When you’re pregnant, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to best take care of yourself so that you can make a healthy baby. But often, that high level of self-care stops once your baby is born.
Mothers in our modern society are expected to “bounce back” quickly from childbirth and assume the demanding schedule of caring for a newborn without much more than a few days of rest. Fathers, too, are expected to get back to work almost immediately, with little change to their daily routines.
The reality is, it takes more than a few days to regain your strength and equilibrium after giving birth. Your body (and life) has just undergone an enormous change, and you will need time to heal and adjust—physically, mentally, and socially. Here are a few simple tips for prioritizing your own health during those first few months known as the postpartum period.
Tip #1: Make a Fourth Trimester Plan
According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO), the weeks following childbirth pose significant health risks for mothers and their babies. Yet mothers often receive comparatively less attention from health care providers during this critical time. One statistic that illustrates this point: about 40% of women don’t attend the postpartum health checkup that is routinely recommended after giving birth (I know I felt so overwhelmed by new motherhood during this time that I, too, skipped this appointment). As a result, a wide range of health concerns—including wound infections, lactation difficulties, incontinence, fatigue, and mood issues—often go unaddressed.
Approximately 70-80% of new mothers experience changes in mood after the birth of their child.
—American Pregnancy Association
Postpartum health has become such a concern in recent years that the WHO and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have changed their standard of care recommendations from two postpartum visits to three (one at 24 hours following birth; one at 5–7 days; and one at 4–6 weeks). But there’s more to postpartum health than just keeping your scheduled doctor appointments. Many health professionals advocate making a “fourth trimester” plan while you’re still pregnant to make sure your own health needs don’t fall through the cracks.
Your postpartum plan should include a full list of resources you may need during the first several weeks, including the names and phone numbers for everyone on your personal care team (OB-GYN, primary care doctor, postpartum doula, lactation consultant, therapists, and alternative medicine practitioners). It should also include a detailed support plan that includes names and phone numbers of babysitters, friends, and family members who have agreed in advance to help out when needed, or at your designated appointments. Post this list on the refrigerator or in some other highly visible spot, where everyone can see it.
Tip #2: Reset Expectations
Many new mothers tend to place unrealistic demands on themselves almost immediately after giving birth: return to work, see friends, keep family commitments, and get back to pre-pregnancy body weight, to name just a few. Unrealistic expectations like these set the stage for health problems that can affect the quality of life for everyone in your household, including your new baby. They can also amplify the anxiety and stress that come with having a newborn (especially the first time around) and diminish your joy.
When my son was born, I thought I could sail through a grueling, all-night labor and delivery, entertain a stream of visiting friends and relatives the next day, learn to breastfeed, ignore my body’s considerable aches and pains, consult with the many doctors and nurses who stopped by my room, struggle with mystifying insomnia, and respond to my phone messages—all while tending to my new baby. And that was just the first day!
After a few weeks of trying to do everything I thought I could, and should, be doing as a new mother, the exhaustion caught up with me. I realized what I really needed was to reset my own expectations of what actually needed to happen. I gave myself permission to stay in my sweats, leave the stroller on the porch, say no to outings or visits with friends, turn off the computer, and let things be a little messier around the house. I knew what my body needed most was rest, and that I needed to make that a top priority.
Tip #3: Get Sleep and Support
A 2012 national survey of 2,400 women found that more than half (51%) reported feelings of stress, physical exhaustion, and sleep loss in the first two months following childbirth. Roughly a third of these women indicated that these issues persisted for at least six months. In the same survey, 58% of women who had had cesareans and 41% of those who had had vaginal births considered pain to be a problem in the first two months. Up to 24% cited infections related to childbirth and breastfeeding to be a problem as well.
To heal your body, and get the rest you need to function well during the day, you need to do what it takes to get a good night’s sleep. Your body has some important healing work to do, and much of that tissue repair happens while you sleep. Try to maximize your sleep time by sleeping when your baby sleeps, for example, rather than staying up after bedtime to get things done. Or, try splitting nighttime parenting duties so that you and your partner can both get larger chunks of sleep.
Just as vital as getting enough sleep is getting enough support from friends, family, and mothers’ groups to help you care for your new baby and yourself. The biggest risk factors for postpartum mood changes are lack of sleep and lack of support. This makes perfect sense to me. There’s a feeling of isolation that often comes along with staying at home with your newborn while almost everyone else you know is at work. There’s also the reality that caring for a newborn can be stressful and all consuming. Help on that front, even if in the form of camaraderie from other postpartum women in mother’s groups, can make a big difference.
Tip #4: Nourish Your Body
Just as sleep is essential to healing and regaining your stamina following childbirth, so, too, is nutrition. Maintaining a healthy diet and drinking enough fluids is important, especially if you’re breastfeeding. Again, the common wisdom is to “eat when your baby eats.” But often, postpartum women are too busy or tired to cook for themselves or prepare a healthy meal. That’s where the support comes in (See tip #2). One of the best “baby” gifts I received was the meal train a friend organized for us. This kept us going and provided me with healthy leftovers for weeks. In the months that followed, I did my best to keep healthy snacks on hand and eat balanced meals with adequate protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Nourishing yourself (and your baby) can also mean continuing to take a quality prenatal or postnatal vitamin, and adding key nutrients to your diet to make sure you’re getting them in adequate amounts. Omega-3 EPA and DHA, vitamin D, and probiotics are among the most essential for supporting your child’s development, your mood, and your own overall health.* As the often-quoted saying goes, “Mothers cannot give from a depleted source.” Take good care of you, and your whole family will benefit.
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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