In the first few weeks with a new baby, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. But it’s important to do a few key exercises, which have a number of benefits for both mind and body. Exercise can:
- Help you get moving again after labour and birth or a caesarean section
- Improve your posture, particularly after the long hours of feeding a new baby
- Increase the tone in your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, which have been stretched by both pregnancy and birth
- Help boost your mood and energy levels, by increasing the levels of feel-good chemicals (endorphins) in your brain
And these exercises can be done at home, without any special equipment, in your pajamas (if you so desire)! Having said that, staying at home for long periods after having a baby can make you feel a bit isolated, so it’s a good idea to get out for a short walk (even just around the block) for some fresh air at least once a day. Babies can sometimes get a bit unsettled at the end of a long day, so a walk before it gets dark can be refreshing for both of you.
Pelvic floor muscle exercises for new mums
The most important exercises in the first few days after birth are for your pelvic floor. If you have any stitches down below, you can still start these, but just squeeze gently. They should not cause any pain, if they do – take it very gently. You still need to do them even if you’ve had a caesarean I’m afraid. Pregnancy weakens the pelvic floor as a result of carrying the weight of the baby for nearly 10 months.
What is the pelvic floor?
The pelvic floor is a hammock of muscles that runs from your pubic bone at the front to your tail bone at the back. These muscles help you to be continent; that means being able to hold in wee (urine), poo (faeces) and gas (flatus). They also help to support your pelvic organs, especially your uterus (where the baby was). They also have a role in sexual function (that may not be on your ‘to do’ list in the first few weeks after having a baby!
How to do the pelvic floor exercises
Hopefully, you’ve done your pelvic floor muscle exercises during pregnancy, but in case you haven’t here’s how to do them:
- Sit or lie comfortably
- Squeeze around your back passage as if you are trying not to pass wind
- At the same time squeeze around the front as if you are trying to hold onto a wee
- You might feel a gentle pulling in at your belly button – that is ok, but it should feel gentle, and the focus is down below, not the belly
- Don’t forget to keep breathing!
Start with some short holds (1-2 seconds) and try to build up to 10 in a row with a couple of seconds break in between each hold. Then try some longer holds - these are tricky. Begin by holding just a bit longer than your short holds, then gradually hold a bit longer until you can hold for 10 seconds (this might take a few weeks). Do 10 long ones and 10 short ones 3 times a day and your pelvic floor muscles will be on their way to recovery.
When you get the hang of it, try and squeeze every time you need a wee (but relax one you get to the toilet), every time you cough and sneeze and every time you lift something (for example, the baby, the shopping or the washing basket). And then you just keep doing them – forever. Happy squeezing!
Abdominals (do I even have them anymore?)
Yes, you do! And these muscles work with the pelvic floor to support your back and pelvis (SOGC 2005, Gustafsson et al 2008). There’s the added bonus of having a toned belly, but in the first few weeks after having a baby, there are far more important things than your six-pack ladies….
You can still do gentle abdominal exercises if you’ve had a caesarean (it may pull slightly on your scar) but they should not be painful. Go gently.
Try this exercise on your back with your knees bent up:
1. Breathe in and as you breathe out, tighten your pelvic floor muscles (as above). Once you've tightened your pelvic floor, gently pull your belly button in and down. You should feel your lower tummy muscles tighten (NHS 2014a, ACPWH 2011).
2. Hold this while you count to 5 without holding your breath (this is the hard bit!). Then slowly relax your muscles. Wait at least five seconds and then repeat. Try to avoid moving your back, over-tightening the tummy muscles above your waist, or squeezing your buttocks together (NHS 2014a, ACPWH 2011). Build up over the coming weeks, aiming to hold your tummy muscles in for 10 seconds by the time your baby is about six weeks old. Don’t forget to breathe! 10 holds 3 times a day is a great start.
You can also do this one on your side, then sitting and then standing.
How to exercise your upper back after pregnancy
It’s very common to have discomfort in your upper back when you're a new mum – all that feeding, all the nappy changing and all that washing! These simple exercises will help the upper and middle back stay mobile:
1. Sit up straight with your arms crossed over your chest. Twist to the left and then to the right. Repeat 10 times each way.
2. Sit and link your hands behind your neck. Twist to the left and then to the right. Repeat 10 times each way.
3. Sit and link both hands together in front of you. Take your arms up in front of you and above your head as far as you can. Hold for two or three seconds and then slowly lower your arms down again. You can make this more intense by leaning over the back of a chair.
What’s next and how do you keep up the postnatal exercises?
There are plenty more exercises you can do to help you recover from the birth of your baby and these are just a start. Take it at your own pace and progress slowly. Regardless of your fitness and type of birth, don’t go back to high impact exercise (i.e. running) until 3 months after your baby is born. Your body takes time to get back to ‘normal’ so give it that time, and if you have any queries, contact your local Women’s Health Physiotherapist.
Sarah Lorentzen is a Women’s Health Physiotherapist with over 15 years’ experience in caring for pregnant women, both in Australia and in the United Kingdom. She completed her Masters in Women’s Health Physiotherapy at the University of Bradford, undertaking research into exercise during pregnancy. Sarah runs Maternally Fit, which provides physiotherapy-led exercise classes for pregnant and early postnatal women.
For more top tips, check out our Omega 3 fish oil guide to pregnancy.