Lean On Me

It's not always easy to keep it all together with a new baby in your life. Here's how to get the support you need, plus a fast, fun buddy workout.

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Like many new mothers, Mindy Potts of Corona, Calif., was frustrated that after leaving full-time work to be a mom, she couldn’t manage her new baby, her household and her personal needs with style and aplomb. Fortunately, the two new grandmas in the family were ready and able to help, along with several neighbors and friends. Together the support group cooked meals, did light housekeeping and laundry and, most important, talked Mindy through her self-doubts about being a mother. Now, six months pregnant with her second child, this mother-turned-part-time-doula is lining up her support early.

Sometimes, to paraphrase Hillary Rodham Clinton, it really does take a village to raise a child — especially in those first six weeks. Whether it’s a village of family or friends does not matter. Women who make the most successful transition to motherhood take advantage of whatever village of support is available. But for many new moms with sleep-deprived minds and emotions that are rocking and rolling, finding out how to get support isn’t always easy.

You can’t do it all

“New moms, especially those who’ve worked mostly outside the home, don’t understand two things,” says Potts, who started working part time as a doula to help other new moms with postpartum issues when her son was 18 months old. Number 1: “At work you have structure and control; with a baby you have neither,” she says. “Also, all new mothers greatly underestimate how much sleep they need. Even though everyone tells them to sleep when the baby sleeps, they clean the house or return phone calls instead. By the end of the week they’re a wreck.”

In the first weeks at home with a newborn, performing the simplest chore can take an hour or more. This is no time to play warrior woman; it’s a time to ask for help. “Turn to the grandparents first; they are usually delighted to pace the floor with a crying baby or to do some laundry for the new little family,” says Vicki Iovine, author of The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy (Pocket Books, 1997) and producer of www.girlfriendsguide.com. “Inviting them into your life is not a sign of weakness, but wisdom. And remember, motherhood is a marathon, not a sprint. If you don’t rest every now and then, you will collapse and the locomotive that pulls your family train will screech to a halt.”

Then, of course, there’s your husband. “Most new mothers are actually their own worst enemies in getting their mates to pitch in and help,” says Iovine. “We think we know better and do it better than everyone else. Your mate may do things differently from you, and much more slowly, but the end results are almost as good! Take the time to encourage your mate; this is a scary time for both of you.” Consider hiring a cleaning person or a high school student to assist with chores after school. Help is not only necessary for practical reasons, but it will save your sanity.

Get thee out of the house

Postpartum experts also encourage new moms to get out as soon as possible, with and without the baby. Best of all is to turn some of your outings into exercise. A 1999 University of Michigan study of 1,000 new mothers compared women who were exercising regularly at six weeks postpartum with those who weren’t and found that physically active new moms did better all around.

They adapted more successfully to their new roles, retained less body weight (8.6 pounds compared with 11.3) and were more likely to be out engaging in fun activities, including hobbies and social events. And, importantly, regular exercise did not interfere with successful breastfeeding, says Carolyn M. Sampselle, Ph.D., R.N.C, professor of nursing in obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Michigan and lead researcher of the study.

Other experts agree. “To be a great mom, you need energy. To have energy, you need to be physically fit,” says Adelaide Nardone, M.D., an OB-GYN in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and mother of three.

The ideal workout is one you can do with other new moms. After giving birth to her son four years ago, Potts, now 29, hooked up with a walking group through her hospital. Like many hospitals with well-developed maternal-child education programs, Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., coordinates a Mother/Baby Fitness Walk in several surrounding cities. Potts joined a group based in the city of Irvine — 40 to 50 women, plus their infants and other children, who get together weekly for a brisk 45-minute walk, followed by a talk.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” says Potts, who plans to continue walking through her current pregnancy. “Just talking to other new moms is a great lift. Until you do, you think yours is the only child who wakes you up five times a night.”

Take the baby with you

Obviously, getting to the gym is a little bit more complicated once you have a baby. But with a little creativity, you can make time for fitness. Consider the following:

  • If you like to hike, invest in a front-held baby sling or carrier. When baby gets older, move him to a baby backpack.
  • Jogging strollers are a great investment for those who plan to put in a lot of miles walking or jogging. (Pushing strollers uphill is a great upper- and lower-body workout.)
  • If cycling is your sport of choice, consider buying a bike trailer.
  • Many gyms have good nursery facilities, so your baby can be cared for while you get a workout (just make sure the caregivers are experienced in caring for babies).
  • Hospitals often offer Mommy and Me exercise classes for postpartum moms and babes.
  • If you just can’t get out of the house, get an exercise video or stationary bike or treadmill.

But mothers who can make exercise a social experience often have the best results, says Adelaide Nardone. Comparing notes and finding out that all babies have crying jags at the end of the day, for instance, can make this frustrating time so much easier.

