Prenatal and postpartum periods can be tricky, both emotionally and physically. People are constantly commenting on your body shape and size and you’re getting touched without out asking which is…weird. You’re forever fighting cultural and societal norms that encourage women to “bounce back” to a post-baby bod within weeks after delivery. And in newborn-land, lots of mamas simply want to feel like themselves again—or at least in control of something.
The truth is, having a child and transitioning to parenthood can easily prompt the reemergence of an eating disorder or promote disordered eating habits.
A 2011 study of 54 postpartum women in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health found that almost 28 percent of postpartum women had psychological and behavioral traits associated with eating disorders, but only one woman’s medical records listed a history of eating disorders. It’s not that women don’t feel these pressures; it’s that we don’t often talk about it.
Here’s what the experts have to say about moms and disordered eating: why it happens, what it looks like, and how to find balance with everything (literally) on your plate.
It’s really common for new moms to struggle with disordered eating habits
“New moms are highly prone to disordered eating,” says Dr. Ashley Solomon, executive clinical director of the Ohio-based Eating Recovery Center. “The hormonal changes that occur as a result of birth and breastfeeding can alter appetite in significant ways. Combine changing hunger cues with a body that might feel totally unfamiliar can set off difficult feelings and behaviors around eating. Some also have had histories of disordered eating that can get triggered again with as a result of pregnancy and postpartum. And then there’s the fact that being a new parent is stressful! Stress, lack of sleep, and changing routines can all prompt unhealthy eating habits.”
Additionally, the pressure to “get your body back” within the first couple months of having a baby is both insane and unrealistic, says registered dietitian Brigitte Zeitlin. It can also lead to restrictive diets.
“Disordered eating can be related to trying to find a sense of control in a very chaotic time in your life,” continues Zeitlin. “Having a new baby turns everything upside down, and it can be calming and reassuring to put ‘rules’ on your food patterns that create a structure for you to stick to. But this is not a healthy coping mechanism — in fact, this can make it worse because your rules will likely leave you feeling hungry, irritable, stressed, and even more exhausted.”
“Adapting to the new role of motherhood, conflicting baby advice, lack of sleep as well as recovering from the physical effects of pregnancy (even when adding a second baby to the mix if it’s not her first pregnancy), can be overwhelming,” says therapist Tracie Strucker, who specializes in working with adult women facing eating disorders, and has seen a fair number of women who develop eating disorders during the pregnancy or postpartum period.
Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist, also notes that mothers tend to experience four key challenges when it comes to nutritional self-care: hormonal imbalances after childbirth, the need for potential dietary changes or increased calorie intake related to breastfeeding, time and attention devoted to shopping and meal-planning, and a general shift in self-care oriented toward baby versus mom. The result? Absent-minded food choices that might be inconsequential for a child, but highly disruptive to a mother’s health, says Dr. Mendez.
When it comes to your health, there’s a big difference between a short-term adjustment and an actual red flag
Disordered eating occurs on a spectrum, so it might initially feel tricky to discern what’s simply transitional as a new mother and what’s actually a problem. Dr. Heather P. Maio, a licensed psychologist who serves as the assistant vice president of clinical and admission services for The Renfrew Centers, shares three main examples of disordered eating:
- Limiting food groups from your diet (I.e., no carbohydrates, no fats, no sugar, no dairy)
- Portion sizes varying greatly from typical eating habits/patterns prior to pregnancy
- A change in what you allow yourself to consume based on when/if you’ve exercised that day
“There are definitely times as a new parent that sitting down to eat a meal just feels impossible, or you feel like you need to choose between sleep or eating—and sometimes sleep has to win,” says Dr. Solomon. “But if this is a persistent pattern in which you are frequently missing meals, it’s time to call in support. If the crazy eating schedules start to be coupled with thinking a lot about food, feeling fearful of food, or avoiding of eating, there may be a more significant problem. Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time could be what you feel you need to do to get fed before the baby wakes up, but it could also be a form of binge eating. If your eating feels out of control or like you lose the sense that you are totally aware or could stop eating if you wanted, you may be struggling with binge episodes.”
Pay attention to when not eating enough or eating too much becomes a regular habit, or food is providing a sole source of comfort, says Carla Korn, a therapist who specializes in treating prenatal or postpartum eating disorders. It’s also important to try to maintain realistic perceptions and expectations related to weight loss and body image after pregnancy, suggests Dr. Mendez.
