Postpartum Body Image
Tackling body image post birth
The body undergoes a lot of changes in pregnancy and birth, so it is only natural to face new challenges with body image. This is especially true after the first child, but is also a normal issue during any postpartum phase. In fact, some moms would argue body image gets more challenging with later pregnancies because of the perceived cumulative effects on the body and the inevitable process of aging. Regardless, it is important to address body image with a therapist if it is affecting your mental health, and with a dietitian if it is affecting your ability to make healthy food choices for your wellbeing and that of your baby.
Why negative body image is particularly challenging in the postpartum period:
Vulnerability in the 4th trimester
Sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations, and baby blues or postpartum depression are some of the contributing factors to a negative body image, especially in the first three months after birth. Physical changes are also more pronounced in this time period, with the uterus still needs to shrink to its pre-pregnancy size. While the first three months postpartum can be the most demanding, professionals are realizing more and more that it can take nine months to a year for the body to “get back to normal”. This makes sense when you consider that it took 9 months to grow your beautiful baby.
Pressure to establish good breastfeeding routine
New mothers have to also contend with bonding well with their baby in order to establish good breastfeeding. Many women can experience feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of a good latch and adequate milk supply, leaving them feeling increased negativity or worry about their bodies.
The need for the body to heal.
There can be a sense of powerlessness when needing extra time and care to heal after birth. This can be particularly challenging if the new mother lacks support to give her this important time to rest and restore. A sense of a slow recovery can lead to feelings of inadequacy and poor postpartum body image. In a culture that overemphasizes independence and physical strength, this idea of slowing down to allow the body to heal post-birth can be foreign and frustrating for some moms. Traumatic birth experiences can also leave negative feelings about one’s body and its capacity to birth again and heal.
Strategies to gain a healthy postpartum body image
- Practice gratitude for your body. It’s amazing what your body does for you and your baby every day. Be amazed by the incredible miracle of growing, birthing and nurturing a baby.
- Lean on your partner. Speaking about your body image issues with your spouse can help air out any worries or stress that can affect your relationship and intimacy. Counting on their support on a day-to-day basis for you to have some time to regroup in something you enjoy like exercise, meditation or meeting up with friends can make a huge difference in your perception of self.
- Wear clothes that make you feel comfortable and beautiful. Don’t jump into pre-pregnancy clothes as soon as you’ve had your baby. Use your maternity clothes and invest in some nursing dresses, shirts and hoodies that make you feel confident and practical.
- Embrace imperfection. Motherhood comes with a steep learning curve and the capacity to adjust with grace. It pays off to laugh at yourself ever so often and face things with good humor. As your body changes in the year post birth, embrace imperfections. While you get there, do the best you can to eat well and move your body with joy. The best thing you can do for yourself is not to let body image concerns make you eat or exercise with a punitive mentality.
Starting exercise and eating healthy can be top of mind when struggling with poor body image. It’s important to incorporate these in a helpful and realistic manner.
What to consider when starting postpartum exercise
- Consult a pelvic floor physiotherapist. A pelvic floor physiotherapist will be able to give you exercises to address imbalances in your pelvic floor and core muscles, while helping you to regain strength and stamina and preventing unnecessary strain.
- Start slow. It is wise to build your fitness slowly over time. Your body changed dramatically in 9 months, and so it is a smart idea to think it will take you about the same time to get back to your pre-pregnancy fitness.
- Be easy on yourself: Getting back to exercise after birth is not a linear process, after all you are now having to juggle a baby’s schedule in the midst of it all, so be gentle on yourself if consistency and results are difficult to obtain. It may be more realistic some days to be active while on “mom duty”, rather than always carving out time for exercise away from the kids. Of course, setting up a few days a week for that personal time can be quite rejuvenating.
What to consider when postpartum body image concerns challenge your eating habits
- Avoid a dieting mentality. Say no to FAD diets and to removing specific food groups in your daily intake. Calorie restriction in the first 6 months postpartum can affect milk production and supply if breastfeeding. Depleting yourself of adequate energy intake or specific nutrients can affect your ability to cope with the day-to-day rhythm of motherhood.
- Load on nutrient-dense foods. Because energy needs can be so high when lactating, eating nutrient dense foods is the way to go. Avocados, nuts, greek yoghurt are some hearty and healthy options.
- Eat small snacks in between meals with a source of protein. Eating more frequently can also support the increased energy demand in the postpartum period. Choose wholefood snacks with a source of protein to keep you satisfied such as hummus and veggies, fruit and yoghurt and trail mix.
- Choose foods high in fiber and hydrate well. Keeping the bowels moving will surely improve body image. Staying hydrated throughout the day and choosing lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help bowel regularity.
- Lean on a dietitian. Remember you do not have to fight body image challenges alone. Reach out to a dietitian that can personalize nutritional information and help you focus on what matters most during this precious yet challenging time.
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Daniela O’Brien is known for her contagious smile, warm approachability and collaborative approach to nutrition counselling for individuals and families. Her non-judgemental, calm demeaner mixed with confidence and clear direction is especially helpful when families are struggling with meal planning challenges, picky eating, health issues and complex eating disorders. Daniela specializes in Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating, Weight Concerns, Pre/Post-natal, Infant/Kids/Family Nutrition and offers services in both English and Spanish.