By Alexa Joy Sherman
When preparing for the arrival of a baby, it’s natural to think about every way you’ll care for your newborn—from feeding and diapering to bathing and parenting. Without question, there’s a lot to plan. But along the way, you may lose sight of an important detail: yourself.
“Often parents focus on caring for the baby, but forget to think about what they’ll need for themselves after the birth,” notes Glade B. Curtis, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN in Salt Lake City and co-author of Your Pregnancy Quick Guide: Postpartum Wellness (Da Capo Press, 2005). Of course, taking care of yourself as well as an infant may sound impossible. But if you don’t tend to your physical and emotional health—particularly during the six-week postpartum period—addressing your baby’s needs will be even more challenging. Believe it or not, it can be done. It just comes down to planning, communicating, and asking for assistance when you need it.
Maternity Ward Wellness
If you’re delivering at a hospital, most facilities will have essential supplies on hand, but you might want to pack a few things from home to help you recuperate—whether it’s a favorite CD, robe, or brand of maxi pads. “I packed comfort items,” says Brynja Kohler Wind, 35, mom to 7-month-old Sophia in Logan, Utah. “It was nice to have music, and I brought ‘nature sounds’ CDs that were very relaxing.”
Meanwhile, make sure any clothes you bring are big enough (generally whatever fit when you were about six months pregnant); unfortunately, you won’t return to pre-pregnancy size by the time you reach the recovery room or the car ride home. Another important consideration: Think about how many visitors you want dropping by. “It can be a real invasion when people want to see and hold the baby and be a part of everything you’ve just gone through, and that can take a toll on new parents,” says Curtis.
So make a phone list, don’t allow too many people to visit at once, and consider leaving a “do not disturb” sign on the door when needed. Most important, lean on the hospital staff as you heal from giving birth and learn to care for your baby. “Explore medications, sitz baths, sprays, or other pain relievers, and find out which ones work before you go home and you’re on your own,” says Curtis.
The staff can also guide you on breastfeeding and diapering—and take the baby to the nursery so you can rest. “It’s nice to have the baby in your room, but if you really want to sleep, have him go to the nursery at least one of your nights in the hospital,” suggests Carolyn Brann, 41, mom to 1-year-old Lily in La Jolla, California.
After your hospital stay, you’ll be eager to get your new baby home. You’ve probably got the crib ready, the changing table well stocked, and a kitchen full of baby bottles—but what about your own sleeping, bathing, and feeding needs? To make sure you’re well nourished in those first few weeks, store meals and extra groceries while still pregnant. Friends or family may help you with this, or you can prep for yourself. “I made extra batches of everything while I was pregnant and froze them, and I shopped and shopped for groceries,” says Johanna Whetstone, 39, mom to 3-year-old Carter and 1-year-old Gavin in Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to have to think about dinner or lunch, or whether or not we had butter.”
Having paper plates and utensils can help cut down on the number of dishes to wash, says Katie Cartwright, 35, mom to 3-year-old Olivia in Bacon Hill, New York. Personal supplies are a must, too, from toilet paper and tissues to nursing pads and nipple cream. “I was not prepared for the postpartum mess,” adds Rebecca Woolf, 24, mom to 10-month-old Archer in Los Angeles. “You won’t want to run errands in the first weeks, so stock up on tons of maxi pads and throw-away granny undies.” You’ll soon discover that showering becomes a luxury. Get an infant seat to put the baby in while you attend to your personal hygiene. “Bouncers are perfect for a bathroom, just so you can pee or take a shower,” notes Cartwright.
Sleep is another rare indulgence in the weeks after your newborn arrives. Strive to sleep when your newborn sleeps, work with your partner to spell each other when the baby is awake, or have friends and family lend a hand while you squeeze in a nap. Just be sure to select helpers carefully. “In many situations, mothers or mothers-in-law will come to visit, which can be good, or sometimes stressful,” notes Curtis. “I recommend no overnight visits from family for the first two weeks and hiring a non-family member to help out—one who will cook, clean, and/or look after the baby,” says Brann.
A postpartum doula could be a good call (to find certified doulas near you, visit dona.org or icea.org). “Doulas do a lot of hands-on education, whether it’s breast- or bottle-feeding and infant-care skills, or how to put the baby in a sling so you can make a bed, do a load of laundry, or eat,” notes Jacqueline Kelleher, a certified doula in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, director of postpartum services for DONA International and author of Nurturing the Family: The Guide for Postpartum Doulas (Xlibris Corporation, 2002). “I really appreciated the care I got from my midwife and doula,” says Cartwright, who had a home birth. “Since I had some issues learning to breastfeed, it was great to have that personal support.”
Try to give yourself an emotional break as well. Woolf, who also had trouble breastfeeding, says, “Don’t beat yourself up when a certain thing doesn’t work out. Because I’d had a breast reduction and was unable to produce enough milk, I had to supplement with formula, and I was really hard on myself—more than I should have been.”
