After giving birth, there is a ton of pressure on new moms to return to some level of “normal.” We’re supposed to be up and about within days after birth – hosting guests, writing thank you notes, keeping up some general level of hygiene and house cleanliness – all while existing on zero sleep and tending to a screaming infant.
Many of these pressures come from totally unrealistic expectations presented to us from the media, myths passed down from past generations, from our friends and families – and sometimes within ourselves too. New motherhood does a big number on our identities. We go from being free women who have a ton of time to focus on ourselves, to utterly depleted mothers whose world suddenly revolves around a tiny, helpless human.
One area that so many of us struggle with after giving birth is our bodies. We often don’t realize how much everything will change after giving birth. I remember looking in the mirror – my stretched out belly literally hanging down to my thighs – and feeling utterly terrified. Is this the new me? I thought. Will I ever get my old body back?
The changes our bodies go through is a shock to the system and to our sense of self. Yet so many of don’t realize how normal this is. We are fed with images of women “bouncing back” super soon after giving birth, and we think that this is realistic for us, too.
Despite warnings from doctors – and despite the fact that we need time to heal after childbirth – many of us are pushing our bodies toward diet and exercise routines that just don’t make sense for a postpartum woman. But what many of us don’t realize is that exercising too strenuously too soon can actually have dangerous and lasting consequences.
Recently, fitness and health instructor Sara Haley posted about this very topic on Instagram. She used the example of a friend of hers who had attended an exercise class where a woman who was just two weeks postpartum showed up. Rather than asking if the mom had clearance from her doctor, or recommending that the mom try some modified exercise moves, Haley reports that the fitness instructor said, “Wow, way to go!” regarding this new mom’s decision to workout at just two weeks postpartum.
Now, you might think, “What’s the big deal? Maybe this woman just knows her body, and knows that this class will be just fine for her?” But Haley – who has extensive experience in the fitness industry, is a mom herself, and specializes in postnatal exercising – begs to differ.
“As a trainer/instructor it is YOUR job to take care of your clients,” Haley wrote on Instagram. “So ask the right questions or guess what? If they end up with diastasis recti or a prolapse or lose their milk supply, they may come to you and say it’s because of your workout!”
Haley’s post spoke to many new moms, some of whom expressed that they were never told that working out too soon could actually do more harm than good.
Yup, it’s definitely something that is not spoken about nearly enough. And yes, there are a good deal of women who are too exhausted to think about any kind of exercise in the postpartum period. But for most of us, if we hear of a mom who is running or back to the gym just a few weeks after having a baby, we probably feel a certain amount of pressure to follow suit.
Speaking with Scary Mommy, Haley went into more detail about what she sees as the dangers of exercising too soon postpartum. She discussed several immediate health concerns to be mindful of as you consider postpartum exercise, and a few long-term issues.
First of all, there’s postpartum bleeding. We all know that bleeding for a few weeks after having a baby is normal, but Haley highlights the fact that excessive exercise can prolong the bleeding. “Exercise increases blood flow which could potentially cause you to bleed more,” she explained.
In addition, pushing yourself too much can lead to exhaustion and depletion, something new moms definitely don’t need more of.
And don’t forget about postpartum stitches. “You don’t want to tear your stitches,” Haley said. “This could be detrimental in both vaginal and C-section recoveries. I remember going into a side lunge 6-8 weeks postpartum after having my first vaginal birth and thinking ‘Oh geez, was that too far?’ Why risk ripping a stitch? Let your body heal.”
But beyond all that is the damage you could cause long-term to your body. Haley explained that exercising too soon could exacerbate a common postpartum issue that many women experience: diastasis recti (separation of your abdominal muscles). Not only do you need to learn exercises that are appropriate for this condition, but exercising too soon could make the condition worse.
“Often times diastasis is simply caused by pregnancy – perhaps doing too much core training or just the wrong exercises during pregnancy, or because you carried a big baby in a smaller body,” Haley said. “But by being conservative in your postpartum recovery and allowing your core muscles to rest and start to come back slowly, along with NOT doing the wrong exercises, you can potentially avoid diastasis or heal one quickly.”
The consequence of exacerbating a diastasis recti isn’t just a vanity issue (i.e., the notorious postpartum “pooch”). Untreated diastasis can lead to all kinds of uncomfortable and troubling issues, including prolapsed organs.
“In a prolapse, the uterus, bladder, or bowel ‘prolapse,’ or fall out of their normal position and into the vagina,” Haley explained. “In severe cases, they can protrude outside of the vagina. Again, a prolapse can simply occur due to pregnancy or labor and delivery, but added pressure on the pelvic floor and/or heavy lifting can also cause a prolapse.”
Well, if that doesn’t make you want to take postpartum exercise as slow as humanly possible, I don’t know what will.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean that you can’t do any exercise at all after having a baby. Movement can be healthy, and contribute to feelings of well being. It’s all about doing it slowly, with postpartum-approved exercises, and with doctor approval.
“The general recommendation is usually to wait 4-6 weeks postpartum before beginning an exercise routine,” said Haley. “That said, that doesn’t mean you can’t move your body. Most doctors/midwives will give approval to begin going out for walks a few days after delivery. I always recommend that if you’re not sure of what you’re allowed to do, ask specifics.”
Either way, the point is that most of us need – and deserve – some time to just heal our bodies up after having babies. And too many of us are just pushing ourselves way too fast, and trying to live up to expectations that are just not realistic, smart, or safe.
“I know for me, I’ve put less pressure on myself with each child I have,” Haley reflected. “You realize how short the time goes by in those first few months and it’s not worth it to push yourself. It’s much better to enjoy your baby.”
It sure as heck is. So let’s hear it for resting, healing, patience, learning to love and accept our bodies – and of course, a whole lot of baby snuggles.
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