How to come back from pregnancy and birth and become stronger than before

I truly believe that by safely coming back to exercise after having a baby, you’ll be stronger than you ever were before. Women who have had babies tend to be more focussed, more determined and more respectful of their phenomenal bodies than they were before pregnancy.

In this blog and in part 2, coming soon, I’m outlining the best ways to make the most of your postnatal return to exercise.

1. Respect the fourth trimester.

The first twelve weeks after birth is when your body needs to recover and repair. In these early days most of the information and care mums receive is about the health and wellbeing of the baby, but mums need support too. It’s not a time to be thinking about exercising – certainly not running, getting to the gym or doing a bootcamp. Instead, focus your energy on practices that take your body towards healing.

Great nutrition:

  • drink plenty of water – every cell in your body needs water.
  • Keep your food simple – protein is queen at this stage, because it’s what your body needs to repair. Meats, fish, pulses are all ideal, as are nuts and seeds.
  • Make sure you have protein with every single meal and snack you eat – your body can’t store protein so you need to eat it little and often throughout the day.
  • Although there are clean protein powders out there, they’re not ideal for breastfeeding mums so try to get as much as possible from ‘real food’ sources.

Lots of rest:

  • Try not to worry about ‘getting things done’. Housework will always be there for you (trust me, it keeps on giving. Like, forever.)
  • Without housework, nothing bad will happen. Whereas without sleep, your body can’t make the hormones it needs to do the repair jobs. It’s a good time to take all offers of help from family and friends.

Avoiding stress:

  • Excessive amounts of our stress hormone, cortisol, takes our bodies away from healing. Give yourself permission to walk away from stressful situations if it’s at all possible.

2. Learn that everything takes longer than you think.

Relaxin is the pregnancy hormone that helped your pelvis to open up for labour, and made your joints unstable. It doesn’t disappear when you have given birth, and it’s safe to say that overall, you’re in an altered hormonal state as a new mum. This increases your risk of musculoskeletal complaints like sore joints, with achey knees and wrists being the most common postnatal complaints.

Although stitches heal quickly, connective tissue – ligaments and tendons in particular – take a long time to repair and return to strength. It can take up to two years for your tissues to fully recover from pregnancy and giving birth.

Does this mean you shouldn’t exercise for two years? No, it doesn’t – it means you should be cautious in your exercise progressions, pay attention to how your body responds to exercise.

  • Increase your intensity (weights or speed or distance) gradually.
  • Monitor how you feel in relation to exercise – how does it feel at the time, immediately after, 6 hours after and 24 hours after? Do you have aches, pains, any strange sensations? Are you disproportionately tired? If you feel brilliant straight after, do you still feel brilliant the next day?
  • The right exercise and intensity for you will leave you feeling better, not worse. Learn how to listen to your body, and respond accordingly.

3. Check for diastasis and respect your body

Diastasis recti is a separation of the abdominal muscles which is common after pregnancy. Baby has to grow somewhere! Your rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle which runs from your breastbone to your pelvis) has two long strips, separated by connective tissue, called the linea alba. This tissue stretches to accommodate baby.

For a lot of women, the two strips of muscle will move closer together during the early postnatal period if they have a good healing environment (see the nutrition, stress and rest recommendations above).

Sometimes this doesn’t happen, and a programme of breathing practice, massage, strength building and nutritional improvement can lead to great results. The Holistic Core Restore® Diastasis programme is a great place to start, and you’ll find details of that on this website.

To check your tummy for diastasis, lie on your back on the floor with your feet not the floor. Put one hand behind your head and as you breathe out, lift your head gently off the floor (not a maximum-effort sit up, just a small raise). This will activate your rectus abdominus and enable you to feel it better. Use your fingers to feel for the gap between the muscles 2” above your bellybutton, 1” above, round about your bellybutton and 1” below.

If you find a gap, it’s usually measured in finger-widths. For instance, you might have a three-finger gap 1” above the bellybutton and a two-finger gap 1” below.

It’s also important to consider how much tension meets your fingers when you test. If your core muscles are soft through the gap, it will be more important for you to be cautious with exercise until you have gained some core strength.

4. Forget what you know about core strength exercises

Forget anything you might know about planks, sit-ups, curl-ups, jackknives, roll-outs, leg-lifts or any other of the ‘usual’ gym exercises. These exercises will put too much pressure on your muscles which have been weakened and stretched by pregnancy (yes, even if you exercised!). 

Instead, focus on using your breath to activate your core. Exhale on every exertion, like getting up from sitting to standing, picking up your baby, or lifting the pram out of the car. When you return to exercise, use this principle with every movement or lift – as you work against gravity when you come up out of a squat or a lunge, as you lift a dumbbell or push a weight over your head. 

When you get out of bed, roll onto your side, put your legs over the side of the bed and use your hands to push yourself up to seated. This creates much less pressure through the core. 

Holistic Core Restore® Diastasis is a programme to heal your separated tummy muscles. It uses hands-on soft tissue therapy, nutritional programming, alignment and a 3-phase exercise programme, 100% bespoke to your needs. It doesn’t matter how recently postnatal you are – soft tissue can be healed for many years after changes have been made. 

5. It won’t be this way forever

Aches and pains are common in the postnatal period. You might have niggly backache, knees that seem to hurt, or you might feel that you get out of bed in the morning moving like an old lady.

Some of these symptoms will be related to your changing hormones, depending on where you are in your postnatal journey. Some of these are related to your current activities of daily life. 

What you do on a daily basis as a mum is very different to your daily movement patterns pre-baby:

  • Long feeding sessions lengthen and weaken your upper back
  • Heavy boobs make your chest muscles short and tight and exacerbate weakness in your upper back
  • Pushing a pram or a buggy, especially loaded with shopping or a toddler in addition to a baby, is extremely hard work on your back
  • Kneeling for nappy changes or baths takes its toll on your knees
  • Carrying a heavy car seat and making the bending-twisting-stretching movement to get it safely into the car is extremely challenging
  • Getting a heavy travel system out of the car or up a stair

All of these movement patterns are manageable and your body will adapt to them given the chance. But mums’ movement patterns are always changing as babys’ needs change so quickly in the early years. 

If you’ve got any questions about this, you could book for a Clarity Call. Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog where I’ll be talking about smart exercise choices, running, and your postnatal pelvic floor.

Elspeth Alexandra - Women's Health Coach in Edinburgh

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