• We have the post-baby body narrative all wrong. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The media has the post-baby body narrative all wrong, writes Nicola Heath. Here’s what we should be talking about when we discuss postpartum bodies.
By
Nicola Heath

9 May 2016 - 1:47 PM  UPDATED 10 May 2016 - 9:16 AM

“Celebrity flaunts her incredible post-baby body!” is an all-too common headline in certain corners of the media. But at my house, no one talks about post-baby bodies. Like ‘domestic goddess’ and ‘ironing’, the phrase is forbidden.

Being a new mum is hard. When I had my first baby, it felt like I had survived a car crash, only to be handed as I left the hospital a tiny, fragile package whose survival depended entirely on me. “Good luck,” the nurses should have said. “Breastfeeding is tough, your baby will cry a lot and you won’t sleep for a week!”

In the weeks after birth, hormones, sleep deprivation and a voracious appetite fuelled by the calorific demands of breastfeeding meant that worry over whether my ‘post-baby body’ was ever again going to fit into a pair of jeans, let alone a bikini, was low on my list of priorities - where it belonged.

The remarkable thing about a postpartum body is not its capacity to revert to some homogenous and frankly unrealistic physical ideal. It’s the fact that it birthed an entire new human

We have the post-baby body narrative all wrong. The remarkable thing about a postpartum body is not its capacity to revert to some homogenous and frankly unrealistic physical ideal. It’s the fact that it birthed an entire new human, and can provide all that baby’s needs for the first six months of life. “The media puts real pressure on women to ‘bounce back’ and the celebrity culture puts pressure on women to look amazing within weeks”, says Caroline Homer, Professor of Midwifery at the University of Technology Sydney and co-author of a paper on the topic.

Like Sunday sleep-ins and adult conversation, your pre-baby body is a thing of the past. Here’s what we should be talking about when we discuss postpartum bodies.

The first days after birth

By the end of pregnancy, the top of the uterus usually reaches the woman’s breastbone. Now empty of the baby, placenta and amniotic fluid, the uterus sits at around the belly button. “Over the next 10 days it reduces by about one centimetre a day,” explains Homer.

A woman’s breasts change too, increasing in size once the placenta is born with a peak engorgement time at about three to four days postpartum. “Breastfeeding and adapting to being a mother means lots of changes in women’s lives – socially as well as emotionally,” she says.

Six weeks later

“The physiological part of a woman’s body is mostly back to normal by six weeks -  the size of the uterus for example - but the woman’s body will always be different,” says Homer. Women are generally encouraged to wait until their six-week postpartum check with their GP to resume exercising, but that is not a hard and fast rule.  

“It all depends on what women were doing before they were pregnant and during pregnancy, what sort of labour and birth they had and how they feel in those early weeks,” says the midwife. “My personal view is that the first four to six weeks are a time to spend recovering, getting to know your baby and breastfeeding. I feel that women need lots of support during this time and should be enabled to just be with their baby.”

The reality is that women can do whatever they feel comfortable doing but that it is completely OK to take things slowly and not rush back to exercise.

But that doesn’t mean women must not exercise during this period. It all depends on what you did before pregnancy and birth. “For women who are used to doing lots of exercise, being able to get back to this will be good for their emotional state and the way they feel about themselves and so this should be made possible,” says Homer. “The reality is that women can do whatever they feel comfortable doing but that it is completely OK to take things slowly and not rush back to exercise.”

The pelvic floor

A real concern after birth is not how fast you fit into a bikini, but the state of your pelvic floor. “The softening effect of the hormones of pregnancy, combined with the increasing weight of the baby and uterus, places pressure on the pelvic floor, which can lead to weakness of the pelvic floor muscles and the risk of short or long-term incontinence,” says physiotherapist and fitness expert Lisa Westlake, a Pelvic Floor First ambassador. “While childbirth can increase the risk, particularly if the delivery is prolonged or assisted, women who have caesarean sections are still at risk.”

Strengthening the pelvic floor improves postnatal recovery and reduces the risk of experiencing not just incontinence, but also haemorrhoids, prolapse and in more severe cases avulsion, a condition, which Westlake explains, involves “permanent changes to the pelvic floor due to overstretching or tearing, which may not be visible at the time.”

So thanks to birth injuries, stretch marks and chocolate dependency, it’s a fact of life that some mums will never have their pre-baby bodies back. Perhaps those headlines should read, “Celebrity flaunts incredible post-baby bladder control!”

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @nicoheath

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