Your body after baby: Advice from postpartum experts on Martha’s Vineyard

Freelance writer, former Edgartown school teacher, and mother of an 18-month-old Moira Silva.
Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Freelance writer, former Edgartown school teacher, and mother of an 18-month-old Moira Silva.

Heidi Klum, Gisele Bundchen, Halle Berry, Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow are just a handful of the celebrities who had babies around the time I birthed my children. Shortly after giving birth they reappeared on the scene looking as though pregnancy had no effect on their bodies. Meanwhile, I was still wearing maternity jeans and feeling triumphant if I managed to get a shower. And while I knew that these new moms had the help of personal trainers, nutritionists, nannies, and airbrushing to get red-carpet ready, it didn’t lessen my feeling that dropping pounds and getting “in shape” should be one of my postpartum priorities.

Medical research cautions that radical weight loss and extreme physical activities too early in the postnatal period can be unhealthy, counter-productive, and even dangerous. However other health studies warn that retaining extra pounds and foregoing exercise can result in joint stress, loss of muscle mass, and contribute to obesity. Mental health professionals cite the endorphins released during cardiovascular training as helpful in alleviating depression, including postpartum depression caused by hormonal fluctuations and fatigue.

What should a new mom do? Get active or take it easy? Does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition? What are realistic, reasonable goals and how do we safely begin?

As a labor doula (trained labor assistant), yoga teacher, childbirth educator, and the mother of a five year old and fifteen month old, I’ll confess that my interest in these questions is more than casual. The journey of the female body after a baby is complex — it’s physiological, emotional, and spiritual. The postpartum experience; from the physical exhaustion, to our changed and changing bodies, is a topic of many a mom’s group, a concern of many of my yoga students, and doula clients.

While doing my yoga teaching certifications and doula training we studied the anatomy and physiology of the postpartum body extensively, but it was personal experience that made the knowledge meaningful.

I decided to speak to Martha’s Vineyard fitness professionals and health practitioners to gather ideas, advice, suggestions, and inspiration for new moms wanting to increase their physical activity and fitness level in a way that is satisfying, safe, and geared toward success.

Diet

Although the temptation might be to diet, restricting calories should not happen in the first months after baby. I remember being ravenously hungry for what seemed like a year after both my children arrived. Nancy Leport, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Midwife advises, “Postpartum moms who are breastfeeding need more calories than during pregnancy, and all new moms need protein, vitamin C and iron for healing, calcium, and vitamin D. They need plenty of water and to limit caffeine. If they restrict calories, muscle is burned along with stored fat. A postpartum diet that is calorie-deficient makes fatigue even worse.”

Adequate caloric intake does not preclude healthy eating and/or postnatal weight loss and for some women the weight comes off quickly due to the extra caloric expenditure of breastfeeding. Ms. Leport offers, “…increasing whole grains, low-fat protein and calcium and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Weight will come off slowly as many women do not lose reserves of stored fat until weaning or resumption of menses.” Fitness and health professionals agree that a slower weight loss plan in general is healthier and offers more long-term benefits than quick-fix cleanses and highly restrictive diet plans.

Our exhausted postpartum family always appreciated a food delivery, and thankfully the Island community is happy to deliver love in a casserole dish. When cooking for a new mom consider dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and chard, which offer calcium, fiber and vitamins; and beets — rich in iron and vitamins — steamed, sautéed, or in a salad. Additionally, cooked whole grains such as quinoa, bulgur wheat, millet, and brown rice contain easy-to-digest proteins, amino acids and nutrients. Less fatty proteins such chicken, turkey, fish, lamb, and lean beef — or tofu, chick-peas, nuts, lentils, and eggs for a vegetarian mom — offer needed protein and healthy fats.

Fitness

Before embarking on any physical fitness program, women should consult their doctor or midwife. After getting the thumbs-up (usually 6-10 weeks after giving birth) new moms need to move forward with mindfulness.

Although I was told to go ahead with normal activities at my eight-week check-up, I knew there was no way I could do more than walk my colicky baby down the length of our street and back. My whole body felt weak, unstable, and my nerves were on edge. In those early days just going for a walk with friends or family, getting some sun on your face and some fresh air is a perfect physical activity for you and the baby.

Pregnancy hormones, such as relaxin, remain in the body for several months after delivery, which can loosen ligaments and joints, and create instability in the pelvis. Meanwhile, many women have a decrease in core strength, ranging from loss in muscle tone to an actual separation of the abdominal muscles, called diastis recti. Fatigue caused by night feedings, and the stress of new parenthood can affect energy level and equilibrium. Additionally, if a woman had a caesarean birth the abdominal incision needs time to heal.

Ms. Leport concurs: “Moms will have lax ligaments, abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. The spine and pelvis may have changes in alignment. Ligaments take months to return to normal, the muscles require exercise in order to strengthen and work efficiently.”

Acupuncturist and mom Cathleen Vincent treats many women pre- and post-natally. Her suggestion: “Chiropractic is helpful right after having a child — it physically resets the pelvis, which most women need after pregnancy and labor, and before beginning more rigorous physical activity.”

