In 11 years working a pre and post natal exercise expert throughout London and West Essex I've seen a lot of pregnant and post natal mums. Probably close to the 500 pregnancies now. And what's the most common question? When will I get 'me' back again?
Anxiety, childbirth, pregnancy, breast feeding and sleep deprivation all take their toll on a new mum's health and fitness. And a new report from Michigan University has found that some women sustain injuries during child-birth comparable to those sustained during an intense athletic event. Fractures, muscle tears and strains that are undetectable without an MRI scan, which is why your pelvic floor and body could take a lot longer to heal than six weeks. And why you might need to modify your fitness drive.
We are all so hard on ourselves to look a certain way after pregnancy. Across the channel our French counterparts don't set foot in a gym until they've had their vaginas 'cleared for take off' from their dedicated women's health physiotherapist. In the UK we're lucky to get our bits looked at after child-birth.
The female body takes time to recover after nine months of growing a person and squeezing it out of a very small hole, or even out of the sun roof. But just how long? The doctor can sign you off as soon as six weeks post birth but how long does it really take for beautiful female bodies to recover. Weeks, months or years?
In the early days after giving birth your body is in full recovery mode. You may have lost a lot of blood and fluids and you'll definitely be short on sleep and energy. You'll probably be sore and swollen so now is the time to enjoy some confinement and lots of rest.
Your uterus is contracting (cause of the painful, cramping sensations you'll be getting) and the rest of your internal organs - which moved during pregnancy - are returning to their rightful place. Your pelvis is recovering and returning to its pre-labour state as are your urethra, vagina and anus. Any intense activity during this stage could hinder the healing process. Walking and gentle stretching is fine but definitely nothing bouncy.
You'll also be bleeding heavily and may be anaemic, so plenty of iron-rich foods and dark green vegetables to aid iron absorption are important now.
You'll be inflamed and possibly held together by stitches for a few weeks. Keep them clean. Salt baths and lavender or calendula compresses are a good idea. Drink plenty of fluids for breast milk and to flush out any nasties and help minimize your risk of infection.
Complications like haemorrhoids, mastitis and back ache are common and of course sleep deprivation, so rest, recuperation and realism are the order of the day for the early weeks.
Up to four months post breastfeeding
Pregnancy hormones like relaxin stay in your body until up to four months after you finish breast feeding. This means any associated symptoms, such as reduced stability in your pelvis and joints, also linger for this amount of time. High impact activities are best enjoyed with caution. If you are unsure of your pelvic floor stability, focus on this side of your training through Pilates or resistance training before you hit the tennis court.
Your clever body is still reserving fat stores vital for hormone and milk production, so you may keep some pregnancy fat for a while.
Up to a year post birth
A 2012 University of Salford study, conducted by Dr Julie Wray, interviewed women during their first year post birth and concluded that women need a year to recover both physically and emotionally after child-birth. Relationships, personal self-worth, finances and health are all put through the mill in the first 12 months.
Up to two years post birth
During pregnancy, your abdominal wall stretches. The body responds by creating new muscle cells, or sarcomeres, literally lengthening your abdominals. According to some experts, it can take up to two years for your abdominals to fully recover. Three big factors that can prevent this recovery, causing an abdominal distention are: Having two babies within two years (or falling pregnant within two years of the last pregnancy); gaining a large amount of weight during pregnancy; or a C-section (C-sections can cause internal scarring or adhesions which can add to abdominal distention).
Two years and beyond
Complications like diastasis recti (abdominal separation), adhesions, post stitches pain or pelvic floor dysfunction (such as prolapse) can cause problems well beyond two years.
So mummies, let's lay off the 'lose weight now' resolutions. Your body needs time to recover. This isn't a license to eat cake forever, that won't do much for your body either but enjoy the early years with your baby and embrace the new 'we' rather than getting 'me' back.
Karen is a pre and post natal exercise specialist based in Essex. For more information on pelvic floor health and recovery visit www.fit-school.co.uk.