Surviving the first six weeks – Postpartum
Whether you call it magical or hail it horrific, the postpartum period presents unique challenges and chances for growth.
Remember when you were 38 weeks pregnant and so ready to be done that you were actually anxious to push a 7-pound person out of your lady parts? Because then the pregnancy would be over, and you could relax and get back to normal life? And do you ever look back at that bloated and bothered former self and wonder what the heck she was thinking?
Postpartum living is hard. And often messy. And painful in multiple ways. You’re working so hard to help your baby become acclimated to his new life that you’re likely neglecting his mother (that’s you!) in the process. Throw in social demands—like an abandoned partner and relatives who are eager to drop by for a visit—and physical woes (as in Whoa, what happened to my waist?), and it’s no wonder you’re a walking mess.
While we’re not going to sugarcoat the lousy parts, we moms who have been there and made it through (plus carefully selected experts) are here to lend a bit of perspective. So read on. (We know you’re currently nursing in your bathrobe, so really, where else are you going to go?)
About your waistline … it’s not awesome right now. Your bulbous but firm pregnancy belly was pretty darn cute compared to the aftermath, am I right? Basically, your once-taut midsection was stretched over the course of nine months to incorporate a human basketball. Now the ball has dropped, and that stretched out skin is waiting for its elastic property to kick in. Plus, your abdominal muscles are shifted out of position, and your uterus is still shrinking back to prebaby size.
With all the mayhem happening at your midriff, you might feel like you’ll never make it into your old skinny jeans. Listen closely: Every new mom feels this way. If it’s important to you, you can and will make it back to your previous size, with perhaps the addition of a few stretch-mark tattoos. But for now, in your first six weeks of new motherhood, throw aside your physical insecurities and love your body for the miracle it just performed. Get a little more use out of your maternity clothes, or sport a muumuu for a few weeks. It’s fine. You need to be comfortable and quick with the breast when baby calls, so tight jeans and tailored dresses would not do you any favors anyway.
When you do make it out of the house, you may have strangers asking you when the baby’s due—an awkward scenario you can handle with the truth or a white lie and a shrug. You’ll also have friends telling you that you look great, even when you feel like a beast. Just as when you were pregnant, you’re probably not thrilled to have your body offered up as a topic of discussion. It’s OK to change the subject … or dart away, claiming your infant has a dirty diaper that needs to be changed. (This standby excuse works in all kinds of situations—you’ll see.)
Fill ’er up
Part of taking care of baby is taking care of his mama. If you’re breastfeeding, you will need to consume 400 to 500 additional calories each day. Just ensure the extra calories are coming from the right sources. “When we’re tired and stressed, it’s easy to reach for sugary foods and caffeinated beverages that our body seems to need,” says Stephanie Rink, RD, clinical dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “Those are short-term fixes. The best thing when you’re fatigued or overwhelmed is to nourish your body and make your body feel good.”
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. Drink at least eight glasses of water daily, along with low-fat milk. Dairy is still an excellent source of usable calcium. For DHA, which is important for baby’s brain and eye development, eat fish a couple times a week, or continue to take a prenatal vitamin with DHA included. Incorporate all food groups into your meals, unless you have an allergy or medical condition that prevents you from doing so. It’s OK to have the occasional treat, too. Restricting yourself will only leave you frustrated during this time when you’re already stressed out.
At the end of the day, you want to feel good about your meal choices, so focus on your health, not on the scale. The weight will come off slowly but steadily as you breastfeed. As Rink says, “Be patient. Your pregnancy lasted 40 weeks; you have to give yourself that much time, more or less, to get back to your prepregnancy weight. Be accepting of your body.”
Postpartum constipation (sometimes accompanied by hemorrhoids) is a common complaint. If drinking water and eating a fiber-filled diet—fruits, vegetables, whole grains—isn’t easing your discomfort, get things moving with a stool softener or fiber supplement, but don’t use a stimulant laxative unless directed by your doctor. Gradually, your hormones will level out and your bowel movements will be back to normal.
Don’t let social pressure or celebrity moms get to you. “During the first six weeks, the body is working hard on recovering,” says Lindsay Brin, CPT, video trainer and founder of Moms Into Fitness. “Exercising too early can put pressure on the pelvic floor and could create a vaginal tear.” When it comes to physical activity, let your midwife or OB be your guide. She might recommend walking soon after your release from the hospital, or she could limit your exercise to Kegels and not much else—it really depends upon the nature of your delivery and your practitioner’s viewpoint.
