When I was pregnant with my son, I was astounded by the mountain of information available to me about how to deal with the pregnancy, and what to expect right after delivery. Everywhere I looked, there were books, articles, interviews, photo essays and even lots of “helpful” advice from friends and family. How to avoid stretch marks, what to do to avoid heartburn, best positions to try to sleep in, what to do when you want to jump start labour… And the number of horror stories other women offered up, sometimes with great relish, to a first time mom-to-be about their difficult deliveries? Unbelievable!
After my son was born though, I realized that a few important topics are almost never discussed. The whole breast-feeding thing, was a shock for me. No one told me it might actually HURT at first! And since it took several days before my son and I actually figured it all out – well, let’s just say there were a lot of tears in those early days. The astonishing knowledge that your life is one way one day, and despite 9 months of knowing it was coming, your life is unrecognizable the next. People may talk about that one – but until you feel it, you don’t understand it. How to cope when suddenly you’re IT; the one who has to solve the problems, figure out solutions, get to the bottom of things – all with the knowledge that you have NO IDEA what you’re doing. How to organize a day when your new family member has absolutely NO respect for your schedule. And how to cope with a body that is virtually unrecognizable – both in how it looks, and how it feels!
While your ligaments are still hopped up on hormones, all loosey-goosey and not able to support your structure particularly well, you are constantly faced with the need to bend over, reach down, twist up and carry an ever increasing little weight load. There are tasks you HAVE to accomplish, whether you’re ready for them or not. You’re exhausted from lack of sleep, your organs may or may not have moved back to their original positions after having been squished up under your diaphragm for months and you expect to start working out as soon as possible to “get your body back.” I remember the desperation of feeling that I might never see my pre-pregancy body again.
But beyond all the concerns for the “shape” of the body, is the tough reality that dealing with babies and toddlers, despite the joy and delight they bring to life, is hard on the body! For several years (or maybe even a decade if you have many kids), you spend a large chunk of every day bent forward, picking up children, twisting and lifting in awkward positions. You snuggle them into a softly rounded chest. The long-term effect on your structure can be profound. Your repetitive movement habits cause the upper back and shoulders begin to round forward. Your low back is stressed from all the loading to a curved spine. The pelvis and the sacro-iliac joints, which may never have quite recovered from pregnancy and delivery, can be problematic. The result of all this structural stress can be injury, dysfunction and chronic pain. But it doesn’t have to be this way!!
So to new moms, (and for some awesome grandparents I know who are helping to look after the grandkids), I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how to support your body during this challenging time of life. Because even though you may be “working out” to get your body back where you want it to be – your exercise needs to do more than burn calories and build muscle. At this stage in your life, you ABSOLUTELY need strategies for structural support. And that is often more about motor-control training than anything else.
1. Don’t underestimate your need for rest. Give yourself permission to sleep, or even just doze. Life goes on around you. You’ll be better equipped to cope if you steal a little rest wherever you can.
2. Get back in touch with your core! And I’m not talking about your flat bellied “six-pack.” You may need to re-learn how to access your pelvic floor, your deep abdominal wall, your deep spinal support and your breathing. It sounds simple, but it’s not necessarily automatic! The “pee-when-you-sneeze” thing can be prevented with some careful attention to good core integration (not just strong muscles). The abdominals won’t likely come back if you’re “bracing” in other areas. Your spine needs GREAT deep support to handle all the loaded bending and twisting you’re doing, and your diaphragm needs to learn how to move fully again. This is about motor-control training – not just muscle training. Make sure you find CONTROL before you add load. Loading a body that is not properly supported will just make your problems worse. It’s tempting, believe me I know… but your body will thank you for taking it slowly and paying careful attention to HOW you do things at this stage.
3. Open the chest and shoulders! Rounding forward of the chest and shoulder girdle has a negative effect on the function of the spine, thorax and shoulders over time. To avoid all kinds of trouble, make sure to include some exercise that extends the spine and opens the chest, some work that externally rotates the upper arms and works the rotator cuff, and that reaches your arms up and overhead. Keep your spine long while you’re working your shoulders & arms!!
4. Have some visceral manipulation. After pregnancy and childbirth – the organs have literally been through the wringer! A little help from a qualified professional to settle those organs into their proper spots can do wonders not only for the function of the organs themselves, but for your structure as well. (Consult a professional, but best to wait at least 6 weeks after delivery before having any visceral work.)
Carve out some time for real self-care during this time, and you’ll find that you have more strength, energy and stamina to handle the demands of parenthood (or grandparenthood). And you’ll be able to lose yourself in the joy of playing with the kids without reserve when you don’t have to “manage” pain and dysfunction. Enjoy!
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve found for your body in caring for little ones? Are there things you didn’t know enough to prepare for? Things you’ve “come back” from? I’d love to hear your story! Please leave a comment below if you’re moved to share!