New mums, have you heard any of these unhealthy and miserable myths?
“You will show you’ve recovered from childbirth by getting thin.”
“Getting back into your pre-pregnancy shape within weeks of giving birth is normal.”
“Mums should avoid doing anything active at all for months after giving birth.”
“Unless you eat everything you crave, you’ll reduce your breast-milk supply.”
The good news is that they are all medically proven to be wrong.
With just 11 days to go til my due date, I'm only listening to advice that helps me stay balanced. We don’t need to be sickly thin, but nor wallow on our sofas either.
Below is some Ready Steady Mums guidance that helps new mums get the balance right with diet and exercise after childbirth. Now I'm ready to follow it again myself!
A balanced approach to diet and exercise for new mums
After 9 months of growing a baby and giving birth, your body has done the most amazing thing. Crash diets and obsessive slimming will do nothing to help you recover inside. And the pressure you put on yourself will made you miserable too. At the other end of the scale, sitting around eating muffins and neglecting yourself won’t help either.
Activity and Exercise
“The links between improved self esteem and physical activity levels have been proven time and time again,” says Baz Moffatt, Personal Trainer and a recently retired World Championship Medallist GB Rower. “New mums are often very self conscious about how they look, exhausted from lack of sleep, and feel like their life is totally out of their control. Exercise is a great way to tackle all three of these issues and it makes new mums feel good about themselves.”
Dr. Helen Honey, who regularly treats patients with postnatal depression, agrees, “There is a growing body of research to prove that exercise is beneficial for mental health.” We do not yet understand all the mechanisms involved but we do know that exercise causes the brain to release chemicals that make us feel happier. Having a baby and feeling tired and busy all the time can feel like a great excuse not to exercise, but Helen believes that “a little bit of exercise is essential for physical and mental health”.
What is the safest and most effective way to get active, and recover quickly from childbirth?
As soon as you become a mum, and even while you’re pregnant, you can and should start exercising your pelvic floor and thinking about your posture. Rebecca Bennett is a chartered women's health physiotherapist. She regularly deals with incontinence (many women leak a little when they sneeze or lift a heavy object), prolapse (where the bladder, uterus or bowel bulges into the vagina), and vaginal trauma from childbirth, and she cannot stress enough how important the pelvic floor exercises are. “First you need to learn to activate your pelvic floor muscles, and then you need to make a habit of exercising them,” says Rebecca.
Many of us worry we’ll push it too far too soon, and it’s important to take things at our own pace. But Dr. Salim, a GP who has worked for most of her 20 year career with new mums and babies, says: “Many mums wait too long. It is almost always helpful to start doing gentle activity right after birth. Some think (wrongly) that they should do nothing active until 6 weeks. With very few exceptions, mums will get so much out of being physically active immediately. Less depression, better sleep, fewer back problems...”
We need to distinguish between proper exercise and gentle activity. At 6 weeks Dr. Salim usually touches on proper exercise with her patients. Is the rectus abdominus getting back together? Are there any on-going skeletal or muscular problems from pregnancy? Are scars healing? She considers all these things when advising on actual exercise.
There is no magic deadline though, before which you’re helpless and after which you can do full on exercise! And we are all different. In general, it’s best to build up gradually with walking and core-strengthening exercises (www.readysteadymums.com will give you tailored advice). Many new mums also enjoy yoga and swimming to start with, but you should avoid running or sit-ups at first. If in doubt, ask your GP for advice.
Healthy Eating, what about nutrition?
“If you are a very new Mum now is not the time to be restricting your calorie intake too much,” says Laura Clark, a registered dietitian specialising in nutrition and women’s health, “however, it is a myth that you should over-indulge with doughnuts and cakes to boost your milk supply.” Medical evidence suggests the most important factor for milk production is, in fact, hydration. Drink a glass of water every time you feed, and whenever you are thirsty in between.
All Mums need a healthy, nutritious diet to give them essential fuel and nutrients. When breastfeeding additional calories are needed, but Laura suggests “this additional energy can be achieved through a slightly larger carbohydrate and protein intake at meal times and nutritious snacks such as cheese and biscuits or a milky drink”.
Indulging in high calorie treats might be ok for a while – but getting into habits where these foods become a significant, on-going part of your diet will make it much harder to get back on track.
Let's get happy!
Next time I hear any sickly or wallowing advice, I will take a deep breath and smile. I know I'll take care of myself better with a practical, realistic attitude to exercise and eating. And my baby and toddler will benefit from having an active, happy mum.