The changes that your body goes through during pregnancy can be exciting – bigger boobs, gently swelling bump, but it’s also daunting in terms of what your shape will be once your baby’s born.  Expert midwife Zita West and independent health visitor Ann Girling talk to us not only about the physical changes of pregnancy and birth, but also about the emotional adjustments in accepting your postnatal body.

Everything changes…

When I was pregnant I thought of it as a temporary state. Once the baby was out, I would have my previous, toned body back again. My huge tummy would shrink away to nothing and I would carry on teaching kickboxing and writing like I used to. Admittedly, I would be more tired from night feeds but life would pick up where I left it for nine months, with a few adjustments to accommodate my baby.

By now you’re probably screaming “How naïve!” if you have children. If you are pregnant for the first time, you might be saying “Well, dur, you’ve only had a baby, not a life-bypass”. The truth is, you need to say the innocent second sentence before you can laugh in incredulity as in the first. First-time pregnancies are shrouded in myth and, in a way, that is how it should be. As virgin mums-to-be (pardon any pun etc), we need to believe anything is possible because it is … in theory. If my friends had told me how much your life changes I would have nodded and thought I would do things differently from them to make it easier. I would have coped better, not become so anxious, been more easygoing… whatever. First pregnancies are special – they are undiscovered territory because pregnancy is different for everyone.

Despite the fact that my body changed nearly out of recognition during pregnancy, I couldn’t help but be amazed at what it could achieve on its own without much input from me. I would give it fuel and rest and it grew a baby. Amazing! But would it be so clever after the birth at returning to normal … and what would normal be anyway?

Give yourself and your body time

One of the biggest worries for women is weight loss. Many of us swear we will only eat for one during pregnancy but, 30-odd weeks down the line, and unable to get out the tub, start raiding the biscuit barrel. This is in direct rebellion against the pregnancy manuals, who lecture you on the importance of not giving in to anything that gives you an artificial sugar rush. Kaz Cooke summarised it brilliantly in her Rough Guide to Pregnancy and Birth: “He [Eddy] wasn’t even a whopper: 7lbs 14oz (3.6 kilos). Damn. All the rest was Magnums.” Ignored are the warnings that you’ll pay for it nine months later when you are still in maternity clothes and live in fear of seeing your thighs, bum, tum and, well, everything reflected in shop windows.

Even if you are moderately good, weight gain is inevitable for most of us. Zita West urges women not to become too obsessed with shedding the pounds too soon after birth. “Women nowadays try to get back into shape far too early. Photos of celebrities who have returned to a size 6 after having a baby don’t help but try to ignore these. More realistic is the example set by Eastern countries, where mothers take six weeks off to recover from the birth and let others take the strain while they concentrate on eating well, resting as much as possible and caring for their baby.”

Giving birth is often equated to completing a gruelling marathon so it is important to let your body recover at its own pace. “Your body needs time to heal and rest and build up its reserves again,” says Zita. “Making sure you’re eating well and getting enough sleep can be tricky when dealing with the demands of a newborn, but it is essential for your, and ultimately their, well-being. If you want to start losing weight do it in a sensible manner. Avoid high protein, low carb and crash diets and see a nutritionist instead. Balancing your blood sugar is a good way to lose some extra pounds while still enjoying a balanced diet.”

You’re a woman … not Superwoman

Exercise is important, not only for losing pounds but also for making you feel good. The sort of exercise you can do will vary from how active you were before and during pregnancy and on the type of birth you had. Obviously you must take it more gently after a Caesarean but stitches can also impact on your ability to exercise comfortably. Particularly important (and doable!) for everyone, though, are pelvic floor exercises!

“You can start gentle exercise, such as walking, as soon as you feel able,” recommends Zita. “After your six-week check, you can become more ambitious and try things like Pilates, yoga and swimming, which are all excellent activities. Be careful with high-impact aerobics or using the gym – make sure you tell the instructor beforehand that you have recently had a baby so they can advise you on what to do and what to avoid.”

The most important thing to remember, advises Zita, is to take things at a slower pace. “Recovery takes a while, so don’t feel you can be a supermum. It takes a good 18 months for your body to settle back into a pre-pregnancy state. Some things cannot change – stretchmarks and changes to your breasts, for example. Instead of getting hung up on this, concentrate on respecting yourself and your body. This will help you feel better about yourself, both mentally and physically.”

Don’t try to be the best

Once you become totally responsible for another human being you may start thinking differently about things. Many new mums say they cannot watch the news in the same way – the images of suffering, particularly those related to children, are too unbearable. Other mums suddenly find that situations that have any potential for danger, eg flying, cause anxiety and stress. It is a wonderful, yet frightening, thing to protect someone so vulnerable and dependent on you.

It is perhaps because of this often overwhelming sense of responsibility that new mums struggle with their own internal conflict: the need to be the best but the discovery that we often feel far from it. We are constantly battered with information on how to do everything the right way: from giving birth to breastfeeding to sleep training. If any of these areas do not go as planned or hoped, the result can be terrible feelings of failing our children by not being the perfect mother.

The guilt factor

Fear of failing is often linked to postnatal depression (PND). This condition is different form the few days of weepiness called the Baby Blues. Postnatal depression can be a serious and debilitating illness if left undiagnosed and untreated. Fortunately, health visitors and GPs do watch out for the signals but, if you are the sort of woman who likes to show that you’re
on top of things, chances are you will mask the signs quite well. Symptoms include panic attacks, insomnia, sleeping too much, change in eating habits (consuming more or less than usual) and disinterest in your baby.

If you are afraid of failing you may be too scared to tell anyone, even your partner or close family, how you are feeling. After all, having a baby is supposed to be the happiest time of your life so why on earth are you feeling down?

Health visitor Ann Girling says that guilt is one of the worst culprits for causing depression amongst mums. “There is so much pressure from the media to be perfect, from the government urging us to get back to work, to financial pressures and, of course, mothering per se is not valued by this society. A lot to deal with when women are already feeling pretty vulnerable. Women do experience a lot of guilt, particularly if they suffer from PND. In my experience of talking to mums about their thoughts and feelings, guilt is something that women are plagued with. And I know I can also do it quite well!”

It’s OK to mess up

The truth is, being a parent is one of the most, if not the most, important things you will do – and there’s no training for it! Is it any wonder that we get stressed, upset, overtired and overwrought? The key message is not to be afraid or proud. PND is more common than you think (around ten per cent of new mums are diagnosed with it, but how many more have it and do not see their GP?) and is nothing to be ashamed about.

Ironically, as a new mum, one of the most repeated gems of advice from friends and family will be to not try to be perfect. Yet because many of us strive for perfection in other areas of our lives it is natural to bring it into child-rearing. How do we deal with it? “I think we have to realise that we own our own guilt, ie we give it to ourselves,” says Ann. “There are those around us who don’t always help but we could say, ‘No, I don’t want that’ and throw it back.”

As someone who has, and still does, berate herself for not living up to impossible standards I would like to reiterate the message that mothers do not have to be perfect. In fact, being imperfect teaches us and our children an important message – that it’s OK to mess up occasionally. That to err is human. That through our mistakes we learn and grow – if we allow ourselves to. Don’t give your child a model parent who they always have to struggle to impress. Give them a real role model, where mistakes are part and parcel of everyday life and, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter.