Author Bio: Karina Wiatros is a content marketing & PR strategist, a fitness instructor at Farrell's eXtreme Bodyshaping in Minneapolis, and a mother of two (Isaac, 2.5 years, and Owen, 7 months). She enjoys running, kickboxing, and strength training, and maintained a high level of physical activity (with her doctor's blessing) throughout and following both of her pregnancies.
Note: This is a first-person account of one person’s experience with postpartum exercise. You should always consult your doctor about your personal circumstances before beginning your own exercise routine.
You carried your baby inside you for nine months, watching your belly (and more) stretch before your eyes. Now that he or she is on the outside, you might be excited to get back to some of your pre-pregnancy activities, or you might be eager to get into shape after baby.
I get it; I was there too. Twice. It’s exciting to be able to see your toes again and to walk without a waddle, and you might miss your favorite pair of jeans. But let’s take a quick breath here. You just had a baby! Your body (and mind) went through a lot, and you owe it to yourself to ease into any postpartum exercise routine.
Let’s talk about why you should go easy on yourself in the “4th trimester” and what you’ll want to keep in mind as you slowly start ramping up your postpartum activity.
The “4th Trimester”
The “4th trimester” is the term given to the first three months after your baby is born. This is a time of healing and recovery for your body after the physical ordeal of delivering a baby. Despite idealized images in the media of glowing mothers snuggling their sleeping newborns, it’s hardly a glamorous time. Between the physical and mental toll of having a baby, the first few months can be painful, exhausting, and emotional. There are snuggles too (which make it 100% worth it!), but it’s a time to take stock of how you’re doing and what you need as much as it’s a time to care for your new little one.
One way you might want to care for yourself is with postpartum exercise. You’ll want to discuss it with your doctor first, but for most uncomplicated deliveries, you should be able to start light movement like walking pretty quickly. For anything more intense than that, there are a few more things to consider.
Getting Back Into Exercise Postpartum
When and how you attempt postpartum exercise depends entirely on your situation, and you should make sure you’re cleared by your healthcare professional before you start. Recovery from my first delivery was relatively quick and uneventful, so my doctor gave me the all-clear to walk immediately and gave the go-ahead to run and kickbox at my six-week check-up. With my second delivery, recovery was a little slower, and my blood pressure was a bigger concern, so my doctor had more precautions around walking early on. However, because I was in better physical shape before delivery the second time around, I was cleared to take on more rigorous workouts at my son’s four-month well-check. Each person – and each pregnancy – is different. Talk to your doctor and listen to your body. (Note: If you have a C-section or otherwise complicated delivery, you might have greater restrictions or limitations. Always consult with your doctor before beginning postpartum exercise!)
That said, getting in shape after baby likely won’t be business as usual. There are some key considerations in the weeks and months after delivery.
Newborns may wake up to eat every two to three hours, which can quickly drain your energy reserves. You might not feel like getting off the couch to exercise on such little sleep, but a little movement can go a long way! I often found that even a short walk around the local park gave me more pep in my step and gave me an opportunity to bond with my baby. When you’re really dragging, you can enjoy a cup of coffee. And if you’re really, deeply exhausted, allow yourself to rest! Sleep is as important to your health as exercise, so don’t trade it out if you feel like a nap is what you really need this time.
One thing that’s often overlooked is that the hormone relaxin, which your body produces throughout pregnancy to loosen your joints and make room for your growing baby, can remain in your body for up to a year after having a baby. Stability exercises can help, but in general, it’s important to pay close attention to your body and any balance issues you might be having so you don’t end up hurting yourself. Further, your pelvic floor muscles could be strained from supporting your baby and enduring labor. You may have heard of moms peeing a little when they laugh, cough, or jump. That’s usually a result of a weakened pelvic floor. You’ll want to talk to your doctor about your pelvic floor muscles at your postpartum check-up to see if you should spend time on specific exercises to strengthen them. (Some severe cases require physical therapy or even surgery, so it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns!)
Mind Your Core
When most new moms decide they want to get in shape after baby, they likely have their midsection in mind. That belly served you well in holding your child for nine months, but you might still be eager to tighten back up and maybe fit in some pre-pregnancy clothes again. However, your abs may take the longest to bounce back. Not only were they under considerable strain during your pregnancy, but it’s possible you could have some degree of diastasis recti (a separation of the abdominal muscles) that could actually be worsened by traditional “crunching” ab exercises. There are guidelines online for determining if you have a separation, but only your healthcare provider can truly diagnose it. In the meantime, you can try some light exercises designed to strengthen the abdominal muscles without pulling them further apart. Or you can try walking, which naturally engages your core. Even when you can get back into more intensive ab exercises, you’ll want to be patient with yourself. It can take some time to rebuild those muscles.
If You’re Breastfeeding…
If you’re breastfeeding or pumping, you’ll need to consider the impact of exercise on your milk supply as well as your own physical comfort (in both timing and bra support).
Maintaining a strong breastmilk supply requires a lot of water. Experts recommend the average breastfeeding mother drink about 128 ounces of water each day. But when you exercise, you need to add water to that count. It’s worth noting that there doesn’t appear to be a link between drinking more water and an increased supply, but dehydration can reduce your supply. If you’re concerned about maintaining your breastmilk supply while exercising, make sure you are staying hydrated.
I learned very quickly that exercising with full and/or under-supported breasts can be very uncomfortable. For my first postpartum run, I chose a stretchy sports bra, figuring it would fit my temporarily larger size better and not squeeze too much. That was a mistake, and I immediately invested in larger-sized high-impact sports bras. For lighter exercise, such as walking or yoga, a yoga nursing bra can offer comfort, support, and easy access for nursing.
I also learned to exercise as soon after a feeding or pumping session as possible to avoid exercising while engorged, and I always used nursing pads, just in case there was any leakage.
My biggest piece of advice: give yourself grace. Giving birth takes a toll on your body. Parenting a newborn is exhausting. The last thing you need right now is to pressure yourself to get in shape after baby. Instead, think of it as taking care of yourself. Exercise is your chance to take a break, focus on your needs, and empower yourself.
VeryWell Family: The Physical and Emotional Balance of Having a Baby
Shape: 9 Things You Should Know About Postpartum Exercise (and Probably Don't)
American Council on Exercise: Relaxin: Pre- and Postnatal Exercise Considerations
Self: What to Know About Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Your Pelvic Floor
Healthline: Diastasis Recti: What Is It, and How Is It Treated
What to Expect: 9 Diastasis Recti Exercises for Postpartum Ab Separation
VeryWell Family: How to Stay Hydrated When You Are Breastfeeding
Healthline: Fenugreek for Breast Milk: How This Magical Herb May Help With Supply