribed corrective core exercises
- Light weight training e.g. just body weight
Start with my top two exercises postnatally:
1 | Pelvic Raise
To perform this, lie flat on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet approximately hip width apart. As you breathe out slowly draw in the belly button and imagine you are zipping up your internal organs from your pubic bone to your rib cage. To get the movement right you can imagine trying to lift your vagina or that you are trying to hold back urine or wind. Peel each vertebrae off the ground from your tailbone to your mid back then roll down in reverse – mid back to bottom. Aim to do 8-10 slow and controlled repetitions start with two sets and build up to three and try to do this most days.
2 | Towel Neck Lift
To perform this, lie flat on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet approximately hip width apart on the floor. Roll up a towel and have it around your knees pulled tight with a hand grasping each end. Inhale and let your belly expand sideways full of air. As you exhale slowly pull in the belly button and imagine you are zipping up your internal organs and activate your pelvic floor as in exercise (1.) whilst gently lifting your head up slightly but keeping your shoulder blades on the ground. Hold for 2 seconds and then repeat. When you perform the right kind of exercise – the good stuff- you are setting yourself up for success and avoiding further injury.
S is for Some
Some exercise is better than none
Even just 5-10 mins a day can make a difference. So, buy a notebook and note down your activity. According to the New Zealand Heart Foundation, 150 minutes each week is good for the body and it can be spread out during the week, and better still, broken up into smaller chunks of active time during the day. Fit it in around your baby’s schedule – when they are having mat time, lie alongside them for some core exercise (the pelvic raise and towel neck lift). If the weather is nice, bundle them up in the pram and get out the door for a walk. Get your partner or friends on board with you as you schedule your exercise in the weekly planner.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if your exercise plans go awry. Let’s say you have started doing some core exercises in your living room and your baby wakes up and needs you so you don’t finish as planned. Just write down what you did and pick up where you left off next time. Flexible schedules is important so throw the ‘all or nothing approach’ out the window and understand that any time you spend exercising is valuable.
Not only does it improve circulation and healing but it strengthens the muscles (like the pelvic floor, tummy and lower back), and makes us look and feel better. We gain more stability, and more control over our bodies, and core training undoes some of the changes that have happened over the last ten months. Exercise increases libido and a stronger pelvic floor means better sexual function which will help your relationships too. Multitasking takes on a new meaning; pelvic floor exercises can be done while you’re in the car or washing dishes. I used to practice half depth squats whilst holding my colicky first-born who wouldn’t let me put her down. Just do the best you can, and remember – you will get more time to yourself as your baby settles into a more predictable routine.
K is for Kindness
Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself means understanding that having a new baby is one of the most exciting, precious and challenging times of your life. It also means allowing yourself space to rest, heal, eat well (not diet) and focus on your baby. Good things take time, like growing your baby. It took your body ten whole months – forty weeks to grow and house this delightful addition to your family. So, allowing yourself ten months to not just ‘get back into shape’ but recuperate, strengthen and tighten what has loosened up in your body over that time and completely heal from any injuries (or complications) that may have occurred during delivery is sensible.
Sleep as much as you can especially in the first six weeks. Even if you feel you should be ‘up for visitors’ it’s ok to say no and nap instead. Listen to your body, and if you’re feeling tired, go easy on yourself.
Let the house be a little messy, prioritize ‘me-time’ over chores, whether it’s going for a short walk or doing one exercise from our core programme – even if it means you are unshowered yet or doing them in your pijamas. And when you do housework count ‘house cleaning’ as physical activity.
Say yes to help! Let your partner be involved in all aspects and share the household duties. If friends offer to cook you dinner or family members to babysit – take them up on it and use that time for a walk, a spin class or a nap – whatever is most needed right then. Use your village people – we are all in this together and it takes a community to raise a child. Coffee groups are great too, so perhaps you could suggest putting together a ‘Buggie group’ where you and mums from your antenatal group meet up over a walk in the park rather than coffee and cake at home.
Most importantly exercise should not hurt. If you experience pain or any other unexplained symptoms when doing an exercise stop the exercise immediately and go consult your doctor for a diagnosis. Being kind to yourself means getting the help you need; if something is wrong or unusual ‘down there’ or you experience a pain or discomfort that you are unsure of; you must go to the medical experts and get the correct treatment.
Be realistic about how much you do and give yourself a pat on the back for whatever you accomplish. Furthermore, if you are feeling down and struggling to find anything to look forward to, it is more than okay to seek support from a councillor, friends, family or even online communities. Hormones during and after pregnancy can really affect the mind and change the chemical balances in your brain. A lot of women can find themselves depressed postnatally and there is help, so talk to your doctor or midwife about the options, or read what our resident psychologist Natalie has to say.
Say no to calorie counting. Whether you choose to breastfeed or not, adequate nutrition is so important in this post-natal period. You need to drink plenty of water. The hormones in your body postnatally, in conjunction with healthy food and the right kind of exercise can help you to lose weight. So say yes to safe exercise, nourishing food, being well-hydrated and applauding your efforts. If you are reading this, chances are you are already off to a great start!