How to Ease Back to Exercise After Childbirth
LloydsPharmacy is delighted to partner with The Bump Room to provide expert led pregnancy and postnatal care for women.
Many of us find ourselves eager to “get our bodies back” after having a baby. But rushing into intense exercise postnatal can have disastrous consequences, from injuries to hormonal issues to incontinence and more. We break down what to expect and give our advice about where and how to start exercising in the fourth trimester.
What is the fourth trimester?
The fourth trimester refers to the 12-week period directly after giving birth. This early postnatal period is viewed as another trimester of pregnancy because human babies are not considered fully developed when they are born. During the fourth trimester, you can expect fussiness and crying from your baby and very likely exhaustion for you. Newborn babies are learning to adjust to life outside the womb where it was warm and squishy!
For mums too, the fourth trimester feels like another term of pregnancy. Many of the physical symptoms of pregnancy are still present: a weak pelvic floor, loose joints, and compromised abdominal muscles. And many of the hormones that were elevated during pregnancy are still lingering, so women often find themselves navigating mental and physical challenges in those early weeks.
The experience most mums have in those early weeks with a new baby is like a rollercoaster ride. There are beautiful, heart-exploding moments with a newborn and the snuggles you’ve been dreaming of for 9 long months. But there’s also inexplicable crying, nappy blowouts, cluster feeding, and if you are breastfeeding - leaky or engorged breasts.
With hormones raging, very little sleep, spit-up in your hair, and a brand-new baby who needs all the things at the same time and has none of the patience, it’s pretty common to feel overwhelmed and completely exhausted.
Physical body changes
In addition to navigating the emotional rollercoaster and “mom brain” your physical body is healing from the process of growing and birthing your baby.
You will experience some bleeding for 4 to 6 weeks after giving birth, and your uterus, which expanded to nurture and grow your baby, needs a bit of time (again 4 to 6 weeks) to return to its normal size. Swelling in your feet, legs and midsection are all very common as your body processes all the extra water, so expect that to disappear over the course of 1 to 2 weeks.
Labour and birth are physically demanding activities, whether you deliver vaginally or via C-section. Along with healing that area, you may need to recover from stitches to repair an episiotomy or a natural tear sustained during vaginal delivery. Mums who underwent a C-section have to recover from major abdominal surgery. All of these wounds and injuries require time and rest to heal.
Labour and delivery wounds or injuries aside, your muscles, which have stretched to 2-3 times their normal length over the last 9+ months of your pregnancy, along with your ligaments, will certainly need months and even up to a year to heal. Given this, intense exercise undertaken in an effort to “get your body back” in the first few months postnatal may actually delay your healing, and run the risk of causing incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse.
If you are breastfeeding, your body is also getting geared up for milk production.
While it’s all worthwhile, and most of it temporary, it can make an enormous difference to have extra support in the early days as both you and your baby learn to navigate this brave new world.
Your postnatal body needs to heal–and that means rest!
While many women feel pressure to “bounce back” quickly after their babies are born, women need a significant period of rest. This is especially true in the first six weeks postnatal.
Certainly, resting is more challenging for some. Many women don’t have help caring for their older children or with household tasks, etc. But every woman’s body needs rest after her baby is born, and some rest is always better than none.
Returning to exercise during the fourth trimester
All too often, mums go zero to one hundred when it comes to returning to exercise. Women tend to see the 6 weeks check with the GP or Consultant as a green light to go ahead and return to all types of exercise.
For both vaginal birth and c-section mums, we recommend beginning to reconnect with your core and pelvic floor through breathwork and gentle exercise early postnatal. This can be started as early as day one - or whenever you feel ready.
How can the Bump Room help?
Here at The Bump Room, we’ve designed a guided program for fourth-trimester recovery that will walk you through the entire process of safely returning to exercise, starting with rebuilding that core connection. This programme is called “Early Postnatal Exercise and Education” and can be found here Free Pregnancy Exercise Resources (thebumproom.ie).
In this free programme, you will get access to lots of videos that help you understand the physical changes your body is experiencing, and how to reconnect to your core and pelvic floor. The movement videos are designed to help you relieve the tension of caring for a newborn and gently reconnect to your core and pelvic floor setting your foundation for a return to exercise.
After a couple of weeks of reconnecting with your core and pelvic floor and giving your body time to heal, you may feel comfortable progressing into some more intense exercise. It is recommended not to return to high-impact exercise until a minimum of 12 weeks after birth. This includes running, jumping activities or regular gym classes.
A period of low-impact exercise is recommended for the first 12 weeks. This does not mean that you can’t do any exercises. Preparing your body with specific strengthening and stretching exercises will set your body up for returning to higher level exercise later.
Every woman’s postnatal experience is different and will also vary widely from baby to baby for the same woman. First and foremost, we recommend giving yourself grace as you navigate the early days of recovery, prioritise rest, and listen to your body. Allow yourself time to gradually return to exercise, avoiding setting unrealistic expectations for your recovering body.