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26th Mar 2016

This Is What Happens To Your Body After Baby Comes Along

Alison Canavan

First things first, we need to talk about relaxin.

During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is released that affects post-pregnancy readiness for exercise. Relaxin is a hormone produced by the ovary and the placenta and its function is to ‘relax’ your ligaments and slacken your joints. This is essential for the bodily changes that occur through the trimesters because it makes the pelvis flexible, which is necessary for giving birth.

While it’s necessary for the delivery room, it has an adverse effect on your stability. The downside of relaxin is that it affects other areas, not just the pelvis. It works on the ankles, wrists and knees for example. And once you’ve given birth, you don’t go back to normal then and there. It takes time for your body to stop producing relaxin and for the effects to disappear. The time it takes increases if you’re breastfeeding because your body will continue to produce it. Again, you can learn from my mistakes: I went back to exercising too quickly and pushed myself too hard and ended up hurting my knee and wrist, leading me to wear supports for the next two years! What I should have factored in was that we are more prone to injury during this time – when our bodies are busy growing, giving birth and feeding our babies.

Due to the presence of relaxin in your post-birth body, it is recommended that you wait at least six weeks before you begin to exercise properly and that timeframe increases to six to eight weeks if you had a C-section. Most importantly, always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise programme and get the all clear.

However, I would strongly recommend and encourage you to do Kegel exercises for your pelvic floor and also stretching exercises from the minute you give birth – and with your pelvic floor, you can start pre-birth.

I think we really underestimate the benefits of stretching (gentle stretches, especially after a C-section) coupled with breathing correctly (inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts) because it can do wonders for your mind and body. Your mental health is extremely important and delicate at this time, so joining the dots to connect eating well, moderate exercise and resting as much as possible is very important. I stretch first thing in the morning and throughout the day. It’s a very simple way to get the body gently moving and it keeps your energy flowing.

I know you’ve heard this already, but you have to be realistic about your goals. The bottom line is that 99% of mums don’t live in Hollywood and don’t have access to chefs and personal trainers 24/7. It took nine months to create a baby and it will take at least that long to shift the weight gained during that time. It went on gradually, remember, so do not expect it to come off all at once. Crash dieting will damage your metabolism and set you up for a possibly lifelong miserable relationship with food.

There’s no big secret to losing the weight and yes, some have to work harder than others. But, like anything in life, you get what you work for. Being healthy is not just about looking good, it’s about feeling good too. With regular exercise you’ll sleep better, your mood will improve and your quality of life will get better as a result. These are pay-offs worth waiting for.

TOP TIP: Please don’t aim to lose more than one pound per week, especially if you’re breastfeeding. Be patient and give your body time to do its work and you may be surprised at how much weight you lose naturally when you eat well, rest as much as you can and relax. Be patient and know the results will come!

Pelvic floor strengthening using Kegel exercises

Kegel exercises are named after an American gynaecologist, Arnold Henry Kegel (1894–1981). He invented the now famous Kegel exercises, which involve squeezing the muscles of the pelvic floor in order to strengthen them.  You need to pay attention to your pelvic floor long before you give birth because a strong pelvic floor will help reduce your risk of incontinence, will boost your core strength and stability, and improve your sexual health which, if we are being honest with ourselves, is what so many women worry about post-pregnancy. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard my girlfriends say that they are worried they will never be the same again ‘down there’. Let’s face it, we all worry about springing back into shape. Well, there’s good and bad news – the bad news is it will never be exactly the same but who cares because the great news is that it will be pretty darn close if you do your Kegel exercises and allow your body to heal properly.

The pelvic floor is like a hammock that supports your bladder, uterus, vagina, and rectum and when the pelvic floor is weak, all of these areas can’t function as well as they should. This is why you need to do your exercises and if you are reading this and thinking, ‘Damn, I haven’t been doing mine’, don’t worry. Just start right now!

