Early postpartum can quickly send us into survival mode. We’re constantly feeding, changing diapers, going to doctor’s appointments and managing visits from friends and family - just to name a few. Meanwhile, our bodies are trying to heal from childbirth on limited sleep. As mothers, our own self-care, is the first thing to go during this time. And with that, goes any sense of balanced nutrition. I believe there are three keys to (somewhat) successful self-care postpartum - 1. Having others care for you, 2. Planning ahead, and 3. Staying connected to your body as much as possible. Since there is a decent amount out there on key’s 1 and 2, let’s talk about key 3 - staying connected - my favorite.
- Get comfortable listening to your appetite.
Our dieting culture tells us that our appetites are wrong and that hunger is something that needs to be managed and controlled. It’s actually quite the contrary! Hunger is a biological cue that helps you understand how much food you need and when - just like your impulse to breathe or urinate. If you are someone who has dieted in the past, you are probably not used to listening and responding to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. You can start with with awareness. Notice when hunger pops up, how strong or dull it is and what your mind says about it. Take note of how different foods impact your hunger, fullness and pleasure of the meal. This can give you a lot of helpful information about your body and its needs - especially during this unique time while it’s working to heal from childbirth, produce milk and keep you functioning at a reasonable level despite severe sleep deprivation. All of those needs are communicated via high levels of hunger and that might be surprising or unnerving (again, especially if you were told hunger was sort of a bad thing in the past). The best thing you can do when your hunger spikes is to pay attention to it and respond with adequate food - usually a combination of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Regardless of your eating patterns in the past, you may want to consider eating consistent meals and snacks throughout the day - usually 3 meals and 2-3 snacks.
- Have food readily available so you can respond to your appetite in a timely manner.
There will be many times where you’ll be stuck on the couch holding or feeding your baby when hunger spikes. If you’re a new mom, you might be thinking that you’ll simply put your baby down and make yourself a nice lunch. Just trust me on this one, it’s probably not going to happen as easily as you think. It’s weird to imagine but, between your physical healing and a needy newborn, making and eating lunch can feel like quite the task. You also might become so busy that food slips your mind and, when you finally tune-in, you’re ravenous - setting you up for feeling out of control with food. The ideal postpartum meal is nutritionally dense, can be eaten with one hand, tastes yummy and was made by someone else. Think burritos, pitas and sandwiches packed with things like beans, lentils, avocado, nuts, meat, poultry, cheese, quinoa, and veggies - not necessarily all at once but if you have a recipe that includes them all, please share! In the early days post-birth, you might get a lot of meals delivered to your home by family and friends. If you can’t keep up, try freezing some of them for weeks/months down the road. Always keep food like bars, fruit, trail mix and crackers nearby for snacks.
- Avoid focusing on your weight.
Every woman’s postpartum weight loss will look different and it often won’t align with expectations. I recommend shifting the focus from postpartum weight loss to postpartum healing. Check in regularly to see how you’re healing physically, emotionally and spiritually - those are indicators of wellness - not some number on the scale that is largely unreliable and is not indicative of healing or health. Of course, throughout your postpartum experience, your weight will more or less trend down over time. You may stand in front of the mirror in awe of your body and its incredible transformation from pregnancy to postpartum or you might stare in horror wondering who is looking back at you. That unfamiliar feeling might also be felt in the context of your changed identity, your home/work roles, internal emotional experiences, family life, relationships and much more. I want you to know that you’re entitled to feel however you feel about your postpartum body-whether that be positive or negative. Of course, I’m in the body positive camp and I dream of a day when all of us can have a healthy body image. I also realize that if we experience negative body image, and feel shameful about that, we are a lot more likely to keep it to ourselves, go to great lengths to change our bodies and ultimately suffer in silence. Finding someone to talk to who you trust and has a healthy body image can be helpful. Just be careful not fall into a conversation of body bashing! Remember that a shift in body image, while it may have something to do with how you look, can also be symbolic for other things going on. If your body image is distracting and causing you to consistently feel bad in your body or about yourself, I encourage you to reach out for support from a therapist who specializes in postpartum. You might also want to consider a dietitian with experience in intuitive eating, mindfulness and body image.
I hope this has brought some new insight to your postpartum healing and will help you as you navigate this stage of your life! If you’re interested in additional resources on this topic, I have a few to share - they’re either audible or easily accessible online because I know how unlikely it is that you have time to read a book right now! I have founded an online body positive community for mothers called www.thenurturedmama.club. We have a closed facebook group, free member calls and more! We talk about everything from postpartum nutrition to supportive nursing bras. It’s free and we really hope you’ll join us if you’re interested! If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at appetite awareness and challenging our dieting culture, check out the Intuitive Eating Audio CD by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole. I also recommend checking out the Love, Food Podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/love-food-podcast-peace-from/id1076673018?mt=2), Body Kindness Podcast (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/body-kindness/id1073275062?mt=2) and Newbies on the New Mommy Media Podcast (http://www.newmommymedia.com/newbies/)!
Lindsay Stenovec, MS, RD, CEDRD
Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian
President, CA Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, San Diego District