At any rate, start slow and aim for feeling better, not necessarily reclaiming your old figure. Brin says, “Getting back to your prepregnancy size before six months postpartum is unreasonable. Enjoy spending time with your little one and adjusting to your new lifestyle.”
Meanwhile, if your gut has got you down, take heart: It’s following its own fitness plan! “The uterus shrinks about a finger’s width every day. In five to six weeks, it will return to prepregnancy size,” says Brin. A shrinking uterus means more contractions—and breastfeeding will promote extra powerful ones. This is a good thing, but it can also be extremely painful (some repeat moms say post-delivery contractions grow worse with each baby). Over-the-counter painkillers can help, if necessary.
If you delivered via C-section, take extra care not to overdo it with activity in the first six weeks. Obey your doctor’s recommendations, limiting walking, stair-climbing and lifting. Allowing your incision to heal takes time and patience, but you will eventually be cleared for exercise, and your body can recover just as well as if you had a vaginal birth.
Falling in love again
The mother-child bond is instant for some, slower for others. Heidi Mangus, a first-time mom from Newtown, Pennsylvania, describes her experience: “There weren’t tears and it wasn’t an overwhelming flood of emotion, but the love was instant and matter-of-fact.”
Your baby is new, but he’s not a stranger. Physically, you’ve been connected all along. He knows your voice, your smell, the sound of your heartbeat. You are his link to his former life in the womb and his greatest source of comfort. Infants speak the language of touch, so offer lots of skin-to-skin contact, especially in the early weeks, and consider rooming in for closeness after hours. Talk to him, read to him, and show him that you’re ready to gently respond to his cries.
Baby is used to being held and rocked in utero 24/7, so coddling him now is not spoiling him—it’s actually weaning him from the constant warmth he misses. Leave the dishes in the sink, ignore the phone, and spend this time nurturing your little one. Jenn Reed, a two-time mom from North Salt Lake, Utah, relates, “Negative emotions all slip away for a bit as my babe snuggles up on my chest.” Keeping a slow pace will help calm mama’s “baby blues,” promote breastfeeding success and build up the bond you crave.
If connecting with your little one is a struggle, you could have postpartum depression. (See sidebar to compare symptoms.) This condition requires professional attention. Kristina Deligiannidis, MD, perinatal psychiatrist and director of the Depression Specialty Clinic at UMass Memorial Medical Center, says, “Postpartum depression can cause problems with mother-child bonding, delays in child development and child behavior problems. It can also affect [the mother’s] relationship with her partner and other children in the family.”
It’s OK to contact your OB before your six-week checkup if you feel that you need a prescription for an antidepressant. She can write the prescription or refer you to a psychiatrist as needed.
More mild symptoms and “baby blues” can be treated with lifestyle changes. Getting rest is of utmost importance, even if that means letting the house get messy and ordering in for dinner. “Make time to go out with friends or spend time with your partner,” Deligiannidis recommends. “Participate in a support group, and ask for help.” The postpartum period can feel lonely, even with baby constantly by your side.
Handle with care
Baby is dominating your vision right now, but don’t forget about the relationship that made all this possible! Introducing a newborn can bring couples together or place a wedge between them. Naturally, mama feels inclined to claim baby as her own, spending all her time and effort on her infant. This can leave daddy feeling forgotten, even replaced by the child he helped create. He misses the loving wife who once had eyes for only him.
Although it may be easy to ignore your partner’s needs as you concentrate on your own recovery and parenting strides, he is worth the extra effort. Talk with him to find out how he’s feeling. Be affectionate even while intercourse is off the table. Reassure him that you’re still you—eventually, life will calm down again. Moms with successful marriages postpartum report that the keys are communication and working together.
Making baby a team effort (OK, breastfeeding is hard to share, but skin-to-skin snuggles and diaper changes swing both ways!) will draw you closer. Mangus says, “We have to divide and conquer as a team, and that’s just impossible to do without communicating.” Make sure baby is “ours,” not “mine.” And hey, why so serious? Let yourself laugh at baby’s funny faces and even at your own first-time follies.
In the early weeks, your home may be flooded with well-meaning relatives. Help is great, and warm casseroles are always appreciated, but it’s important to claim some quality time with just your nuclear family during this period of adjustment. While paternity leave isn’t always available, take advantage if it is. You might not need your partner’s help with baby, but getting him involved will grow the family bond. He’ll be more willing to share his wife if he has a tight relationship with baby, too.