One of the key ways to keep your pelvic floor strong is learning how to isolate it so you can give it a workout. Kegel exercises are the squeezing and releasing of your pelvic floor muscles but there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

The right way to do Kegels

  • First things first, you need to find the pelvic floor muscle. The best way to find it is to try to stop the flow of urine when you are peeing. If you manage to hold back the flow, you have found the muscles you want to target and work.
  • Contract these muscles, pulling them up towards your abdomen. It should feel as though you’re squeezing and lifting them slightly up into the body. Just imagine that you are squeezing a small pebble with your vagina – that’s the sort of contraction you’re looking for.
  • If you are having trouble doing the exercises, don’t panic. Immediately after birth, you might still be numb and not feel them, but please ask your doctor or nurse for advice or try doing your Kegels in front of a hand mirror. If you’re doing them properly, your perineum (the skin-covered area between your vagina and anus) should contract with each repetition.
  • Start small. Try and do them several times a day – just a few reps each time, holding the contraction for a few seconds with the aim of building up to holding it for 10 seconds. Take your time and increase them slowly.
  • Continue the exercises for as long as it takes to feel comfortable again, which can be several months or more for a lot of women. There’s no harm in continuing anyway as you will only gain from doing them – especially in the bedroom.

I kept forgetting to do my Kegel exercises in the early days and weeks and, let’s be honest, we have so much to think about with a new baby that it’s impossible to remember everything. But let me tell you, when I sneezed or coughed and leaked, I remembered pretty quickly to do them then!

The beauty of Kegels is that they are invisible, private little movements, therefore you can do them anytime, anywhere. You can be squeezing away while:

  • standing in the line for groceries in the store;
  • sitting watching TV;
  • feeding the baby;
  • in the car;
  • first thing in the morning when you wake;
  • last thing at night before you go to bed;
  • at work;
  • in restaurants and cafes and anywhere else that takes your fancy.

For women who are experiencing leaking, getting back into serious fitness can be a problem. Just make sure that you are wearing supportive clothing and always wear a sanitary pad when you are working out. If you feel a cough or a sneeze coming on, tighten your pelvic floor. If you are sitting down when this happens, really squeeze to help prevent leaking. EVB compression sports shorts are made specifically for this reason.

Some women will need to do pelvic floor work for a considerable amount of time after having a baby, or indeed forever. If you don’t see an improvement and it’s affecting your life and your confidence, please go and see a specialist for pelvic floor physiotherapy. Don’t suffer in silence or be too embarrassed to ask for help. This is something that could bother you for the rest of your life if you don’t take steps to sort it out.

TOP TIP: Set an alarm on your phone to help remind you to do your Kegels and write it onto your chart that’s pinned up on the fridge or on the wall (see Mummy Chart in Chapter 2). You only need to write KFE on the chart and no one will ever know, just you.

So, just what exercise can you do and when?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, ACOG, (whose guidelines are followed by the Royal College of Obstetrician and Gynaecologists) says it’s okay to gradually resume exercise as soon as you feel you are up to it, but of course this will differ for everyone. If you are fit and have exercised throughout your pregnancy and had a vaginal delivery, you can start exercising almost immediately. By exercising I mean a short walk, some stretching and maybe some sit-ups when you are ready. If you had a C-Section, your scar will need time to heal and your movements will be limited for six to eight weeks, including driving and most exercise. If you feel up to it, after a few days you can go for a slow walk, but only if you feel up to it.

Of course, with all this relaxin surging through you, you need to be extra careful or you’ll end up injured like me. You have to modify your activity and listen to your body – and I mean really listen. If you feel something is a potential problem, stop doing it before it becomes a real problem. There is damage you can’t undo – like overstretching ligaments. They won’t just pop back into shape. This means you must take it easy and if your body isn’t ready for something, don’t force it into submission.

Alison Canavan is a health and wellness expert, parenting columnist and motivational speaker who has devoted her career to nutrition, health and wellness, with a strong focus on mental health.