This article originally appeared in “Chicago Tribune.”
When it comes to telling new moms what they need to hear, we’ve got it all wrong. Recently, I was chatting with my sister Natalie, whose daughter is 10 weeks old.
“I totally don’t understand the logic of losing weight while breastfeeding,” Natalie said to me. “I mean, you’re still eating for two, except now person No. 2 is bigger and hungrier.” She continued, “And on top that, I have zero time or energy to work out or prepare healthy meals.”
Instead of saying, “Breastfeeding leads to weight loss,” we ought to encourage new moms to take in adequate calories. Breastfeeding moms need about 500 more calories per day than moms who don’t nurse, which means you might be even hungrier postpartum than during pregnancy. Also, lack of sleep affects hormones that regulate your appetite, so when you’re exhausted and just want to eat all the cookies, cut yourself some slack — there’s not much you can do about a baby that wakes you up to eat every three hours.
My sister and I kept chatting because I’ve been on her case to see a woman’s health physical therapist since she delivered, and she still hasn’t made an appointment.
“I went to my six-week checkup. My midwife said I’m healing well and everything looks good,” she told me. “But I still have some things that I know aren’t right.”
“So you’re going to see a PT, right?” I said. “Yes, I told my midwife that I want to see one. And actually, she was impressed that I asked. She said she wishes all of her patients would do the same.”
Instead of doctors and midwives telling new moms “everything looks fine,” these front-line health professionals might consider encouraging every new mama to see a women’s health physical therapist.
Perhaps you’ve seen the recent article in Cosmopolitan magazine revealing just how common postpartum injuries are, and how frequently they go undiagnosed. Recent studies found that a year after pregnancy, many women were still experiencing incontinence, pelvic pain and back pain. Stephanie Prendergast, MPT, co-founder of the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles, told Cosmo: “Contrary to what one may think, ob-gyns are not trained to evaluate pelvic floor muscles or nerves even though they work in this region.”
Women’s health and pelvic floor physical therapists are trained to evaluate pelvic floor muscles and treat dysfunction, and in other countries, it is common practice to see a women’s health PT after delivery. I think it’s about time American women hear this message.
My sister tends to get annoyed with me because of my “know what’s best for her” attitude (I’m older), so I knew she wasn’t going to be thrilled when I saw a pull-up bar hanging over the kitchen doorway and said, “You better not be doing pull-ups!”
“I know,” she told me. “I tried and I could tell right away my abs didn’t feel right. I didn’t even do one.” (This crazy strong mama was up to 10 in a row pre-pregnancy!)
Instead of telling new moms, “You’ve carried all that extra weight around for nine months. Now that it’s gone, you should be stronger than ever!” we ought to say, “Your body went through so many changes over nine months that it is going to take at least that long for you to start feeling like yourself again.”
Changes to the body during pregnancy are about so much more than weight gain. As your baby grows, your pelvis tilts to counterbalance this load, which in turn leads your upper back to increase its curve. Your rib cage expands to make room for your lungs as your uterus expands. Your abdominal muscles may separate (diastasis recti) as the baby grows, and your pelvic floor muscles are subject to increased pressure.
To think that pushing out a baby is all it takes for your body to be strong and functional again is crazy! A woman’s initial focus postpartum shouldn’t be to get back to 5K race speed or hit big numbers in the weight room. It should be to restore alignment and gradually build up strength so that she can move well.
Last thing – while I was writing this column, my sister shared with me that she spent the first month of her daughter’s life feeling anxious and paranoid that something would happen to her baby.
“Overwhelmed is an understatement. Every sound, every breath, I thought I was going to lose her,” she said.
I’m not gonna lie. I really didn’t ask my sister how she was feeling about her new role as a mom. I asked how the baby was sleeping. I asked how her body was healing. I assumed that my sister, who has always wanted nothing more than to be a mom and who is a natural when it comes to all things mommy, was feeling nothing but joy. But you can never assume.
Instead of assuming new moms are feeling happy, we ought to say, “This is going to be one of the most intense experiences of your life; it’s hard to predict how you’ll feel, but if you’re scared or sad or overwhelmed, you’re not alone.”
And we ought to be checking in, asking tough questions, making sure everything really is OK.
Postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety and other postpartum mood and anxiety disorders are real. Symptoms of postpartum depression affect an estimated 11 to 20 percent of new moms – many of whom are afraid to ask for help. In fact, only about 15 percent of women with PPD ever receive professional treatment. And that’s not OK.
I love the term “fourth trimester” because it acknowledges that women are not done after delivery. They’re still growing a human, they’re still dealing with physical changes to their body and they’re still overwhelmed with hormones – only now there’s pressure to return back to normal. But there doesn’t have to be. New moms just need to hear the right words.
Nicole Radziszewski is a freelance columnist. She lives in River Forest and is a certified personal trainer and mother of two. Check Nicole out on Facebook at Facebook.com/mamasgottamove.