With my first pregnancy, I heard all the postpartum stories of saggy bellies, extra weight, wider hips, and stretch marks—basically, the fact that my body would never be the same after baby. The ways in which women around me talked about their bodies after baby were mostly negative and in the vein of resigned exasperation. Not to mention the pressure I sometimes felt: to be and look perfect as a pregnant person and a mom, as well as “bounce back” to some semblance of “normal” effortlessly.
Then I had a baby. And while my body wasn’t the same at all, I also felt… completely fine about that fact. I mean, I JUST GREW A HUMAN. I felt like a strong, badass mother who could survive on 45 minutes of sleep with a strong cup of coffee and whiff of my newborn’s head. Sure, sometimes I missed my yoga-toned bod and rolled my eyes at every new mom celebrity looking stylish and slender five minutes after labor. But for the most part, I knew my body would never be quite the same, just like my life would never be the same, due to one sweet little boy I now had the honor of parenting.
Still, I get it: the transition of motherhood can be disorienting and overwhelming on multiple levels, and the physical ups and downs of post-baby life are no different. However, here are four reasons your body isn’t the same after baby—and why that’s more than OK:
1. Your body is literally adjusting to a new norm
Here are just a few of the things your body could deal with post-baby: crazy hormones, changes to your breasts (whether you’re breastfeeding or not), weight loss, weight gain, acne, larger feet, and hair shedding. And all of that depends heavily on additional variables, like your age, genetic makeup and levels of activity before and after pregnancy. That’s also assuming you had a labor and delivery with no major complications, which does not always happen, and you’re not dealing with any type of ongoing condition, such as diastasis recti or pelvic health issues.
“Most women hope they will indeed return to their former self,” says yoga and pilates teacher Lauren Ohayon, who also specializes in postnatal fitness. “There is nothing wrong with that, but I wish more moms would focus on how their bodies work (function) hand-in-hand with how they look (fit). There is so much focus on fitness, but fitness and health are not always synonymous. You can be super fit and your body still breaks down with the load of pregnancy, birth, and mothering.”
Personal trainer Candice Cunningham says many new moms become hyper-focused on their stomachs and lower body after baby; they often assume either breastfeeding will help rapidly drop pounds or tons of training will lead to a flatter tummy and fitting back into a favorite pair of jeans. However, Cunningham warns that this approach can actually lead to disappointment, unnecessary stress, and even injury.
“A lot of women don’t realize hormones can still be elevated as much as three months after giving birth, and it can be a challenge to find the right fit, so to speak, with a fitness routine to get her body to respond properly,” says Cunningham. “So many women run back to the crunches and planks they were doing before baby, and don’t realize that this can actually damage their stomachs and core muscles even more.”
When working with postpartum bodies, Jamie Shifley, a mom of five and a registered dietitian nutritionist with 15 years of experience, leans on five factors: weight before baby, weight gain during pregnancy, physical activity during pregnancy, breastfeeding (or not), and age of the mother. For example, because metabolism slows with age, younger moms may have an easier time losing weight after baby. And although breastfeeding can cause some women to lose a bunch of weight quickly, it can result in others holding onto additional weight.
“If you have trouble losing weight prior to pregnancy, you may struggle more to lose the weight you gained during pregnancy,” she adds. “Some women gain very little weight, while others gain a lot. Obviously, the more weight you gain, the longer it will take to lose that weight. But, there are some women who lose the weight fast. Usually, those women were pretty thin prior to becoming pregnant. Women who remained active (within recommendations) often find it easier to…maintain strength, fitness, and flexibility. You will likely lose a little bit with the recommended postpartum rest, but it will be much easier to regain those losses if you’ve taken six weeks off as opposed to 10 months.”
Meaning: cut yourself some freaking slack when it comes to the shape and size of your body after having a baby. Instead of stressing about getting back in shape, give yourself plenty of grace based on the fact that your body is literally adjusting to a new normal, which will take time.
2. The healing and recovery process varies for every body
There are a few major ways your body changes postpartum, says Ohayon. First, your pelvis might be more unstable, and prone to aches and pains. Second, shoulders typically become more rounded forwarded, due to holding and caring for baby. Finally, your core and pelvic floor both need time to rest and recover appropriately.