If it feels like you’re on a slippery slope, then you probably are
According to Dr. Solomon and Dr. Maio, women who have struggled with a previous eating disorder are at greater risk for relapse during or after pregnancy, but it can also pop up unexpectedly for women who’ve never had an issue before — and the latter seems to happen more and more. On the whole, says Dr. Solomon, big transitions in life are generally difficult for those who have a complicated relationship with food, particularly when that transition impacts appetite, stress, and body shape.
“If you have dealt with an eating disorder in the past, then trying to lose baby weight may be a trigger for you, and disordered eating rules can bring a state of control that feels reassuring,” says Zeitlin. “If this is you, then I would recommend seeing a therapist and speaking to a registered dietitian to combat that slippery slope.
Regardless of the past, anyone can feel triggered to turn to quick-fix, extreme methods to lose the weight and find some control. But doing it in a healthful way does not include ‘excessive’ anything, whether that is dieting or working out.
A meal can get skipped here or there, or the idea of meeting a friend for a meal feels overwhelming, or you push yourself hard at the gym once in a while — these are all normal things to happen, but the difference is your intention.
- Are you intentionally skipping meals?
- Avoiding eating with people?
- Going too hard at the gym to the point where you are more exhausted (than new-mom normal exhaustion)?
- Obsessed with fitting back into your skinny jeans?
If any of those intentions apply to you, then we want to take a look at your habits and create healthier, easier ways for your body to feel good and still meet your goals.
Wanting to lose the baby weight is okay
“The desire to lose the baby weight is really natural, particularly in our culture that pretends that women can or should look as they did pre-pregnancy within a few weeks,” says Dr. Solomon. “The reality is that this does not happen, nor should it! Women who are breastfeeding often struggle with the sensations of increased hunger, sometimes not being sure how to nourish themselves or how to handle that feeling. Some might have to make nutritional changes due to feeding their babies, like cutting out dairy. If this a change, it can be challenging to learn a new way of eating that ensures you get enough nutrients while feeling satisfied as well.”
Korn encourages women to reject diet culture, along with strict rules regarding what to eat, when to eat, and which foods are “good” or “bad.” Instead, she advocates for intuitive eating and exercise that you enjoy.
Zeitlin echoes that approach: “If you’re trying to lose weight, the key is to eat more, not less,” she says. “And if you are breastfeeding, then you definitely need more calories. ” She recommends:
- Eat three or four hours throughout the day
- Make sure those meals include a combination of filling fiber from vegetables and fruit and satisfying lean proteins like eggs, plain greek yogurt, nut butter, chicken, turkey, fish, chickpeas, lentils, edamame, and lean cuts of meat.
- Add in whole grains for energizing B vitamins and heart-healthy fats.
- Make sure you up your water intake.
Dr. Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of disordered eating and body image issues, recommends that moms listen to their body. “Eat when you are hungry, eat what you are craving, and trust that your body will be able to navigate this transition,” she advises. “Our bodies are doing the best that they can to help us recalibrate. Regaining your ‘pre-baby’ body is impossible — you now inhabit a post-baby body, and this is inherently a beautiful thing. The question is: how can you nurture and compassionately care for the body you are currently in as best as you can? Can you give yourself the same love and compassion that you offer to your child?”
“Society has a set of standards for how women’s bodies should look,” states Briana Bogue, a therapist with the Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. “When a previously acceptable body changes to accommodate pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding, etc., it may never return to its previous state. There may be stretching, sagging, and other things that are not societally acceptable for how women’s bodies should look. Therefore, new moms are confronted with a choice: they can accept their bodies as they are, having just produced life within them. Or, they can try to change their bodies to fit societal pressures to be like they used to be.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“If you’re a new mom who is struggling with disordered eating, I would really encourage you to be compassionate and patient with what you are going through,” says Korn. “You’re in the midst of a huge life transition, and turning to manipulating food to cope with that is completely understandable. Try your best to listen to your body and focus on very basic self-care. Remind yourself that you’re not meant to be perfect and that you deserve to take care of yourself in a respectful way.”
Also, remember that you don’t have to go through it alone. Seek out a professional, like a therapist, primary care physician, psychologist, or registered dietitian for advice and strategies to help cope with motherhood — and talk to your loved ones about any anxieties, worries or concerns you might be having. Even if it feels extremely challenging, adds Strucker, getting help and working through issues now is key.
“Get as much support as possible,” says Dr. Solomon. “At the end of the day, stress, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression are all so common for new parents, and our eating and our sense of ourselves are so heavily impacted by these issues. It’s crucial to remember that we can’t go it alone during this time in our lives. We need to find our tribe and to accept any help offered. Let others bring you meals, make time for nourishing your body, and call in reinforcement when needed.”
If you think you might be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, then please reach out to a professional, call 1-800-RENFREW or visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website.