Love and Marriage
Bonding with your baby is likely to come naturally. The relationship that may be rocked even more than the cradle, though, is the one with your partner. “My husband and I fought like crazy the first couple of months,” recalls Woolf. While tension will vary from couple to couple and may not always be an issue, it’s often the product of exhaustion and the stress of caring for a newborn. Hormones can also play a role. “Talk about postpartum depression with your partner ahead of time,” advises Curtis.
Being aware of how prevalent it is—among new moms and dads—can help you or your partner from taking it personally. “Talk about getting therapy or counseling if it does arise,” Curtis adds. Sharing your feelings, complimenting each other, and expressing gratitude can all help, too, says Curtis, and having both parents home for the first week won’t just give you the occasional break to shower, exercise, or nap, but will also enhance your partnership. “Before we had the baby, my husband and I loved to dance together in our family room,” recalls Shelley Salt Knickle, 30, mom to 1-year-old Reese in Columbus, Ohio. “In the first few weeks, we made sure to dance with each other—and with the baby. I won’t ever forget my husband being so soft and sweet with his little girl.”
Try to make “alone time” a priority as well. Get a sitter so you can have a night out or, barring that, make an event out of a meal at home. “Order dinner from a great restaurant,” suggests Curtis. “Set the table with your good dishes and eat after you put the baby down. Take your time and make it as romantic as you can.” It’s all about relaxation and togetherness. “We implemented Jacuzzi dates nightly,” says Brann. “We do this after our daughter goes to bed, and it gives us time to talk about whatever has happened in our day, the challenges of our new life, and planning for the future— uninterrupted by phone, television, or the baby.”
Finally, realize sex may not be in the cards right away. Most doctors advise you to wait until after your six-week checkup to resume intercourse anyway. So, hug and kiss each other frequently, take showers together, or find other ways to be intimate until you’re given the green light, Curtis suggests.
A Healthy Body
We know, we know: The one thing you will do for yourself is return to your pre-pregnancy weight immediately. Hey, if Denise, Heidi, and Britney did it, so can you—right? Slow down. Losing the baby weight at celebrity speed isn’t necessarily good for you or your little one. While you may be so busy you forget to eat, it’s crucial that you get enough nutrients after the baby arrives. “If you nurse, eating fewer than 1,500 calories a day can put you at risk for nutritional deficiencies, lower your resistance to fight illness, and lower your energy levels,” says Curtis.
The National Women’s Health Information Center (NWHIC) recommends 1,800 calories a day to get the vitamins and minerals you need. Your doctor may also advise you to keep taking prenatal vitamins, particularly if you’re breastfeeding. Aim for five small meals a day, but keep them simple. “You don’t have to do a lot of cooking,” notes Sherri L. Dodd, an A.C.E.-certified trainer and lifestyle and weight management consultant in Santa Cruz, California, and author of Mom Looks Great: The Fitness Program for Moms (BookSurge Publishing, 2005). “Graze on things like whole-grain bread dipped in olive oil, or fruits or vegetables with low-fat dressing.”
For breastfeeding moms, Curtis suggests nine servings of whole-grain starches, four fruits, five vegetables, three servings of dairy, and eight ounces of protein daily (bottle-feeding moms can reduce those servings to six, three, three, two, and six ounces, respectively). Limit fats, oils, and sugars to four teaspoons daily if you’re nursing, three if you’re not. Getting some light exercise as soon as you’re up for it is a good idea too, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests taking things slowly and gradually working up to more challenging activities.
Walking 20 to 30 minutes a day is a good starting point and a great thing to do with your baby. “It’s exhilarating to get out and breathe some fresh air, and your baby will thrive on it as much as you will,” says Dodd. It’s good not only for weight management, but also for your emotional well-being. “I took many walks,” Knickle recalls. “Getting out really helped my state of mind.”
After six weeks, do as much as you’re up for doing and you will get your figure back (maybe even improve upon the previous model). “Getting the weight off was extremely important for me,” says Woolf, who gained 60 pounds while pregnant. “I walked daily and started hiking five times a day at six weeks. I ate small portions frequently, downed water, and stayed away from alcohol.” Five months later, she had lost 50 pounds. “I wanted to feel sexy again,” Woolf says. “Confidence makes a huge difference when you’re strolling the neighborhood in clothes stained with spit-up!”
Of course, appearance isn’t everything, but when you look better, you feel better—and that’s what really matters. The health and vitality that you get from taking care of yourself—inside and out—will benefit your whole family, including your baby.
Alexa Joy Sherman is a freelance writer based in Encino, California, who is striving to take good care of herself, her husband, and her newborn son.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NEW PARENT MAGAZINE, SPRING/SUMMER ‘07
Here’s how to take care of your body (and mind) in those first weeks after giving birth.