Pregnancy affects the physical appearance of our postnatal bodies in many different ways including stretch marks, abdominal muscle separation and pregnancy weight gain. While the changes are all a normal part of growing a baby, they can leave you feeling like your body is no longer your own. There is also the added pressure of feeling like you should ‘bounce back’ as quickly as celebrities on social media or, closer to home, your new mum friend down the road.
Try to remember that your recovery journey is a very personal and unique experience and while it can be easy to compare yourself to others on the same journey, try to avoid this as much as possible.
There are so many different factors that influence your recovery e.g. size of your baby, position of your baby in the womb, the amount of weight gained in pregnancy, how well your baby does or doesn’t sleep, how much help you have at home, the number of children you have, the natural elasticity of the skin – this is down to genetics and not the cream you did or didn’t have time to rub on your expanding bump.
It is advisable to lose the weight gained in pregnancy to support your own health and to enter subsequent pregnancies at a healthy weight for your body. Research has also identified that being unable to lose the pregnancy weight can have a negative impact on maternal well being, leading to low body satisfaction and self esteem and in some cases increased depressive symptoms. However, losing the weight gained in pregnancy needs to happen in the right way, which isn’t as quickly as possible. Losing weight too quickly isn’t always what is best for your body, your mental health or the baby that you are now caring for.
According to a UK study, 73% of women weighed more than their pre-pregnancy weight at six months postpartum (Hollis et al., 2017). So in other words, just 1 in 4 women had lost their pregnancy weight by six months postpartum. If you are struggling, you are most definitely not alone and understanding the factors working against you in this phase of life can hopefully help you to be a little kinder to yourself.
• Lack of sleep and food choices – research shows that reduced sleep duration, which all new mums experience, has an impact on our food choices and dietary habits. You crave certain foods when tired, particularly of the sugary kind. With all stages of life, we are aiming for balance within our diets, so if you do fancy the less healthy snack options don’t restrict yourself completely – just think about the size and frequency and try to swap some less healthier snacks for more healthier options.
• Breastfeeding – the act itself can have an impact on your food choices and dietary habits because you can’t necessarily prepare the food you’d like to eat, at the time you’d like to eat it. Breastfeeding requires extra calories (around 500kcal/day) so you will need to eat more to support your body to make the breast milk. Hence why trying to lose the weight in the early postnatal phase shouldn’t be the priority. Eating a healthy and balanced diet (as much as is possible) ensures your breast milk contains the right nutrient profile to pass on to your baby and you have the right amount of energy to get through the day (and night).
• Feeling stressed – in times of stress, including life with a newborn and/or raising a family, your body produces cortisol, a hormone that encourages weight gain and affects your dietary choices. You’ve guessed it, your body wants sugary, higher fat and salty snacks at this time.
• Getting back to exercise - it can be incredibly difficult to find the time to exercise with a baby and/or young children. If you do find the time, remember that your return to exercise needs to be respectful of your body with a focus on rebuilding your core before returning to more strenuous exercise, however frustrating that is for some.
Before picking up the pace, it's really important to see a women’s health physio so that they can assess your pelvic floor and core function and suggest activities that are suitable for your phase of recovery.
As you can see, there are so many factors working against your weight loss during this time. So remember, your recovery journey is a very personal one and it's so important not to compare yourself with others, as hard as that can be sometimes! Try to be kind to yourself and remember that timeframes will be different for everyone. Try also to create time for yourself whenever you can - your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
Rebecca is a registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) with the Association for Nutrition and graduated from St Mary’s University with a MSc in Human Nutrition (Distinction). Her interests include supporting women to eat healthily during pregnancy, postnatal and beyond. As a mother of three, she has first-hand experience of these life stages and understands the difficulties associated with maintaining a healthy lifestyle with so many competing demands on your time. As part of her MSc, Rebecca completed a research project exploring the diet and lifestyle habits of postnatal women in the UK, the findings are to be published in a nutrition journal.