Pregnancy and birth leave lasting marks on your body. Find out what steps you can take to feel happy inside your skin again
A few months after the birth of your baby, you’ve digested the biggest experience of your life. Now you’ve suddenly got breathing room to realise that all that digesting you did during pregnancy has left you with much less breathing room in your trousers!
Even the lucky few who are able to shed the pregnancy kilos quickly are in for a nasty surprise: your clothes still don’t fit around the hips, tummy or breasts. What’s up with that?
A weighty issue
Weight gain is a big issue for new moms– you just grew another human being after all! “You should look at gaining between seven and 12kg during pregnancy,” says Dr Bronwen Moore, a Johannesburg based gynaecologist and obstetrician. This is not the same for everyone, however. “If you start pregnancy with a low BMI, say under 20, (see box below) you should gain more, and if you start with a high BMI you should aim to put on only three to five kilos.”
But it’s not only about weight gain. During pregnancy, your body secretes a hormone called relaxin, which softens the joints and allows your pelvis to rotate out to allow the largest possible opening for your baby’s head. Your rib cage also expands as your baby pushes against it while it grows.
You may even have noticed your bump becoming cone-shaped if you tried to do a sit-up while pregnant: if so, then “the natural point of separation between the left and right rectus muscle, which usually lie side by side, has widened, creating a gap between the two halves,” says Dr Moore. Your body needs time to revert to its usual shape and condition.
Next, “your breasts increase in size during pregnancy as the glands get ready for lactation, and even further when they fill with milk. They can then sag after you wean as the tissue returns to a non-lactating state,” explains Dr Moore.
Lastly, pregnancy – and certainly natural delivery – weakens the pelvic floor muscles. For pelvic floor and abdominal wall tone, exercise and strengthening is crucial, says Dr Moore.
How can I get back to “normal”?
Your body needs to recover gradually – though you can speed along the process with good diet and exercise.
First check that your goals are realistic. Perhaps you should shed your stick insect expectations and finally make peace with your body: after all, it’s created a beautiful human being! Use this graph to set yourself a weight goal that falls inside the "healthy body mass index (BMI)" range.
Count your blessings, not calories!
If you’ve been eating for two while pregnant and are now eating for two because you’re breastfeeding, you could struggle to shake off the baby weight. Nicole Sacks, a Johannesburg dietician with an interest in maternal health, says you need up to an extra 2 100 kilojoules a day to make all your milk if you’re exclusively breastfeeding.
“But what moms need to know,” she cautions, “is that 5kg of fat is laid down (during pregnancy) for breastfeeding so you do not need to consume an extra 500 calories per day. It is waiting there in fat stores to be used up.”
If you are feeling hungry though, you should eat more, and also make sure you are adequately hydrated by drinking lots of water, says Sacks. “This is also the time to make sure those calories count and rather stick to low-fat or fat-free snacks like fruit and vegetables and yoghurt.”
And cut yourself some slack! “I do feel that it takes nine months to gain the weight and it can take nine months to lose it,” says Sacks. “There is no set rate of weight loss, some will lose quickly and others slowly.”
Sacks says the shlep of calorie counting, food diaries or weighing portions can be “overwhelming to a new mom who is trying to keep track of which breast was used first at which feed, how many wet nappies the baby has and how many hours he or she sleeps.” Instead, Sacks suggests some simpler habits you can put in place in the early months after having had your baby.
It's all in those Kegels!
Get moving – gradually
While you can lose weight by dieting alone, it is very hard to get your pre-pregnancy shape back without exercise. Get your doctor’s blessing first though, probably at your six-week post-partum check-up, advises David Shmukler of the Preggi Bellies fitness programme, which specialises in pregnancy and postnatal exercise.
“Women who had vaginal deliveries with no complications can start with us as early as three weeks post-partum. It’s nice for new moms to have a bit of time for themselves, and the endorphins from exercise will help lift your mood too,” he says.
A new mom’s ability to return to normal aerobic exercise is dependent on the condition of her pelvic floor muscles. Running or jumping (and sneezing and coughing) strains the pelvic floor muscles and can cause urine leaks, so strengthening those muscles is your first priority. Try these two exercises at home:
PELVIC FLOOR #1
While sitting, tilt your pelvis and imagine you are zipping up a tight pair of jeans. Suck in your abdomen and lift and hold up your pelvic and genital area. (Don’t push like you’re giving birth! It’s an upwards hold, not a strain.) Repeat the zip-and-release process for ten seconds each, initially three to five minutes at a time.
