Rest when the baby rests is easier said than done. Perhaps lie down while nursing is a more realistic recommendation.
Motherhood. How did you envision it? A beautiful young mother, hair done up, wearing a white, flowing gown, gazing lovingly at her brand-new infant while he sleeps? Try again. “During those early weeks, I barely remembered to brush my teeth. Going to the bathroom was a vacation,” laughs Paula Gillingham Bender of Honolulu and mom to little Sophie. “It was tough when [my husband] had to go back to work, but I would tell myself that it would get better as each day went by. And you know, it did.” While you are, of course, completely enchanted with your baby, the first months of motherhood can be tough on your body, mind and soul. On these pages, you’ll find expert tips on keeping it all together, plus a great hiking and strength-training workout.
Get some exercise
Your first six to eight weeks at home with the baby should be dedicated to getting as much rest as you can while slowly incorporating light exercise back into your life. Even a daily walk around the block will boost your spirits and improve your circulation. You could also try some belly breathing, gentle stretches and, of course, Kegel exercises. But be sure to keep a few cautions in mind. In his book Exercising Through Your Pregnancy (Human Kinetics, 1998), James F. Clapp III, M.D., warns of three conditions that make exercise an absolute no-no during the first six weeks after delivery: heavy bleeding, pain, and breast infection or abscess. Once you get the OK from your obstetrician-gynecologist to work out, try heading to the hills for an easy hike. Check out our hiking workout for new moms.
Ouch! Pain in strange places
Your perineum may be sensitive for several weeks after delivery, especially if stitches were used in the process. Solution? New mother Cathy Allison put a clean, damp sanitary napkin in the freezer and used it for a “peri-pad.” Another new mom, Judith Turner, cut a slit down the middle of a fresh disposable newborn diaper, filled it with crushed ice and applied it to her perineum for relief.
Whatever route you take, keep in mind that many experts recommend that wounds from delivery — episiotomy incision, perineal tear or a Cesarean-section incision — should always be kept clean and dry. Some women also experience a change in sensation in the area of their C-section incision. Some practitioners use vitamin E oil on the incision to assist in the healing process, says Peggy Matteson, R.N.C, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Northeastern University in Boston and a specialist in women’s health. “Many women report that it helps,” she says. But vitamin E should not be applied to a raw incision; it may be used after a scab has formed.
Breastfeeding: the cabbage trick
Your breasts will need some TLC, too, especially if you experience sore nipples or engorgement. “Engorgement is a loose term,” says Mary Jane Chase, R.N.C., M.N., an international board-certified lactation consultant. “There’s engorgement — the rock-hard, painful breasts that make it difficult for the infant to latch on — and then there’s breast fullness, characterized by breast tenderness and firmness. Engorgement is not normal; breast fullness is.”
For relief from breast discomfort, Christine Ballew-Gonzales from Springfield, Mo., suggests this: “Try saturating a washcloth with water; then put it in the freezer until it’s stiff. Place the washcloth inside your bra — it’s very soothing.” True engorgement should be taken seriously. “Engorgement can decrease milk production if not taken care of. It also increases the mother’s risk for a breast infection,” explains Lisa Lamadriz, R.N.C., I.B.C.L.C. So treat engorgement early. Her solution? Frequent feedings, application of heat and hand expression before a feeding.
And cabbage leaves. “I know it sounds strange, but there’s a chemical in cabbage that works like magic to decrease swelling in the breast tissue,” says Lamadriz. “Nick the veins on the cabbage and place the leaves in your bra.” It’s important to identify the cause of the soreness, which often can be due to the baby’s position on the breast,” says Chase. Once that adjustment has been made, healing can be aided by applying breast milk to the affected area and then letting it dry in the open air.
Hey, that’s my hair!
It’s common to lose some hair in the first few months after childbirth as your hormones return to normal, although some women don’t start losing hair until they’ve stopped nursing. Treat your hair gently during this time: Shampoo only when necessary, use conditioner and a wide-toothed comb, and postpone chemical treatments. Continuing to take your prenatal vitamin and eating a healthful diet won’t hurt, either.
Between microtears in the perineum from birth and vaginal dryness due to lowered hormones (not to mention nurturing the baby all day), lovemaking probably won’t be high on your priority list. When you are ready to resume sex (with your doctor’s permission, of course), take it slowly and know that it may be uncomfortable the first few times. An over-the-counter lubricant can help ease the discomfort. And unless you want your six-week postpartum checkup to turn into another prenatal checkup, use birth control (not the pill, though, as it can interfere with breastfeeding).
Whether or not you’re breastfeeding, eating healthfully is important during those first few postpartum weeks, since your body needs proper nutrients to heal. If you are nursing, eating the recommended 500 extra calories a day is pretty easy to do — you’re hungry! The key is to make sure it’s not all coming from junk food.
In her book Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding (Villard Books, 1992), Eileen Behan, R.D., cites studies suggesting that the extra 500 calories (resulting in a total intake of about 2,700 calories per day) may be too much for some women, preventing a steady loss of pregnancy weight. But going below 1,800 calories a day could affect your milk quantity and quality. Before altering your diet now, talk to a registered dietician or your doctor.
Got the blues?
Most women experience “baby blues” sometime in the first weeks following birth. This is a normal part of the postpartum cycle and is characterized by weepiness, irritability and anxiety. It will usually resolve itself within two weeks. However, about 10 percent of new mothers move on from the baby blues to postpartum depression, a more serious condition that may prevent the mother from being able to properly care for herself or her new baby.
“The emotional highs and lows of the postpartum period are most likely the least-prepared-for aspect of the arrival of the new child,” says Tami Jones, M.S.W., a counselor at the Christian Counseling Center in Boise, Idaho. “Visions of sugar plums fade rapidly when faced with the reality of a hungry, crying infant who needs a diaper change at 3 a.m. Realize that feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt and even anger toward the infant are normal for many women. Stop trying to avoid them, and seek out the professional help you need,” she says. “Denial of the problem will only make it worse.”
“Rest when the baby rests” is easier said than done; perhaps “lie down while nursing” is a more realistic recommendation. Some moms swear by freezing meals before the baby is born and keeping a list handy of restaurants that deliver. Another tip: Stay in your nightgown for at least a week to give unexpected visitors the message that you’re still resting.