The first few months after having a child can be the most rewarding of your life. Well, that could be until you find the time to look in the mirror. But just because your body changes after pregnancy doesn’t mean you can’t get in the best shape of your life.
When you don’t worry about a waistline, you feel like you have a free hall pass.
Mara Newman, New Jersey registered dietitian, former Weight Watchers leader
What to Expect
When Natalie Fraschetti looked at her stomach for the first time after having her son, she thought, “Wow, how is that ever going to go back to something halfway normal?”
Fraschetti, a 30-year-old engineer in Encinitas, California, gave birth to her first child in 2010. A longtime runner, her new physique seemed foreign.
“It wasn’t that it was even fat, it was just like a raisin, like a really soft, mushy raisin,” she said.
This experience is far from uncommon, and unfortunately, the soft mushiness doesn’t just sit in the stomach.
Jenny Burkett Widmaier, 28, an Atlanta-based photographer, exercised throughout her pregnancy with daily yoga routines and occasional boot camp classes. During her pregnancy, she thought the extra weight was solely in her stomach, but after delivering her daughter, she noticed flab in her butt, legs and around a saddlebag area where she'd never had problems before.
Many women end up gaining more weight than they’re expecting, according to Mara Newman, a registered dietitian and former Weight Watchers leader in New Jersey. Between 25 and 35 lbs. is considered healthy, Newman says, and underweight women can gain up to 40 while still being within a healthy range.
“But when you don’t worry about a waistline, you feel like you have a free hall pass,” Newman said.
With pregnant celebrities seemingly going from hospital gowns to size 2 red carpet dresses in weeks, it’s difficult for new mothers to accept physical changes as well as the challenge of getting back into shape.
The good news is that it’s possible to get into better shape than before a pregnancy. The bad news is it’s going to take a lot of patience.
Dr. Michael Johnson, an OB/GYN physician at the University of California, Los Angeles, advises fighting the urge to hit the gym immediately.
During pregnancy, blood volume increases at least 15 percent for cardiac output to increase in preparation for delivery and blood loss. “When women’s rings get tight, that’s the byproduct of expanding blood volume,” Johnson said.
But these simple fluids will mobilize quickly after pregnancy, and women can expect to see a dramatic release of the fluid through the kidneys in between two and seven days. Up to 20 lbs. can easily be lost in just the first week after pregnancy.
Also, the soft, mushy raisin sitting where your six-pack used to be will take at least six weeks to get back to relatively normal.
The uterus increases to support fetal growth, but after giving birth, it will contract during breastfeeding or on its own to regain normal size by at least six weeks.
The muscle fibers of the abdominal wall lengthen to accommodate the growth of the baby, which is something that will technically never get back to completely normal. The process may take three to six months before the abdominal wall remodels itself and starts to come down to its normal tone.
“You have to have reasonable expectations,” Johnson said. And his biggest tip to getting your abs back? Don’t think or worry about doing situps until after at least four months.
“You can do situps or crunches all day long and you’re not going to accomplish anything,” he said. “The body has to do that on its own.”
Andrea Rogers, 29, founder of Xtend Barre -- a combination of pilates and dance -- in Boca Raton, Florida, recently had her first child.
“A lot of work that focuses on the core is full body movement,” Rogers said.
To strengthen the core, which will eventually lead to tighter abs, she recommends practicing good posture in the first few weeks after giving birth before slowly adding variations of the plank into workouts when the body feels comfortable.
“While you’re sitting and nursing or trying to get in a quick email, focus on where your spine and alignment are and think about sitting up straight.”
Another way to help with the softness is by using an abdominal binder or girdle for extra support when it feels as if everything is overstretched, according to "The Mommy Docs’ Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy and Birth," by Drs. Yvonne Bohn, Allison Hill and Alane Park.
Something often forgotten by new mothers is the importance of the pelvic floor muscles, the muscles at the lower part of the pelvis that hold everything up. These muscles are traumatized by the pregnancy and birth and take at least six weeks to start the first phase of the healing process.
“I tend to discourage certain types of exercise because you don’t want to put too much stress on (the pelvic floor muscles) in order to preserve bladder support,” Johnson said.
He advises against jarring exercises like running and jogging until at least eight weeks after pregnancy. Instead, opt for less intense cardio like the elliptical or swimming.
Eating & Feeding
Aside from how to exercise when your body is ready for it, the best way to take control is to watch what you eat. The bad news here is that it’s back to the rule of thumb: Take in less and expend more.
Ramona Braganza, the celebrity fitness trainer known for whipping Jessica Alba and Halle Berry into the best shape of their lives post-pregnancy, says women should assume they will burn calories if they are breastfeeding.
“My clients reduced their calorie intake but still allowed themselves 500 calories for breastfeeding,” she said. “But if you notice a change in milk, you are too low on calories.”
While breastfeeding, consume more calcium in yogurt, milk and light cheeses to provide the best milk for your baby. However, while breastfeeding moms can technically drop weight easier, Johnson says that idea is overrated.
“I think that it’s misleading because you read about Angelina Jolie and how the nursing burns so many calories, but it just made me hungrier,” said Annabelle Martin, a 30-year-old journalist in Fort Myers, Florida.
While it takes nine months to have a baby, it could take another nine to get the weight off and yourself into better shape. Factoring in at least six weeks after giving birth before even starting light exercise, on top of at least another four months of waiting for the abdominal wall to re-tone itself, you might not be sporting a size 2 red carpet dress as soon as the baby is asleep.
But with patience and preliminary fitness restrictions, the muscles will react better and faster to eventual exercise than if you jump on the treadmill two weeks after leaving the hospital. Add in a proper diet and you'll be on your way to losing the baby weight.
Dispelling some common myths about post-baby weight:
- “If I have a cesarean section instead of a vaginal delivery, the doctors will cut right through my abs.”
The type of incision for a cesarean is not a muscle-dividing surgery. When all layers are closed appropriately, your abdominal wall is not altered, with the exception of swelling. Once that heals, the contour will remain the same.
- “I can eat and drink everything I couldn’t have while I was pregnant.”
If you are nursing, which is healthier for both mother and baby, it is important to continue your careful diet while also still taking your prenatal vitamins. Continue to stay away from fish with high mercury counts as traces could end up in your breast milk.
- “I can get Gisele Bundchen’s abs if I get right on the treadmill.”
The rectus muscles -- where your six-pack would be -- go out during pregnancy and childbirth. When a woman who has had a baby does a small crunch, you’ll see a diastasis, a diamond shape or a bulge, on the abdominal fascia. Nothing but time, at least three to six months, will make those muscles come back sooner.