After giving birth your focus will no doubt be upon your beautiful new baby and quite rightly so but you should also spare a thought for yourself and prioritise self-care and nurturing so that you can maximise your potential for recovery and safeguard your future health. There is usually a postnatal period of 6-8 weeks following a vaginal birth and 10 weeks following a caesarean birth wherein women are advised to not commence an intense exercise programme, and this is for good reason.
Pregnancy and giving birth places a huge physical, physiological and emotional demand on the body and it is important to be mindful of the transition that you have undergone and do everything that you can to ensure that you heal successfully and recover with minimal delay and success.
Once you have had a baby you will always be considered postnatal whether that is one month, one year or twenty years after giving birth. However, within the those first few days, weeks and months you can really make a difference to how quickly and smoothly you heal by focusing on your holistic wellness and the 5 phases outlined below.
Rest & Bond
First and foremost, immediately after birthing your focus should be on getting as much rest as possible. That means physical rest/sleep, as well as emotional and mental rest. It’s a time to be protective not only of your new-born, and this important bonding phase, but also of your energy resources so that they can be used for healing and adjusting to the new demands placed upon you. Hence it is a good time to huddle away with the new addition to your family and spend as much time as possible just being together in a rested state whilst you get to know each other.
Try to sleep as much as possible; take naps, go to bed early and share duties so that you can get some much-needed and well-earned shut-eye. Sleep will help your tissues repair, lower your stress responses and refresh your mind. Historically women were advised bed rest for a few weeks after birth simply to facilitate the all-important resting and healing phases and thankfully this still happens today in many cultures.
In those first few days you may receive instructions from your birth practitioner or midwife to start your Kegels, these isolated PF contraction exercises are important to help you reconnect to your pelvic floor and stimulate blood supply to healing tissues. They can usually start to be done a day or so following birth but check with your midwife first.
Repair & Recover
The next is to repair and recover, following on from rest you want your body and tissues to heal as best as possible, with no unnecessary delays. During pregnancy and birth your body underwent huge changes and it needs time to recover and repair allowing the following to take place:
Uterus to shrink and return to its usual position back down in the pelvis
Tears and episiotomies cut to knit well and heal
Ligaments to shrink and re-stabilise joints
Internal organs to move and resettle back into position
Ribcage to shrink and lower
Cervix to constrict
Posture to realign
Diastasis to knit back together
Breathing pattern to return
Pelvic floor to gain reignite control
Abdominal muscles to shrink and regain some tension
Neuromuscular connection to core to improve
Stretched skin to shrink
Caesarean scar to heal
Nutrient stores to replenish
During this phase you may be advised by your GP, Midwife or Consultant to go about your daily activities as usual and start gentle exercise such as walking. Walking is great for your pelvic floor muscles and getting up and out in the fresh air is beneficial if your feel up to it. Your daily activities may usually involve lugging around food shopping or carrying a toddler but try to take it easy, especially in those first two weeks. If you have had a caesarean-section, then it is important that you do not lift anything heavier than your new-born baby until 10 weeks post-partum.
It is extremely important to give your body the nutrients that it needs to repair, rebuild and nourish your tissues from the inside out. While you are resting you can be making great strides in your recovery simply by eating a nutrient dense and balanced wholefoods diet full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein, complex carbohydrates and hydrating fluids. You can best do this by:
Eating non-processed, wholefood as often as possible
Filling up on a variety of colourful vegetables and fruit
Eating a little bit of lean protein with each meal
Sourcing organic foods when you can
Adding nuts and seeds to your meals or snacks
Drinking lots of water, herbal teas and non-caffeinated, non-carbonated drinks
Consume collagen-rich foods such a bone broth and bone-based stews
These nutrients will help your physiological processes to thrive, your cells to perform their functions and your tissues to rebuild and knit back together.
Reconnect & Rehabilitate
Once you have rested and recovered enough to have had your 6-8 week check and been cleared for exercise then you can start to rehabilitate your body and reconnect with the conscious control of core and pelvic musculature by integrating a global whole-body approach to movement. You may find that after birth you cannot feel your pelvic floor or control your abdominal muscles as well as you used to, this is due to the stretch of muscles and hence reduction of muscular tension and strength and damage to nerves and neural pathways. Before you start to add any heavy external load such as dumbbells it is important that you focus on the following:
Practising correct breathing strategies
Reconnecting to your pelvic floor and gaining conscious control
Reconnecting to your abdominal muscles and gaining conscious control
Re-sequencing the triggering of core muscles so that they become active at the right time
Connecting your breath with the conscious and unconscious activation of your core muscles and pelvic floor muscles
Generating core tension & managing core pressure under the load of your own body weight
Regaining stability in your joints
Retraining for muscular and movement balance
It is vital that you have all of these aspects dealt with and working correctly before you look at progressing the intensity of your exercise by adding external load (weights), impact (jumping/running) or bodyweight activities that increase internal pressure e.g. planks. Otherwise you risk delaying your recovery or causing damage to your body that can be long lasting and detrimentally life changing such as pelvic organ prolapse (POP).
This is a time for focused, mindful movement and an attitude of kindness and acceptance towards your body as you nurture it back to a state of efficient functionality. There are many exercises that can be performed safely during this stage and it can be fun to challenge yourself without the need for ballistic or heavy loaded movements.
Retrain & be realistic
Once you have reconnected and rehabilitated your breathing, PF and core muscles and can move with stability and balance then you can start to progress your exercise and increase intensity. This stage allows you to have fun broadening your repertoire of exercises, activities and sports. With the correct programming you can start to build your strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and coordination and have the potential to be even fitter than you were before. You may find that you enjoy movement more as it offers the opportunity to have some all-important quality time for yourself.
What can happen if you don’t take it slow?
So hopefully you can see that there is a progressive set of priorities for you as a mum and that by taking things slowly and moving at a pace that respects your anatomy and physiology you will not only increase the speed of your recovery, but you will vastly reduce the possibility of causing:
Delayed recovery or worsening of Diastasis recti
Delayed recovery or worsening of incontinence
Damage to ligaments, tendons and joints (which may prevent you exercising)
Increased risk of pelvic organ prolapses
Demotivation of trying too much too soon
The key throughout all of this is to be patient and have realistic expectations. Your body may take at least 9-12 months to return to a ‘normal’ non-pregnant physiological state so don’t rush to the finish line. Instead try and adopt the mindset that postnatal wellness is a life-long journey and that every day you can take positive steps towards building a body and mind that is fitter, stronger and more nurtured. In fact, if you work at a sensible measured pace and apply the right, safe strategies then it is possible that you can rebuild a body that is fitter and stronger than ever before.
If you would like more information on what postnatal exercise to do, then read on here.