The first weeks of being a mum are an emotional and physical rollercoaster.
The mental shift required is enormous and can take us a good long time to get used to. How on earth do you adjust to no longer being one person, but having your future intrinsically linked to the life of another human?
For the mental shift, I wrote this blog which outlines some options for how to think about your postnatal body. https://edinburghwomensfitness.co.uk/5-best-mantras-for-new-mums
For the physical changes, it’s useful to think about the fourth trimester – the twelve weeks after birth. It’s a wonderful concept that I wish I’d heard of when I had babies. It’s an opportunity to adjust to life with your baby and get to know her or him; to let your partner catch up on their new role; and to recover, recover, recover.
The first twelve weeks after giving birth are a really useful ‘healing window’ to focus on rebuilding yourself. Plenty of cultures have a 40-day confinement period where you are looked after with special rituals, massages and nourishment.
The purpose of this blog isn’t to tell you to get back to the gym. But what if you’re itching to move? What if who you consider yourself to be includes being someone who exercises for fun, for mental clarity, for joy?
Can you focus on the bedrocks of your comeback?
You are depleted. That’s not a criticism, that’s an unavoidable fact of life.
All the vitamins, the supplements, the taking good care of yourself for 40 weeks, that’s not been to benefit YOU – it’s built you a baby. It WILL take time for your body to get back to full health. If you find yourself tired, run down, catching lurgies: this is often because of postnatal depletion.
Every athlete needs strong foundations, so make these your focus.
Drink lots of water. Hydration is a cornerstone of recovery because every single cell in your body needs water to work properly.
Your nutrition is critical to your recovery. Like, it’s the biggest single thing you can do to make sure you’re ready to make your fitness comeback. You can’t rebuild your body without the right building blocks. Eat really well. Get protein at every single meal and snack, loads of veggies, plenty of essential fatty acids.
Prioritise your sleep. It’s an evil quirk of nature, that at the key time you need a tonne of sleep you’re not allowed to have that much of it at all. But do whatever you can to get more.
Avoid constipation. At all costs. Downwards pressure on an already weakened pelvic floor is not good. When you start to lift things, you need your pelvic floor to be in good shape! Elevate your feet when you poo so that your knees are above your hips. Drink lots of water. Eat lots of fibre.
Ten-minute movement programme
Ten minutes might be all the time you can carve out between feeds, naps and all the other new caring activities, so I’ve designed something that you can do. As with all exercise programmes, if these movements don’t feel right, or if they cause you any pain or breathlessness, stop. ‘Not today’ doesn’t mean ‘not ever’.
- Breathing exercises Your tummy muscles are muscles of respiration. Bring them back online by letting them do this most basic of tasks before you ask them to do anything else. Deep belly breathing, which also moves your ribs and your back – imagine you’re expanding like a balloon.
- Exhale and lift your pelvic floor. You can start these whenever your pelvic floor feels ready and when doing them causes no pain. Add a palm press if you like. Make sure you fully relax your pelvic floor between repetitions – we’ve adding movement, not necessarily building strength. Many women have overactive, tight pelvic floors after giving birth.
- Pass-throughs. Use a stick, a pair of leggings or a resistance band. Holding it in a wide grip and keeping your elbows and wrists straight, pass it overhead to touch your hips, then bring it back.
- Self-massage on upper back. Sandwich a massage ball or a dog ball between your upper back and the wall and do what feels good.
- Quad stretch: gently draw your heel to your bottom, taking care not to arch your lower back. You can use a strap if you can’t reach.
- Hip flexor stretch. In a ‘proposal’ high kneeling position, tuck your pelvis under (or squeeze your butt) to find a stretch in the front of your hip. Gently move your weight forward and back to ease in and out of the intensity of the stretch.
- Leaning stop and wave. With one hand on a stable chair or wall or table, lean forward. Let your hips move from side to side and allow your other arm to swing from overhead to under the static arm.
- Exhale on the exertion sit to stand. This is our entry level squat! Sit on the edge of a firm chair. As you exhale, push your heels into the floor and stand up. Inhale to sit down again. Use as much momentum or ‘swing’ as you need to – reducing the swing will make it harder.
- Exhale on exertion wall press up. Put your hands on a wall at chest height and step back so your arms are straight and you’re leaning on the wall. Inhale and bend your elbows so that you drop gently forward to the wall. As you exhale, straighten your arms again keeping your ribs low and your pelvis tucked under your ribcage.
Walk your way back
Truly, walking is the best way get moving postnatally.
Build your walking gradually. Begin with short walks on a flat route. If it hurts, or you feel like the world is falling out of your bottom, you’ve done too much. Put your feet up (literally – lie on your back with your feet on the sofa) and add no more than 5 minutes a day to your walking.
Your feet have been through a lot as your body has changed. If you find they ache after walks, it’s not surprising. I am a big fan of a foot spa (or even a bucket of water) to soak them in!) and a massage ball under your feet.
When you can comfortably walk for half an hour, you might like to add speed play or hill play. Interval walking is really good – every 60 seconds, pick up your pace slightly for 20 seconds.
You should still be able to breathe easily, just feel a little bit more challenged. Progress to a higher intensity as the weeks go on – you might want to add hills.
Mix your grip on the pram handles (one palm facing down, the other facing up, and switch hands regularly).
Lift your heart, drop your shoulders, push off with your feet and feel your butt working, especially if there’s an uphill stretch.
The next steps
When you get your six-week check at the GP (assuming you have such a thing at your practice), ask if they are happy for you to gradually resume exercise. After that, start on a postnatal return to exercise programme that gradually builds you up. My Mighty Mums sessions are ideal for this (I’m a specialist and I designed the course for exactly this purpose!)
If you have any concerns about your postnatal body that your GP can’t or won’t help with, or if you’d like to have a bit more attention paid to your body than your GP is capable of giving, contact your local Women’s Health Physiotherapist. Many offer a specific postnatal check-up, looking at your top-to-toe health after pregnancy, labour and the postnatal period.
Enjoy your fourth trimester. Exercise will always be there for you, please don’t rush to get back to it until you feel ready.