When I left the hospital with my baby girl, I had already lost about half the weight I’d gained during pregnancy, and I felt pretty darn good about that. I was a postpartum champ. Then, I tried to wear clothes. My maternity clothes didn’t seem to fit right without a firm baby bump to fill them out, and my prepregnancy clothes either wouldn’t button up or looked a lumpy mess. My mom took me shopping to buy a few things to wear in the short-term, but I took these purchases as an admittance of failure, in a way. I despaired about my misshapen body for a bit, sure I would never look like myself again. Fast-forward five weeks, though, and I was pretty much back to normal. This was my first baby, and I was 24 years old.
While it’s true that I was once that enviable young mom who bounced back to a size 4 without even trying, I’ve had three more pregnancies since then. Now, I can identify with the mom who gains way too much during pregnancy and takes just as long to lose it all. I’ve also been the mom who starts to lose the baby weight only to mysteriously gain it back—later explained by a diagnosis for thyroid dysfunction. Currently, I’m the exhausted, 30-something mom of four, including a newborn, wondering if she’ll ever get her body back to “normal,” and not even sure what that is anymore!
After talking to a couple of professionals and lots of mom friends, I’ve realized that no woman is thrilled with her appearance right after having a baby. Whether you’ve got a little or a lot to lose, it’s all in the attitude—do you let yourself get down about the way you look, or do you cut yourself some slack, appreciate the small triumphs and live in the moment?
Your new normal
No matter if you gained 20 pounds or 50, I think every new mom has that moment, that first look in the mirror after giving birth when you realize the belly that took 40 weeks to reach maturation has not spontaneously disappeared.
The solid baby bump has deflated somewhat (and will continue to as the uterus shrinks back to its original size over the next six weeks), but until then, mama might look about six months pregnant. The skin that gradually (or rapidly—hello, stretch marks) stretched to accommodate the uterus will need time to regenerate at the cellular level, and it may never completely regain the tightness it once had.
The belly’s not even the end of it. Your hips loosened and expanded to allow a baby to pass through. They will readjust, but some degree of widening could last long term. Your breasts have enlarged; soon, they’ll become engorged with breast milk, and later on, you’re likely to see some sagging that wasn’t there before. Swelling around your ankles might be worse than ever for the first 24 to 48 hours after birth, but it will dissipate soon enough. If you have gained weight in your legs and bum (haven’t we all?), it can come off with diet and exercise. But now is not the time to stress about that.
It’s super common for a new mom to have “baby blues” in the first weeks postpartum. Hormones are fluctuating, sleep is lacking and life has just changed big-time—it’s only natural to experience some moodiness. However, your body image doesn’t have to be part of your woes, especially if you approach this time in your life realistically. Amy Levi, professor of midwifery at the University of New Mexico, recommends, “It’s best not to have expectations since every woman will have a different path to her new body, and it may never look like it did before pregnancy.”
Cut yourself some slack, and don’t pack your prebaby skinny jeans in your hospital bag. “Whatever you wore and loved when you were six months pregnant, start with that and work your way backward through your maternity clothes until you’re back in real clothes,” suggests mom Elisabeth Rice of Portland, Oregon. “And at the point you’re back to your ‘normal’ size, know that the numbers might not be the same anymore.” Wear what’s comfortable and flattering at present, even if that means buying a few new items, and don’t lose sleep over the number on the tag. (Come on, you’re losing enough sleep as it is!)
Easing into weight loss
The first three months postpartum have been dubbed baby’s “fourth trimester.” And you know what? It’s a fourth trimester for mama, too. This should be a period of healing after 40 weeks of physical stress and an intense experience in the delivery room. It’s a time to figure out breastfeeding, bond with your baby and squeeze in as much rest as possible. During this time, at least for the first six weeks, don’t put any pressure on yourself to lose weight, diet or start a new fitness regimen.
“If you do too much too soon, stress increases, and it’s harder to lose weight,” warns Erica Ziel, founder of Knocked-Up Fitness and The Core Rehab Program. “Pretend like you’re still pregnant, and do your third trimester exercises in those first couple months.” Ziel recommends light movements, good posture and walking. Walking is one of the best ways to regain strength and reconnect with your body during the fourth trimester. Levi likewise urges new moms to keep moving; a daily walk for 20 or 30 minutes will impact both physical and emotional well-being, she promises.
Where nutrition is concerned, you’re always going to feel better when you’re eating natural, healthy foods. Just make sure you’re taking in plenty of calories to support healing and breastfeeding. Get all the basics—protein, calcium, fruits and veggies—but don’t stress out about maintaining a picture-perfect meal plan right now. Want to treat yourself to an occasional bowl of ice cream? Do it!