Mindy Potts still meets with her postpartum group four years after she joined because the benefits are physical and emotional. “I watch new moms join, and so many feel shut in and isolated,” she says. “Getting out of the house and having a long conversation with other mothers after a good workout is lifesaving.”

Day 1 Moves

As soon as the first day after giving birth, you can begin doing very gentle exercises (with your doctor’s approval, of course). The following moves will help you relax, stretch your back, strengthen your abdominal muscles and prevent incontinence, which can be common in the first weeks postpartum.

1) Belly Breathing Lying in bed or on the floor, knees bent, feet flat, inhale and expand your abdomen; then contract your abs as tightly as possible, pulling your navel in toward your spine. At the same time, tilt pelvis upward, bringing hips toward lower ribs. Exhale and release. Aim for at least 15 reps per day, progressing to 20–25. Strengthens abdominals.

2) Back Stretch and Strength On all fours, knees under hips and arms under shoulders, back straight, round your spine up toward the ceiling, tucking your tailbone underneath you. Relax your head and neck to fully stretch your back. Return to just past neutral, slightly arching spine, head up. Do 4–6 reps. After 2 weeks, progress to mild strengthening: From the same starting position, lift right leg to hip height and left arm to shoulder height without arching back or rounding shoulders. Lower and repeat with opposite arm and leg. Work up to 8–10 reps, alternating sides. Stretches and strengthens back muscles.

3) Kegels Contract the muscles around the vagina and hold for l0 seconds; then slowly release. Aim for 5 sets of l0 reps at a time; do 3–4 times throughout the day. Strengthens pelvic-floor muscles; may help prevent incontinence.

The Buddy Workout

It’s always more fun to exercise with a buddy, so partner up with a friend or another new mom for this easy postpartum workout to get your energy and shape back fast.

This workout of stretch and strength moves for two to do together was designed by San Rafael, Calif., trainer Karen Andes, author of A Woman’s Book of Balance (Putnam/Penguin, 1999). They can be done any time, anywhere, and take about 10 minutes to do — a perfect routine for busy new moms. Do these exercises with your partner 2–3 times a week. Bonus: It’s a fact — working out with a partner is the best way to get and stay motivated.

1) All-Over Back Stretch Stand facing your partner. Holding her hands or forearms, separate your feet approximately hip-width apart [A]. Bend your knees and sit back onto your heels, rounding your spine. Pull away from each other until you feel a stretch in your back muscles [B]. Hold for 30 seconds without bouncing; continue to breathe fully, deepening into the stretch as you relax. Repeat. Stretches back, buttocks, rear shoulders

and biceps.

2) Squats Stand facing your partner with your feet hip-width apart, holding each other’s forearms. Contract your abdominal muscles so your torso is erect and your tailbone points toward the floor [A]. Keep body weight toward your heels as you both bend your knees, lowering torsos into a squat position, hips no lower than knee level [B]. Take 2 counts to lower into the squat and 2 counts to straighten legs to starting position. Do 6–l0 reps. Strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks.

3) Tug of War Stand facing your partner as in exercise 1, holding hands. Bend your knees, with your back straight, shoulder blades squeezed down and together, sitting back on your heels. At the same time, your partner bends her knees and rounds her back as if to pull away from you. As she straightens her spine to sit back in a squat, you round your back and pull away from her. Continue to alternate this tug of war so you do each move 6–10 times. Strengthens legs, abdominals and lower back.

4) Seated Angle Stretch Sit on the floor facing your partner. Place your feet on the inside of her ankles with your knees slightly bent. Holding hands or forearms, your partner sits erect. Use your feet to press her legs open, gently stretching your groin muscles. To increase stretch on rear of your thighs, your partner gently pulls you toward her so you’re leaning forward from your hips. Hold for 30 seconds, deepening into the stretch with each breath. Switch leg positions so she now gets to stretch. Relax and repeat. Stretches inner thighs and hamstrings.

5) Chest Press Stand facing your partner with legs separated hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Your partner contracts her abdominal muscles, bending her elbows and touching palms with you, so her elbows point backward, fingers up. Push against her so she’s giving you resistance while you push her away from you. Your partner uses her abdominals to help stabilize her position [A]. When your arms are almost straight, reverse the pushing action so she’s pushing against you [B]. Continue to alternate the chest press 6–l0 times each. Strengthens chest, front shoulders and triceps.

6) Chest Stretch Your partner sits on the ground cross-legged and you place one knee gently against her back. She extends her arms above her head, and you place one hand on the inside of each of her wrists. She sits erect, supported by your knee as you gently pull her arms back until she feels a stretch across her chest. Hold for 30 seconds without bouncing; switch positions. Relax and repeat. Stretches chest and front shoulders.

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