PELVIC FLOOR #2
Activate a weakened pelvic floor by pretending to hold in a wee and gas (but don’t do this while actually weeing or pooing!) Hold for 10 seconds and release for five seconds, again initially for three to five minutes at a time. You can do this while driving, alternating long and short holds at robots. “Also, remember to support your pelvic floor when you cough and sneeze by holding in gas then holding in a wee as you feel your nose start to twitch,” adds Shmukler.
After you’ve got your pelvic floor sorted, you can focus on strengthening your core abdominal muscles. (Caesar moms should wait 12 weeks to give their scar time to heal.) “Pilates is great for targeting post-baby ‘jelly belly’,” says Sacks.
Specialised post-pregnancy classes such as Preggi Bellies are an excellent intermediate step, because the programme is designed to protect and strengthen the pelvic floor until it is once again strong enough for high impact exercises.
“At a standard aerobics class, you could feel uncomfortable training if your pelvic floor hasn’t recovered sufficiently,” says Shmukler. (You may feel as if your insides are falling out.) “But your pelvic floor is protected if you go to a specialised exercise class – plus, there’s no need for embarrassment because it happens to a lot more moms than one would think.”
Remember that you only get fit with cardiovascular exercise, which is exercise that increases your heart rate. So you need to add walking, swimming, cycling, running or aerobics into your long-term fitness plan. Try for a daily 30 minute session.
CHECKLIST: WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?
Look at the list below and see what steps you might take to improve this aspect of your life. Soon you’ll be feeling and looking good as new!
- Use the BMI calculator to establish whether you are actually overweight.
- Implement our five eating tips starting right now, or join a slimming group such as Weight Watchers.
- Pack your baby in the pram and go for a brisk 30 minute walk in the fresh air. Every day! It doesn’t count unless you’re sweating...
- Join an exercise class (Preggi Bellies).
- If your shape has changed, or you’re promising yourself new clothes “just after the last 5kg are gone” (and you’ve been doing that for two years) stop! Buy a few good-quality classic pieces in your new size, now.
- If you’re determined not to buy new clothes, try new accessories or different make-up in the meantime.
- Host a Colour Me Beautiful evening for new-look inspiration (colourmebeautiful.co.za), or get style advice from a friend who looks good.
HAIR & SKIN
- Find a hairdresser you love. A new length or colour can revitalise your whole look.
- Spend a bit extra on a good cleanser and moisturiser. Tinted ones are great for hiding tiredness.
- Squeeze in a facial while grandma watches the baby.
- Drink lots of water and eat lots of raw, fresh fruit and veg.
- Enough sleep makes your skin look well rested too.
STOMACH AND BREASTS
Do some abdominal and pectoral exercises every day, preferably with a post-natal fitness trainer.
Go for a proper bra fitting at a good department store (Woolies, Edgars, Stuttafords). “Good support and a well-fitting bra are essential to prevent excess stretching of the Coopers ligaments in the breast,” says Dr Moore.
TUMMY IN A BIND
Midwife and childbirth educator Tina Otte says that the concept of belly binding has been around for centuries. "Women all over the world have wrapped their tummies tightly after giving birth to help speed up the healing process."
"Surgeons, physicians, midwives and mothers agree that an evenly applied firm pressure on the tummy region delivers beneficial results by reducing swelling, compressing loose skin and forcing you to engage your core muscles.
For best results, women usually wear the wrap for about four to six weeks after delivery, but I would suggest that in the case of a Caesarean birth you wait until your stitches have been removed and your wound site is dry and healed before using a belly binder.
"If you want to bind your tummy, shop around and buy a belly binder according to your budget."
The Carriwell Belly Binder is available at Baby City, Babies R Us, Baby Boom, Reggie's, Toys R Us, leading baby and maternity stores, selected Dis-Chem stores and selected pharmacies. Also look out for the Tummy Tucker at Clicks stores or visit www.cocodrama.com for more info and a list of stockists.
FIVE POST-BABY WEIGHT LOSS TIPS
- Stick to three meals and two snacks a day – don’t snack all day continuously.
- Snack on fruit and fat free yoghurt. Remember that healthy eating is good for your milk too!
- Eat lean protein at main meals – skinless chicken breasts, white fish, tuna, lean red meat, turkey fillets.
- Switch to low glycaemic index carbohydrates – these are the “good” carbs such as low GI breads, lentils, chick peas, sweet potatoes, mielies and basmati rice.
- Drink lots of water and stay away from colddrinks, juices and too much tea or coffee.