Does self-care such as chiropractic or massage sound unobtainable? I can relate. With two children at home, and only one income, any appointment, let alone the gym, seemed like a pipe dream. Several mom friends came up with the brilliant idea of booking self-care sessions back to back. We could sit in the office and watch each other’s babies at each other’s appointments. Consider taking friends and family up on babysitting offers, and the YMCA of M.V. has free morning and evening childcare for members once your baby is six months.

When you’re ready to take the activity level up a notch, whether that’s 4, 6, 10 months a year or more postpartum, co-owner of B Strong gym in Oak Bluffs, Heather Neal, certified trainer, functional movement specialist, and mother of two, recommends a comprehensive strength and function screening. “We offer a biomechanical assessment to pinpoint the areas of stress and weakness. Then we can assist with corrective exercises. Getting strong and feeling good take time.”

Brenda Wallis, the fitness director at the Mansion House, an instructor and mom, also suggests a one-on-one assessment with a certified trainer with knowledge in postpartum issues. Ms. Wallis reminds women to “consider your fitness level prior to having a baby, so your expectations can be reasonable. Be patient with yourself, it took nine months to grow your baby. Keep it fun, like an aqua class so you can feel weightless and buoyant and decrease pressure on the joints.”

Not all trainers and teachers have the same level of expertise when it comes to postpartum fitness. It’s important to ask questions before turning your body over to a gym or program and to speak up if you feel an exercise is not right for you. I was amazed and a bit dismayed to discover friends and students receiving poor advice running the gamut from bad — “get right back into it with weight training” — to worse — “something hard, like aerobics, to lose weight.”

Working at your own level is key, stresses Bethany Seidman, owner of Curves in Vineyard Haven. Ms. Seidman worked as a registered nurse for many years. Curves packages include one-on-one with a trainer and a personalized program for each woman. “As a gym specifically for women we provide a comfortable, safe environment for a new mom,” Ms. Seidman explains.

Yoga

A safe, nurturing experience is invaluable for a woman giving all her energy and focus to a new baby. For me, yoga was the next logical step in the fitness journey. From experience I knew that most classes foster a gentle, accepting atmosphere and integrate alignment and breathing.

Sherry Sidoti, yoga teacher, mother, and founder of Fitness Life Yoga feels that postnatal fitness encompasses more than the physical. “My emphasis is with the state of mind, emotion and energy body — helping women to stay centered to deal with the myriad of changes that have taken place, and a space to reconnect with her own thoughts, and feelings. After baby, it’s important to offer mom a chance to give back to herself.”

Finding the time and space for self-care is challenging. My “free” hour always seemed to be spent doing the endless laundry, dishes, writing thank-you notes, returning phone calls, and occasionally sleeping! This is why Ms. Sidoti likes to, “show moms things they can do in short spurts and teach breath-work, to foster calmness and tone inner muscles. Things that can be done during time with the baby.”

Fitting exercise in piecemeal can be frustrating, especially for women accustomed to autonomy and regular workouts. When yoga students and clients asked when I would return to teaching, I wondered if I ever would. If my legs shook in basic poses, what business did I have teaching a room full of yoga students? And what about wearing a bathing suit?

Ms. Neal also remembers feeling daunted by the process. “I think it’s best to just start with getting enough sleep, good nutrition, and light walking. It took me probably about a year to feel better and in my body after my first child and four years after my second.”

Getting support from family and friends is crucial. When I spoke honestly about my feelings of weakness, exhaustion, and lack of get-up and go, my mom’s group chimed in. Turns out we all felt overwhelmed. Ms. Neal recalls, “this tremendous internal pressure to lose the weight and my frustration. My husband was really supportive and made sure I ate well, otherwise I would’ve survived on Wheat Thins and coffee.”

Labor nurse and childbirth educator Nancy Hugger has sympathy for the pressures felt by her postpartum patients, “Our culture has definitely impacted women’s journey back to their bodies, this unbelievable pressure to be thin and fit can really influence a woman’s self-image especially at a time when she is perhaps feeling a bit uncertain and insecure. I hear all the time about getting back into jeans.”

I, too, have those jeans in the back of a drawer. Pants with a fancy label I paid too much for, they used to make me feel sassy and on top of the world. They don’t fit or look right. In fact, I hear Martha’s Closet calling to them by their designer name. Why do I still cling to them as an arbiter of the state of my body?

Sian Williams-Bassett, another Island yoga teacher and mother to five, counsels women to embrace the transformation. Her fifth pregnancy and the resultant fatigue and sense of listlessness was what led to her first yoga class. Now she “has never felt healthier and stronger.” Ms. Williams-Bassett says it was important for her to acknowledge that after carrying and birthing a child her body “would not be exactly what it was” — but that this isn’t necessarily negative, because where she, or you, or I, end up, “can be better than before.”

Now my baby is a toddler, and our walks are often longer adventures. She likes when the stroller goes fast, when I pick up the pace and break a sweat. I’ve managed to carve out some time to have my own mini yoga practice, but there are days when it doesn’t happen. In class I work to keep my focus on my own mat rather than worry about what everyone else is able to do. My body is not ready for some poses yet. It’s hard to be where I am, rather than where I was, but being where I am and accepting it, makes me a better, stronger, teacher, mother, and woman.

Elissa Lash is a yoga teacher, labor doula, and writer who has just completed her first novel. She lives in Vineyard Haven with her husband and two children.