After my daughter was born, I changed the way I lived my life; almost everything I did was for her. I saw any time for myself as being a wasted chance of spending time with her, teaching her, nurturing her, loving her. She was colicky and settled best in my arms, and so I felt guilty leaving her. The guilt only got worse when I returned to work.
This had a definite impact on my health. The pre-pregnancy runs that I did four to six times a week dropped to one or two brief runs a week. Strength training was non-existent, and my diet was whatever was quickest (granola bars were a staple). But thanks to good genes, breastfeeding and a whole lot of luck, I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight by six months postpartum, and 7 pounds under by eight months. I bragged about how I lost the weight without even trying and was in denial about the muscle I had lost in the process. I was skinny-fat.
After my second baby was born, I was anxious to lose the weight. Since I had lost the weight without trying the last time, I figured I could lose it even faster with a little added exercise. At just under five weeks postpartum, I made the mistake of going for a run before my body was ready. I was horrified to learn that I had no control of my bladder. I was running to the bathroom several times a day to avoid an accident and kicking myself for my poor pelvic and core strength. Now I know that Kegels and core exercises before and during pregnancy may or may not have saved me from this fate, but at the time I felt like it was my fault.
At eight weeks postpartum, I decided to try a form of HIIT called Tabata — quick, intense sessions that come with the promise of burning more calories throughout the day. After my first round, my complete lack of endurance and strength were all too evident. I had to switch to push-ups with my knees down even though I used to be able to do 50 regular push-ups in a row. Bicycle crunches were impossible. I was once again angry with myself for my poor physical ability. However, this only made me more determined.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I have to take care of me, and that doesn’t mean I am ignoring my baby. If you are looking to feel better about your own health, keep in mind that making your health a priority doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Here are four areas where I made an effort to make sure my health was as good as it could be.
Both pregnancy and breastfeeding can affect your bone health. And if you’re breastfeeding, you will have a lower estrogen level, which compounds the problem and leads to decreased bone mass — generally between 3 to 5 per cent. The good news is that this decreased bone mass is typically restored within a few months after breastfeeding ends. Make sure your calcium intake is adequate by upping your intake of low-fat dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli), salmon and almonds. I start my morning with plain Greek yogurt every day, eat salmon at least once a week and have increased my intake of vegetables.
I’ve now learned to stock my fridge with healthy snacks full of protein to satisfy me longer. My favourites are roasted chickpeas and “energy bites” made with peanut butter, oats and whatever else I feel like adding.
In the first few days following delivery, you may develop an insatiable thirst followed by swollen ankles. This is your body’s way of sorting out your fluid balance to re-coup the fluids lost as well as aid in milk production. Some women — myself included — experience an unquenchable thirst with every milk letdown. The bottom line is, listen to your body. I find it useful to always have a glass of water next to me when I sit down to feed. I increase my fluids after I work out and have a glass next to me at bedtime.
Core and pelvic floor strength
At six weeks postpartum, I was shocked to find that I still couldn’t sit up on my own — a much slower recovery than my first and likely due to no core strength training after. However, you may find your core strength difficult to restore due to a condition known as diastasis recti, or ab separation. Make sure to speak with your health care provider at your six-week postpartum visit to be checked for this condition, as physiotherapy may be indicated. They will teach you which exercises to do and which ones to avoid.
If there is one thing you are going to do after having your baby, Kegels should be it. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, and repeat 10 times. Do this at least three times a day. It is best done lying on your back. If incontinence is still occurring or you suspect pelvic floor prolapse (vaginal bulge, pain during intercourse, incontinence or inability to fully empty either your bladder or bowels), check for a pelvic floor physiotherapist in your area. (Yes! There are physiotherapists for that too!)
New moms are mostly focused on losing weight, but what about just feeling better? Before you start exercising, wait until you’ve gotten the all-clear from your physician or midwife, usually around six weeks. Start off slowly, and seek professional assistance if you’re new to avoid injury. Strength training will aid in weight loss long term, as muscle burns more fat. Don’t just focus on the scale initially, as it sometimes goes up before it goes down. Focus on how your clothes fit, and take measurements if you like.
Aim for short strength-training sessions three times a week, and slowly add in cardio three to five times a week. Some of your cardio sessions can be as simple as a stroller walk. Be very careful to not exercise too hard, too fast, and remember that your body is still recovering. You are more prone to injury, as your ligaments are still loose from pregnancy. If you’re breastfeeding, assure proper hydration, and don’t push it too hard so that your milk supply is not affected. Baby-and-me exercise classes are a great way to bond with your baby while getting in shape (and they’re a little easier on the guilt factor).