As the saying goes, to take care of others we must first take care of ourselves - and this is especially true for new mums. Experts share top tips for post-pregnancy health and wellbeing with Abi Jackson.
New babies have endless needs and taking care of them can be a round-the-clock mission.
But, while it’s natural for baby to take centre stage, mums’ wellbeing should remain a top priority too.
“After all the anticipation, the first few days can be a very emotional time when the baby finally arrives,” says Dr Ann Hoskins, director for children and young people’s health and wellbeing at Public Health England.
“There’s a lot to learn and do. There’s the excitement of getting to know your baby, but you’ll also be tired and your body will be recovering from the birth. It’s easy to forget about yourself now that you have to focus your attention on your newborn baby, but remember that your own health and wellbeing is just as important - for you and your baby.”
The NHS’s Start4Life website has a special section for new parents, packed with advice (www.nhs.uk/start4life/Pages/healthy-pregnancy-baby-advice.aspx).
Prioritising your health doesn’t have to become an extra stressful task on an already heaving plate. It’s all about listening to your body, incorporating some simple, yet crucial, steps into your routine and allowing yourself time.
Time to heal
The body goes through a lot of changes during pregnancy. Some, like the bump, are obvious, but others are more ‘hidden’ - and the affects can be ongoing.
“The obvious changes are the physical, like weight gain and deposition of fat around the bottom and abdomen, and changes to the abdominal wall,” says Mr Tony Boret, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Spire Bushey Hospital.
“With a vaginal delivery, particularly a difficult delivery, some women may end up with some bladder dysfunction, ranging from urgency - where they feel an urgent need to pass urine and run to the loo - to incontinence, due to damage to the pelvic floor.”
Boret stresses that incontinence is rare, but it’s normal to notice some changes.
“In the vast majority of cases, with pelvic floor exercises, most are able to regain good bladder control,” he adds.
“Some may have damage to the bundle of nerves which holds faeces in, and may have difficulty in that area with loss of control or leakage.”
Many women will have experienced tearing - possibly needing stitches.
And if you’ve had a caesarean - often inaccurately portrayed as the ‘easy option’ - there’ll be an extended recovery period.
Other internal physiological changes go way beyond the womb, too.
During pregnancy, blood cell production increases and the heart works harder pumping more blood around the body, with lung capacity increasing to take in around 50% more air.
“Some women develop high blood pressure during pregnancy and this can occasionally be an ongoing problem,” says Boret. “Sometimes it will return to normal by itself, but some women may require medication.”
Every pregnancy is different, Boret adds, and the affects it has varies greatly from woman to woman.
“On average, if there weren’t any complications, it takes around three months to feel you’re returning to normal, in a sense,” says Boret. “It takes around six to eight weeks for the womb to completely go back to its normal size and for bleeding to stop.”
Into the groove
When it comes to looking after yourself, inside and out, exercise is crucial.
But don’t think in terms of ‘how fast can I get washboard abs like the celebs’. Instead, see it as a ticket to boosting your overall health and happiness - and take it slowly.
Andy McNeil is a top-level personal trainer who specialises in pre and post-pregnancy fitness. His mum-and-baby exercise classes (www.fittogether.org.uk) have a strong wellbeing focus and McNeil points out that it takes time for a woman’s muscles, joints, cardiovascular system and hormones to return to normal after pregnancy, so rushing into a gruelling exercise regime is not wise.
“Unless there’s a medical reason, this is not the time to focus on weight loss. The key focus needs to be on nurturing the nurturer,” he says. “And that means good nutrition, physical activity, relaxation and mental wellbeing.”
Being active could be a means of bonding with and nurturing your baby too.
McNeil advises switching focus from ‘working-out’ - as in strenuous gym sessions - to ‘working-in’, with things like walking and stretching, which are gentle and can slot into your day.
“Focus on fitting exercise into your daily activities, make it fun, and connect with the benefits - perhaps write a list of them,” he says.
“We need to dispel the myth of ‘no pain, no gain’ and embrace the enjoyment and benefit of moderate intensity activity. So whether you do some gardening, go for a walk or dance around the living room, you can get the ‘runner’s high’ without the need to lace up your trainers!”
While he cites long-term health as one of the big benefits (such as reduced risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, stroke and certain cancers), McNeil acknowledges that it’s short-term rewards that can be most motivating.
“The greatest reason to get active is the short-term emotional and mental health benefits. Physical activity has a physiological impact on the body, with endorphin and dopamine levels increased.
“These effects have curative and preventative properties - not only correcting any current fuzz, but also inoculating against the impact of future stress.”
Body and soul
Stress awareness is vital for new mums.
“Most women are aware that their emotional feelings and physical bodies are intimately linked and each affects the other,” says Emma Cannon, fertility, pregnancy and integrated women’s health expert, and author of You And Your Bump (www.emmacannon.co.uk).
“Childbirth and the postnatal period is a time when women become very in touch with their emotions and how this can impact their physical health. Becoming a parent is a very intense time, full of bittersweet emotions, and the period just after birth is a time when a woman’s health can take a turn for better or worse. So often the focus is on the child and the mother is overlooked, or she is trying to ‘get back to normal’. I see many clinical problems that can be traced back to the time after childbirth. Conversely, if a woman is well supported, her health can go from strength to strength.”
Cannon advises avoiding pressure to compare yourself with others, and don’t be hard on yourself about whether or not you’re doing things ‘right’.
“Take time to get to know your baby and listen to the wise voice inside yourself. Don’t get overwhelmed by unwanted advice. If you feel stressed by well-meaning people telling you what to do, gently direct them as to how they might best help you. It might be making a meal or tidying the house.”
Sleep is a huge factor for new mums - but just when you need it more than ever, it becomes much harder to get!
Making the most of any opportunity to rest can help. “Stay in your bedclothes for the first week to 10 days and sleep when baby sleeps,” Cannon advises.
While feeling emotional and exhausted after having a baby is normal, ongoing or distressing struggles can be a sign of postnatal depression, which affects thousands - around 15% - of new mums.
It’s important that signs of depression aren’t dismissed as ‘baby blues’ and appropriate help is sought early.
“You may find your mood changes around three to five days after giving birth and this usually passes quickly,” says Dr Ann Hosking. “However, for some women, these feelings continue and can be a sign of postnatal depression. If you or your partner are concerned, please contact your midwife, health visitor or GP.”