There’s a general misconception about the “postnatal period” – differing opinions that it lasts from around 6 weeks…some say 9 months, others a year.
Well, I say, if you’ve ever been pregnant and given birth, you are postnatal forever. Pregnancy and birth have profound effects on our systems, on our emotions and bodymind. And there is no “returning to normal” after this, there is only a new normal being established.
This is not to say that you are forever weakened. Not at all – only that if you don’t allow yourself space to heal properly, to strengthen adequately and completely, if you rush it, take on too much too soon, or skip over the basics, you may carry with you effects of your pregnancy and birth forever, in weakened core and unbalanced muscles, in compromised breathing power.
Particularly useful for the first days, weeks (and years!) after you’ve had your baby are exercises that allow you to switch off tension, soften and tune into your breath. We never stop needing to learn to relax and soothe your body and soul. This in turn will stimulate your circulation and therefore your healing: Legs up the wall, Pelvic floor: Deep belly breathing, releasing back over a yoga bolster or big ball.
A big Pilates ball (Swiss ball) can be a great help in these early days: not least as a way of soothing a crying baby: gently bouncing or rolling your pelvis in circles or figures of 8 on your ball while holding your newborn or with newborn in the sling is a lovely way of mimicking the movement your baby is used to in the womb, and a great way of settling. It is also a good way of establishing a gentle pelvic floor lift and naturally encouraging your stabilising postural muscles to activate. Make sure you are securely balanced with your feet fully connected down to the ground, or place the ball up against a wall if you feel at all insecure with your balance.
Your pelvic floor
Your pelvic floor has been through a lot. Nine months (maybe more) of pregnancy followed by being battered by your baby’s head pushing through the birth canal, possibly having stitches or tears. Your perineum will be feeling very bruised. Even if you had a caesarean, your pelvic floor will have been under immense pressure throughout your third trimester.
Although you might not think it’s appropriate if you’re sore and tired, pelvic floor awareness “exercises” can and should start around 24 hours after birth. If you’ve had stitches don’t worry about disturbing them by starting pelvic floor work, actually the opposite is true. Trauma to the pelvic floor can begin to heal by encouraging blood circulation to the area, which will help to reduce swelling. As your healing progresses and you become more mobile, start to “exercise” your pelvic floor in different positions: lying down, sitting, standing. Think about your pelvic floor in your regular daily activities which is when you most need them: when you’re standing up from sitting, picking your baby up, pushing your baby’s buggy, carrying shopping while putting your baby in the car seat, etc. Remember it’s never too late to begin to heal your pelvic floor! Even 20 years postnatally you can make some difference in pelvic floor health with dedicated practice. The pelvic floor responds beautifully to care and attention. It fares less well with a blasé attitude of ignoring its needs and hoping they go away.
I really recommend downloading the Squeezy app, which has regular prompts and comprehensive information about pelvic floor exercise, how to locate your pelvic floor properly, how to learn to release it. Most importantly, to remember to include it into your daily repertoire of self care as a non-negotiable just like teeth brushing.
And – however many years postnatal you are, it’s always worth seeing a women’s health physio – check out Mummy MOT to find one in your area.
Your emotional health
It’s a rollercoaster time, the newborn phase…and motherhood! It’s a watershed of all of the anticipation of the past nearly year, finally holding your baby in your arms (and even more if you’ve been trying for a while). You will probably feel exhilarated and ecstatic. But you also might feel pummelled by your experience, a bit shocked and really, really tired. Be honest with those close to you, and try to be gentle with yourself. Be careful about allowing hundreds of visitors in to see the baby if you really don’t feel up to it. It is an immensely joyful and lovely time taking your baby home, but it is also unprecedentedly stressful, and if you’re trying to establish breastfeeding it can have a detrimental effect to have visitors vying for your baby’s cuddles.
Give yourself a break if you don’t feel 100% happy every moment. If you are feeling very on edge, anxious, or detached and depressed, reach out to your health visitor or GP and ask what support there is available. There should be no stigma to mental health issues postnatally, so please don’t succumb to “I’m fine” syndrome, if you’re anything but. Each phase of motherhood brings different challenges, things get easier but something else always gets harder. Your sleep deprivation might accumulate and have an effect on your resilience. So be kind to yourself. Always come back to your breathing tools, be aware of the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
You might feel low or even be despairing about your postnatal body. But remember this time of recovery is so crucial that you will reap the most rewards if you don’t rush it. Try to go against the societal grain and cultivate some compassion for your amazing wonderful body which has done so much miraculous work over the past year. IT TAKES TIME to recover your strength. And, like it or not, HIIT, “body shreds” and Power Pramming is not the way forward initially, which can be a bitter pill to swallow if you were a gym bunny pre-children. Be patient with yourself. Be the tortoise not the hare. It is really important to take the time to recover well and fully from childbirth, to help prevent problems with future pregnancies and in your pelvic floor for life.
Why Pilates is so perfect postnatally
Pilates focuses on releasing tension, breathing, and strengthening the deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor, it will help you restore and bring you back to strength and functionality. With Pilates you heal your body from the inside, correcting your alignment and optimising your body functions once more. You begin to learn about your body, reconnecting can help foster a positive feeling about your body – which is particularly important if you have any sense that your body has “let you down”. Being a mum is hard work, physically hard graft, and Pilates helps to iron out the demands small people put on you, and offer you a coat of resilience.
Here’s the lowdown on what you need to know after you’ve had your baby – whenever that was!
- Breathing is the starting point for your recovery, physical and mental. Your breathing is so important to enable you to release tension and anxiety, to allow your body space to recover from your birth experience. Breathing is intrinsically connected with the efficacy of your abdominals and pelvic floor, as the diaphragm has to learn how to communicate with your pelvic floor now that your baby has evacuated the space between them.
- NO SIT UPS. NO CRUNCHES. NO PLANKS. These are strictly contra-indicated in the early stages of your postnatal recovery, due to weaknesses caused by diastasis recti, and due to causing an increase in intra-abdominal pressure which in turn increases the load placed on your pelvic floor.
- Diastasis recti. The superficial layer of your abdominals (your rectus abdominis – your six pack) has become separated due to stretching of the linea alba “fascia”, the connective tissue that holds the two bands of muscles together. Trying to “strengthen” these abs to close the gap is not the solution. We need to strengthen the deeper stabilising muscles: the pelvic floor, the transversus abdominis, and, fundamentally, get the diaphragm firing properly.
- Bum deal. Your pelvis has taken most of the burden of carrying your baby, so we need to give it some strong scaffolding. Your hormones are still flooding your system, which will keep your ligaments and joints unstable for up to 9 months (and if you are breastfeeding, potentially longer), so it is important to regain strength and functionality in your glute muscles, to stabilize your lower back and hips. They are particularly important if you want to eventually get back into high impact movement such as HIIT and running.
- Posture matters. Everything hinges on your alignment in terms of your body systems working effectively post-birth. No amount of pelvic floor exercise will be truly effective if your alignment is poor. Plus, you will do a lot of lifting and bending when you have small children so it is important to strengthen the posterior chain of your muscles – the muscles at the back of your body so important for good posture – especially if you are breastfeeding. Your posture also has an influence on Diastasis Recti, and the relative pull on your abdominal muscles from your daily movements.
How do you feel since having children? Are you preparing for birth/pregnancy? Has this article helped? I’d love to know! DM me or comment below xxx
My next book Pilates for Pregnancy is available for preorder now.