“We already are a forward-centric culture via smartphones, driving, and sitting,” notes Stephanie Forster, mom of two and founder of a San Francisco-based studio that specializes in pre and postnatal pilates. “Baby feeding (breast or bottle), enlarged breasts, baby holding and baby wearing all intensify this inclination, and lead to tighter overall musculature even for those who are quite flexible pre-pregnancy. Lack of sleep and hydration is also common in postpartum moms, plus some kind of pelvic floor dysfunction.”
As a result, getting your body “back” is definitely not going to happen overnight—nor should it, since your body is a little occupied with healing and recovering in general, as well as adjusting to new physical demands. “It took nine months for you to get your body ready for the baby,” says Cunningham. “It is going to take time to get it back, so be patient.”
3. You realize that women, and mothers, are inundated with unrealistic cultural and social expectations around bodies
Quick soapbox moment: the only reason we worry about our body being different after baby is because we are consistently told we should worry—after all, the supposed goal is to stay aligned to a singular norm of being as thin and toned as possible AND make motherhood look easy on all fronts, particularly the physicality of it. And everywhere new mamas turn, they see depictions of other women “doing it right.”
“Most women have culturally-induced unrealistic expectations—i.e., pictures of Beyoncé three weeks postpartum on the red carpet or Kate Middleton outside the steps of the hospital in full make-up seven hours postpartum,” says Forster. “[Kate] should not be shamed for her appearance, which is essentially her job, but it does set the bar really high. Rare are the more difficult struggles, like those of Blake Lively or Serena Williams.”
Magazines, television, and social media all contribute as well, and it’s easy to feel like you’re lacking or downright alone in terms of your postpartum body. That’s when you might want to hit the unfollow button, or take a break from consuming certain forms of media that cause you to compare or second-guess yourself.
4. You’ve got a new reason to stay strong and healthy
You know why I cultivated a better sense of appreciation for my postpartum body? I had way less time to dwell on it, and eventually, fretting over what my body did or didn’t look like became… boring. I wanted to kiss my baby’s chubby cheeks, or catch up on much-needed sleep, or have a glass of wine with my husband—not stare at myself in the mirror and analyze every wrinkle or pound. I wanted to feel energetic and strong, not achieve a number on the scale. And I wanted to love myself for bringing a new life into the world, for doing my best as a mom and a wife and a woman day-in and day-out.
“Be gentle with yourself and your body,” advises Forster. “The cultural pressure to bounce back with a vengeance postpartum as though you did not just grow a friggin’ human being is incredibly stress-inducing at a time that is already innately stressful. Your postpartum body will always be different, but that difference does not mean worse. Trust your body—don’t hate it.”
Our readers share how they made peace with their bodies after baby—here’s the advice they shared:
“My body created and sustained life! This is my journey, and no one else’s. As long as I am doing my best to take care of myself, that’s what matters. The stretch marks, the weird belly button, the pancake boobs… they’re just labels.” —Nicole B.
“After my daughter was born, between the exhaustion, nursing, emotions, and learning how to be a mom, I knew I wasn’t getting back to my workout routine any time soon. But I would at least, if anything, give myself 10 minutes to stretch. To breathe. To close my eyes and visualize where I am now and where I am capable of getting to.” —Alyssa P.
“I created a postpartum wardrobe, and filled it with transitional pieces in sizes I can wear. This has helped me feel normal and more comfortable now in my skin. Also, I suffer from postpartum anxiety, and group therapy has helped me tremendously!” —Emily M.
“For me, it’s been a struggle, but I’m learning to love myself through this transition because I have a healthy boy and that’s the most important thing. It’s different for all of us. I used to compare myself constantly, but not everyone’s body reacts the same to pregnancy or postpartum hormones.” —Michelle J.
“I noticed a big shift in my mood when I started eating better. I’d always take care of my own meals last, and everyone else in the family first. When I finally put a better focus on my own nutrition (and skin), I was amazed at how much better I felt. I may not weigh the same, but at least I’m taking care of myself, which is a start.” —Michelle L.
“Honestly, it was hard when people would remind me of how skinny I was before my pregnancy as if I didn’t know myself. What helped was just ignoring those comments and focusing on my baby, while also really being determined to go to the gym at least once a week and to make good choices when it came to food.” —Mayra C.