Nov. 19, 2001 -- You've heard about those new moms who get their pre-pregnancy body back just months after childbirth, so why is it taking you so long to lose your baby fat?
Well, to be honest, for most women, getting back the body they had before giving birth isn't easy.
But it can be done. "It takes time," says Amy Ogle, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist. "Women should be kind and understanding with their bodies for up to a year," she says.
How long it takes to get back in shape also depends upon what type of delivery you had. "It takes about six weeks to recover from any abdominal surgery, such as a C-section," says Lisa Mazzullo, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist and clinical instructor at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. Women recovering from a vaginal delivery are often told to use their own judgments when deciding when to start exercising, but they should talk with their doctors before beginning a postpartum exercise program.
The Fitness Factor
Ogle has published a video and companion booklet, titled Before Your Pregnancy: Prepare Your Body for a Healthy Pregnancy. But she gives advice for women after pregnancy as well. Women should eat small meals about every three hours, she says. And they should exercise regularly, as long as they get their doctor's permission first.
Women who were fit before getting pregnant have the easiest time losing weight afterward, says Ogle. To become and stay fit, say experts, you should exercise three to five times a week for 30 to 50 minutes each time. Workouts should include a variety of cardiovascular, strength-training, and flexibility-enhancing exercises.
But doctors warn that women during or soon after pregnancy should avoid starting any moderately strenuous cardiovascular activity they haven't already been doing before the pregnancy. "You never want someone who hasn't been doing moderately strenuous exercise to start doing it," says Mazzullo. "But if someone's been doing something strenuous, we usually let them continue." If a woman wants to start an exercise program after she finds out she's pregnant, Mazzullo recommends she begin with walking and low-impact aerobics. She shouldn't move on to high-impact exercise during the pregnancy. Mazzullo tells most women to avoid high-impact exercise after the 20th week of pregnancy.
Timeline for Weight Loss
Within the first two weeks after delivery, Ogle says, women lose a lot of weight quickly. Much of the 25 to 35 pounds they gain during the pregnancy is made up of two things: water and the baby. But the weight still left over after the baby is born and water retention is the hardest to lose, she says.
Weight loss following a pregnancy should be gradual, says Megan McCrory, PhD, a researcher in human nutrition at Tufts University. McCrory recommends that women lose between half a pound and a pound per week.
Does Breastfeeding Speed Weight Loss?
For years, McCrory says, there has been controversy about whether women lose weight more quickly when they breastfeed. But studies by McCrory and her colleagues at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Davis, show that women who breastfeed do lose weight more quickly. "It's mostly an energy thing," explains McCrory. "When you breastfeed, you draw on the body's fat stores."
The biggest difference in weight loss between breastfeeding and bottle-feeding happens between three and six months after childbirth, McCrory says. But she adds that long-term studies are beginning to show that the advantage disappears over time.
The myth persists that exercise and dieting will dry up a woman's milk supply. McCrory and her colleagues at UC Davis have investigated this area for years and have found no evidence to support it. In fact, their findings show that a combination of dieting and exercise -- including strength training -- does not affect the quality or quantity of milk a woman's body produces.
Beyond the "Baby" Fat
In addition to weight ups and downs, a woman's body goes through a variety of other changes during and after giving birth. Here are the most common:
- Hair loss. As many as 25% of Mazzullo's patients experience hair loss, she says, although it's not permanent. "I point out that they should also see new hair growing as well."
- Stretch marks. This common skin problem most likely has a genetic basis. Science has yet to reveal a proven method for avoiding the marks, which can appear on the stomach and legs. But using Vitamin E, aloe vera or cocoa butter during and after pregnancy can't hurt. "Anything that keeps the skin moisturized is probably good," Mazzullo says.
- Incontinence. Bladder control also can be a problem for new mothers. "That musculature is never going to be totally the same," she admits. Kegel exercises -- tightening the muscles of the pelvic floor and anus -- can help these muscles recover.
Mazzullo also says new mothers can speed their general recovery by continuing to take their pre-natal vitamins, drinking plenty of water, and beginning an exercise program as soon as cleared to do so by a doctor.
"But patience is the key."