Whether you are a first time Mama or a seasoned baby-maker, one of the most overlooked areas of pregnancy is the time after giving birth – the postpartum recovery period. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who experiences an uncomplicated labor and delivery and feels “fine” to go home and begin a new life with baby, it still behooves you to be mindful of the myriad of changes happening in your body and life once baby has already arrived. Um, not to mention an instantaneous major lack of sleep!
Most of us are aware that there are ‘hormonal changes,’ during this time, but it is not just that alone to which we are adjusting. Even if we feel we have “prepared” ourselves in advance, no one knows exactly what life will be like until it is actually happening. A complete overhaul in lifestyle occurs, including a reorientation of our relationships, a shift in our personal identity, extreme exhaustion, possible career changes (which may also impact finances), digestive changes, and the demands of nursing, just to name a few. In the weeks, months, and in some cases years, following birth the body-mind-spirit is undergoing a healing process.
HONORING THE PROCESS
It is imperative that we honor ourselves and give our body the space and time it needs to heal. In fact, Ayurveda (the holistic medicine of India and the sister science to yoga) purports that the 42 days following birth are a sacred time. It maintains that this timeframe is possibly even more important to the health of the infant and mother than the pregnancy itself. Ayurveda implicates that the 42 days postpartum sets the stage for a woman’s health for the next 42 years! This is because during the postpartum period Ayurveda sees the mother as being just as delicate as her newborn. The combination of fatigue, rapid hormonal changes, meeting all of baby’s needs and just navigating new motherhood means that the care-giver also needs much attentive and tender care. So who is assigned to the job of caring for the care-giver? It isn’t just up to the supportive figures surrounding mother (partner, family members, close friends etc.) giving her the help needs, although these people are certainly vital to her recovery. Ultimately, the mother herself is tasked with mustering up the gentleness and patience she needs to be present in her experience as a new mother. This is an important foundation for learning and implementing self-care. It is the practice of self-care in this very early stage —in what can feel like the hardest time of your life —that will infuse the mother with the foundation needed to be a better and healthier Mom for the next 42 years. Clearly, in our society today the postpartum period is a time in a woman’s life that is gravely undervalued. However, if we open our eyes to the reality of the challenges inherent in this period, we can be better prepared to ask for what we need and give ourselves the compassion that is so well deserved.
WHAT’S HAPPENING PHYSICALLY?
Now, let’s take a moment to just focus on what’s happening physically. The normal follow up with the OB doctor occurs around 6 weeks postpartum. Mama will be checked, either vaginally or at the location of her C-section incision, consulted about postpartum depression and asked how breastfeeding is going (if that is indeed part of her postpartum plan). If all seems well, the doctor usually gives the green light to resume all normal activities, including exercise and sex, somewhere around 6 – 8 weeks. However, what most doctors do not include in that visit is an assessment of the woman’s rectus abdominis for something called Diastasis Recti. Diastasis Recti is a very common condition caused by the stretching of the rectus abdominis muscle by the growing uterus. The result is a literal separation of the left and right halves of the muscle. This is a common occurrence for women during pregnancy and doesn’t matter whether they have had a C-section or vaginal delivery. The separation can be significant or slight — sometimes so slight a woman may not even know she has been affected.
Diastasis can contribute to low back pain, pelvic floor instability (including incontinence) and digestive concerns. Often times it will heal on its own, however in cases when the wrong kind exercise and activities are introduced too early in the healing process, it can actually become worse. In fact, it usually isn’t until months later when the postpartum woman is complaining about ‘the bulge in her belly’ even though she has been working out religiously. Her problem lies in the type of exercise she has been engaging in.
You may recognize this scenario: Mama is soooooo very ready to start exercising again and get her pre-baby body back. She decides to engage in lots of belly crunches and/or baby bootcamp type activities thinking she is doing her body good. However, unfortunately, if Mama has diastasis recti there is a good chance she may be making things worse. So, what’s a Mama to do? First, although there are ways to do a self-check of the condition, I recommend getting checked for diastasis by someone who is trained to test for it. It’s an easy, non-invasive test. Knowledge is power so once you know for sure this is happening in your body, you are poised to make educated decisions and prepare a game plan for the postpartum recovery process. Secondly, find instructors well trained in Pilates or yoga therapeutics who can safely lead you through exercises that help to strengthen and balance the body. Finally, because our bodies want to live in a state of homeostasis (i.e. balance), we must be patient and trust that our bodies will restore the integrity of our abdominal muscles.
THE INTELLIGENCE OF OUR BODY
I have offered yoga therapy to many women postpartum and I have recently moved through my own postpartum recovery as well. I must say, I am amazed again and again at the inner intelligence of our bodies. When we set up our bodies optimally and give them the time and attention they need, they will heal. Our body may not look exactly the same as it did pre-pregnancy, but we aren’t the same! We are now “Mama.” And perhaps we can be okay — dare I say even proud — that our body bares the experience of pregnancy and childbirth upon it. Having a child forever changes our lives so couldn’t it be considered normal for our external appearance to be, if nothing else, slightly different? As we move through the throws of motherhood and begin to patiently adjust to the changes in our lives, we can offer the same kindness to the adjustments in our bodies. Invoking a feeling of physical strength and balance in our body is a beautiful goal. If along the way to that aim we happen to get our ‘pre-baby body’ back, then well, we can consider that as just an added benefit!
To protect your mid line during pregnancy and keep your back safe, always use the “log roll” maneuver when rising from the floor or out of bed. This practice should also be used in the first couple months postpartum until you have been checked and cleared for diastasis.
Log roll: With your torso and head aligned (in one piece), roll over onto your side. Then, use your arms to help push yourself up to a sitting position.