Having worked with numerous new mums, I know that the postnatal stage is a vitally important time for a new mother’s body to return to its pre baby best. During this period, many changes in your hormones, muscles, and emotions occur. Taking proper care of yourself after birth is therefore essential for a speedy recovery and to feel great about yourself in this new stage of your life.

postnatal exercises
It is important to focus on your emotional and physical wellbeing at this critical time – not just the new arrival’s!

During this time, exercise may be one of the last things on your mind. With all the physical and psychological strain pregnancy and birth put on your body, this is no wonder. There is a long-standing myth that postnatal exercises in the first six weeks following the birth are a strict ‘no-no’. However, depending on the precise circumstances of the birth, light postnatal exercises (walking plus gentle pelvic floor exercises) might be ok as early as two weeks after the birth, or you might have to wait six to ten weeks, especially if you have had a C-section. Of course, you should always ask your doctor for advice specific to you at this critical stage.

Once your doctor says moderate exercise is safe for you, try to resist the urge of doing too much too soon. Young mothers often worry about getting their ‘pre-baby body’ back as soon as possible. Unbelievable celebrity ‘shedding the baby weight’ transformations don’t exactly encourage you to take it slow, either. However, quick fixes are dangerous during this period. You need to give yourself time to heal and recover and any postnatal exercises you do should be modest, and achievable!

I recommend to new mothers that they should, rather than focussing solely on shedding the pounds, consider the emotional benefits of exercise first: the feel-good hormones released during exercise can be beneficial in preventing depression and anxiety. It is not just about getting your body back, it’s also about looking after your emotional wellbeing and properly performed postnatal exercises are absolutely fantastic for that!

Postnatal exercises – Abdominal exercises

During pregnancy your abdominal muscles stretch and can take a little while to return to normal

The first thing that surprises new mothers is how obvious their baby bump still is, even though there is no longer a baby present! Even though exercising the abdominal muscles will eventually help regain your well defined tummy, don’t rush it. You can do yourself a lot of harm if you try to work these muscles too soon – so again, be sure to consult your doctor before the ab crunches.

During pregnancy, the abdominal muscles stretch. Sometimes the muscles separate and they can even tear. While it is unlikely for pregnancy to cause any long-term damage, the abdominal muscles are still weakened and vulnerable in the postnatal period.

If you have abdominal muscle separation

A number of my clients have abdominal muscle separation. If you have separation, I am sure your doctor has assured you that you will be fine and the ‘gap’ will close soon. However, crunches, twists, and other more intensive ab exercises will not be safe in the first month or two. Try this gentle but effective exercise instead:

Place three pillows on an exercise mat and lie on them so that your navel is above the centre of the pillows. Cross your hands over your tummy. Touch your sides with the opposite hands. Inhale, raising your head a few inches above the floor. As you exhale gently, push the ab muscles together with your fingers. Draw your navel inwards toward your spine. Keep your lower back muscles as stable as possible. Inhale and repeat 10 times. Be persistent and try to work your way toward being able to lift your shoulders off the mat, while maintaining the same position.

Pelvic floor exercises

Your pelvic floor muscles are working overtime during pregnancy and childbirth. Regardless of exactly how you gave birth, your pelvic floor muscles will be weaker after the pregnancy. Pelvic floor exercises, therefore, are an essential part of most postnatal exercises regimes. Here are the typical pelvic floor exercises I ask my clients to perform:

Pelvic Floor Exercises do not need to be performed in a gym

Simple pelvic floor muscle squeeze

Start by getting in a comfortable position. It really does not matter if you sit, stand or lie back. Squeeze your pelvic floor muscles. How do you know that you’re squeezing them? Apologies for the graphic description but I tell my clients to imagine trying to stop peeing midstream. Squeeze slowly and hold for as long as you can. Repeat a total of 10 times and then rest for a few seconds. Repeat this set of 10 a total of five times.

At first, you won’t be able to hold the ‘squeeze’ for long. This is completely normal. You might not feel the exercises working at the start, but if you practice consistently, in a few weeks you will feel stronger and better supported in this area.

Pelvic floor muscle squeeze modification

A useful modification to the above movement is to fold a towel and sit on it so that it is positioned between your legs. Perform the squeezes as above. Mentally focus on raising your pelvic floor muscles. Still, really try to be mindful of the movement. As the muscles get stronger, it will be easier to do the exercises.

Seated pelvic floor exercise

This exercise will work wonders for your pelvic floor muscles

Sit upright with a 90-degree angle bend in your knees. Your lower back and abdominal muscles should be as relaxed as possible (while still maintaining good upright posture). Put a small ball (such as a tennis ball or stress ball) between your knees. Alternatively, you could clench your fist and put it in the same place. Squeeze together with your knees. Try not to engage your leg muscles, but focus on engaging the pelvic floor muscles instead. A few weeks in and you can try to use a larger ball such as a small medicine ball.

Lying Leg Raises

Lying leg raise for postnatal exercise

Lie down with your lower back flat on the mat. If you are uncomfortable, place a pillow under the small of your back. Slowly raise both legs. Keep them as straight as possible. Do 10 then rest. For the next 10, try to lift your legs up to a 90-degree angle. If you feel pain or other physical discomfort stop, rest and next time don’t push yourself so much. On the return motion you need not lower your lets right to the floor, you can stop a short distance from the floor to make the exercise more manageable.

After the four week mark, you could try more demanding core stability exercises using a Swiss ball.

For cardio

Childbirth probably seemed like a marathon, but your heart and lungs will thank you if you keep up light aerobic exercise as a new mother. With all the stress of parenthood, the new schedule you have to follow, and the inevitable sleep deprivation, you may not be feeling your best. Start small, but keep it consistent. Walking is the best cardio during those first few weeks. Take your newborn baby out for a walk every day– it is wonderful for the baby, and great for you too. As a general rule, I don’t advocate low intensity cardio, but when it comes to postnatal exercises the doctor’s orders are always to take things slow and some limited cardio with fresh air is much better than sitting on the sofa all day.

Gradually pick up the pace on your mother/baby walking sessions!

This low level cardio is best performed before noon ideally first thing in the morning. Getting some sun in will also help your biological clock as UV light in the morning is known to promote healthy circadian rhythms (and yours will be in slight disarray due to your baby’s irregular sleep cycle). At first, you should go slow, but try to walk faster and longer every day. You want to get to the point where you are slightly out of breath during the walk. After the first three to four weeks, if you feel strong enough and your doctor approves, start adding in some light jogs. More intensive forms of cardio should be saved for later, as they can exacerbate other problems in the postnatal period.

I wish you the best of luck with your postnatal exercise programme. If you have any questions, leave them below and I’ll respond.