Your baby has arrived and you feel rushed off your feet. But set aside some time each day to follow this gentle workout which will coax you back into shape.
It took nine months for your body to adapt to and develop your baby. Now your baby is born. And although it could take your body another nine months to return to normal, the greatest change will take place within the first six weeks after delivery.
The vast reduction in blood volume means that your heart, kidneys, muscles and joints all have to readjust quickly and your body has to repair itself.
The high levels of female hormones circulating during pregnancy also drop drastically, and like many women, you may undergo a surprising array of feelings after you have had your baby. Sometimes tearful and depressed, sometimes exhilarated, you will probably experience the uncertainties and physical exhaustion that are natural now.
You will probably also be anxious about your figure. Not everyone’s abdomen springs back into place immediately, and many women are surprised and upset to find that they still have a large, but now flabby, tummy.
This will gradually disappear, but the sooner you begin a gentle exercise programme, the better and speedier your return to normal will be.
It is also important to relax as much as possible. Try to sleep when your baby is sleeping, even if this has to be done in the middle of the day.
Rest is essential if you are to regain and maintain your strength. Including your partner and any other children in the sharing and caring will not only give you the opportunity to relax – it will also help your family to feel part of ‘what is going on’.
When starting a programme of gentle exercise, the first area you should work on is your pelvic floor, as this has undergone the most traumatic stretching.
If you have had stitches, this will actually help to heal the area by increasing circulation as well as pulling the torn muscles or incision together.
The sooner you can start to work these muscles the better. Even if the area is painful, gentle movements will help to alleviate the discomfort. But do not overdo it. Little and often is the key.
To get your pelvic floor muscles back to their supportive role, try to tighten them up each time you get out of bed or up from a chair. At first, you may find it easier to tighten your buttocks along with your pelvic floor muscles.
Try to find the pelvic floor muscles by doing a series of quick lifts. Gradually increase the length, intensity, frequency and number of repetitions over the next few weeks.
A regular routine
It is important not to stop these exercises once you have regained the strength in your pelvic floor muscles. Any muscle which is not regularly exercised will lose its strength and elasticity.
Weak pelvic floor muscles can cause the muscular vaginal wall to remain flabby, which will affect your sex life and your ability to reach orgasm. Weak pelvic floor muscles can also lead to bladder irritation, the inability to empty the bladder completely, stress, incontinence, constipation or even a vaginal prolapse.
Work very gently at first with your abdominal muscles, so that they gradually regain their shape.
Then, once you are able to control and pull in your abdominal muscles, you can start to add some extra weight for them to ‘resist’ against, so that they can build up their strength.
If you add too much weight, you will feel your abdominal muscles quiver and start to bulge out in the ridge from the breast bone to the pubic bone. Watch out, too, for any strain or pulling in your lower back as you perform the exercises.
Once you are able to pull in the central panel of your abdominal muscles you can start working on the muscles which wrap around from the sides and form your waist.
If you have put on extra weight while you were pregnant, it will still be there after your baby is born and it will probably have settled around your hips, buttocks and thighs.
You cannot ‘spot reduce’ fat (take fat from particular places through exercise), but you can tighten your muscles which lie under the fat layer. Working these muscles is important as it is your muscles, not the fat, which give you your shape. Good muscle tone also improves your circulation and posture and strengthens your joints.
If you want to diet to lose weight, do so with care. Make sure that you eat a sufficient quantity of balanced and nutritious foods. It is unwise to diet drastically if you are breastfeeding, as your body is making milk from the raw materials you give it.
Drink and eat
Your first basic need is to drink plenty of fresh water. Try to drink small amounts throughout the day rather than force down glass after glass with your meals.
Do not skip meals. It is the overall amount that you eat during the day that counts – so if you are waking up early, try taking a light breakfast and having small meals through the day instead of three larger ones.
Eating little and often stops you becoming ravenous, which usually makes you eat more than you need. It also helps to keep your blood sugar level stable, and so prevents extreme energy or mood swings.
Try not to eat heavy and indigestible food at night. If you have trouble getting to sleep, have a warm milky drink at bedtime – skimmed or semi-skimmed milk are ideal as they are high in essential nutrients, but low in fat.
If possible drink herbal tea or juices instead of tea and coffee – or make sure the tea or coffee is decaffeinated. Remember that if you are breastfeeding, whatever you eat or drink will pass on to your baby – including alcohol.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables – raw or lightly cooked – and some fresh fruit every day. (But do not eat too much fresh fruit, as this could upset your baby’s tummy if you are breastfeeding.) Eat lean, white meat and fish, but try to cut down on red meats and remove all the excess fat.
Cut down on added sugar as it has no nutritional value and is high in calories. Eat plenty of wholewheat bread and pasta which are very filling.
Take a long, brisk walk (for about half an hour), at least three times a week. If possible, get out alone without the baby, so you will be able to stride along, allowing your arms to swing freely. This will encourage your circulation, heart and lungs, and give you more stamina.
If you have to push your baby in its pram or pushchair make sure that the handle is at a good height for you so that you do not have to bend forwards to push. Hold the pram close to you so you have a better postural position. Or you can choose a back- or front-carrying sling so that you can carry your baby around with you, leaving your arms free.
If you do suffer with tension, try lifting your shoulders up and down several times. Then circle them smoothly, ending with them relaxed, down and back.
With a straight back, let your chin drop on to your chest. Gently move your chin slowly towards one shoulder and then the other. Lift your head back upright with your chin level.
Draw your chin in slightly to lengthen the back of your neck and tilt your right ear towards your right shoulder. Keep both shoulders down so you feel the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
If you are bottle-feeding, try to change sides as often as possible. Sit in a supportive chair, or use plenty of cushions to support you in bed. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is an ideal position for both you and your baby.
Six weeks check-up Six weeks after the birth, you should go to your doctor or hospital for a final check-up. You will be given a full examination, including an internal examination, to make sure your uterus is shrinking satisfactorily. You will be asked if you have any pain or discomfort or if you are still bleeding. Your breasts will be examined.
Most women will feel anxious, tired and emotional after their baby’s birth – but this is normal and does not mean they are suffering from post-natal depression.
Post-natal depression is a more serious psychological disturbance which causes severe clinical depression. It can be dealt with by hormone treatment, anti-depressants and psychiatry
You should also discuss contraception with your doctor now. Do not be misled into thinking you cannot get pregnant when you are breastfeeding.