Postpartum depletion describes the way new mothers feel for months and even years after baby is born.
A quick story—a little over a year ago, I was walking out of a play gym class with my toddler and newborn, when my toddler ran out towards the parking lot. Don’t worry, I caught him. But not without skinning both my knees (ps that hurts way more than I remember from my childhood) and almost dropping my newborn. It turned out fine, but all I could do in that moment was sit on the sidewalk and cry.
I was just so, so tired. I felt depleted, overwhelmed and quite frankly, a little lost.
And that’s when a mom—an angel—came over to me, bent down to help me up and said the words I will never, ever forget (and always appreciate)—
You’re not doing it wrong. It’s just that hard.
Still makes me cry to this day.
Because the thing is, we moms are simply too hard on ourselves. We do this massively incredible task of growing and birthing a baby, and then expect to snap back to being even “more” than we were before. We need to really start thinking and talking about the impact pregnancy has on us. It’s wonderful, absolutely. But it’s hard.
Understanding why exactly we feel so depleted may be the first step in figuring out how to feel better.
Postpartum depletion isn't a medical term per se, but a way to describe the way new mothers—their bodies + their brains—feel for months and even years after baby is born.
So let’s get science-y—
During pregnancy, there is a tremendous exchange of nutrients, fat, hormones and iron between mom and baby. Not to mention ALL the physical and emotional changes you experience as you grow and give birth to your baby. And while this is on purpose and fabulous for growing those sweet little faces of theirs, it takes a significant toll on us moms. . .for years to come.
Let’s talk about the ways this depletion happens + then what you can do about it to feel better now—
1. Sleep (#duh)
This one should come as no surprise, but almost all moms experience at least some degree of sleep deprivation. Many, many studies have found that women who experience poor sleep after they have a baby (um, anyone NOT raising their hands on this one?) have an increased chance of developing postpartum depression and more health problems in general.
What you can do—
Delegate. Consider hiring a postpartum doula or baby nurse, or simply asking a family member to spend the night, so you can get a solid chunk of sleep.
Don’t over-exert yourself. You are already super-mom, so no need to add anything else to your plate right now. Don’t feel obligated to take on any extra responsibilities—just focus on you and your baby.
Practice good sleep hygiene. This means no TV or smartphones in bed (and the hour leading up to it), consistent bed and wake times when possible and using your bed only for sleep and sex. In other words, no reading stressful work emails in bed right before you try to fall asleep.
Ask for help. Don’t assume that your sleeping difficulties are because you are taking care of a newborn... they very well may be, but it helps to rule out something else more serious by talking to your health care provider.
2. Your pelvic floor changes
The muscles of your pelvis can change pretty dramatically after birth. In fact, most women experience at least some degree of incontience (peeing when you don’t mean to, like when you cough or laugh), general muscle weakness and even sexual discomfort. The unfortunately truth is that in the U.S., we don’t do a great job of helping women get the support they need in this department. In Europe, for example, women are routinely referred to specialists to address any pelvic floor concerns.
What you can do—
Kegels! Kegels are exercises that strengthen your pelvic floor muscles. Check out this guide to doing them correctly.
See a pelvic floor physical therapist. “That’s normal after you have a baby” is not always true, and sometimes an expert can help make a dramatic difference in your life.
3. Your belly shifts
In order to grow a baby, our abdominal muscles have to stretch, and even separate a bit. This separation, known as diastase recti, occurs in almost half of all women and can last well after the baby has been born. This can lead to decreased ab strength, as well as discomfort and pain.
What you can do—
Gentle, firming exercises. Here’s a guide on how to do them.
Seek help. It’s never a bad idea to have your abdomen examined by your provider. Sometimes the separation is severe enough that it will require medical intervention (and you’ll feel so much better when it’s done).
4. Your digestion changes
We’re all familiar with the um, digestion challenges, of pregnancy. But these troubles can last into the postpartum period as well—constipation, nausea and heartburn continue for many women, especially when you add the effects of stress, poor diets (anyone else existing on leftover mac n’ cheese these days?) and exhaustion.
What you can do—
5. Your brain
The actual structure of your brain changes when you have a baby. The good news is that our brains become more efficient and responsive to emotions (um, check). The bad news is that “mommy-brain” is an actual phenomenon—women scored slightly lower on some tests taken during the first few years after birth (so I am not the only one putting her keys in the freezer?!).
What you can do—
Focus on safety. Seriously. It’s estimated that exhaustion accounts for as many as 100,000 car accidents per year, just as an example. Before you get in the car, do a little self-check and make sure you’re really okay to drive.
Be gentle on yourself. It can be really frustrating to feel like you’re not as sharp as you used to be. Remember- you are actually SHARPER than before... your brain power is just focused in a new area now.
6. And what about the baby weight?
Pretty quickly after giving birth, our culture has us wanting to get our “pre-baby body” back. But this is no easy task. The hormone changes alone can make weight loss pretty tricky, not to mention the added stress and schedule changes that come with a new little life to take care of. Have you heard the expression, “it took you 9 months to gain the weight, don’t expect to lose it over night”? It’s pretty true—research has found that it takes most women a year (or more) to lose the baby weight.
What you can do—
Breastfeed. Breastfeeding burns an average of 500 calories/day, and many women find that breastfeeding helps them take the weight off more quickly.
Don’t wait to get healthy... but also ENJOY this time and don’t stress. There is a really fine line to toe here. Research does indicate that baby weight that hangs on for longer than a year can become permanent weight gain. That being said, you are under a tremendous amount of stress as a new mom and adding this to the lot doesn’t help. And, your body has just done an AH-MA-ZING thing—the last thing you need to do is feel bad about your body in any way. Here’s some inspiration for embracing your beautiful body.
7. Postpartum mood shifts, depression + anxiety
Did you know that as many 10-25% of women will experience postpartum depression and/or postpartum anxiety? And that 80% of women will experience notable mood shifts after giving birth, commonly known as the “Baby Blues”? PLEASE check out this list of symptoms, even if for a friend and not you. Postpartum emotional difficulties are caused by hormonal changes, as well as many of the things discussed earlier.
In other words, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.
And, help is out there. Speaking with a therapist or doctor will absolutely change your life. Also remember that if you ever feel like hurting yourself or your baby, you can call 911 or go to an ER.
New motherhood—it demands more than you than you ever thought you could give.
That parking lot jetting toddler is now about to start pre-school, and that newborn is now a toddler. My knees scrapes have heeled and I haven’t cried on a sidewalk in recent history. In other words, I promise you it gets better, mama. But it’s still hard. It’s taken me 3 kids to realize just how hard it all is, and how crucial taking care of myself is.
I’ve learned that self-care is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
My wish for you, new mama and seasoned mama, is that you truly understand how amazing you and your body are, and treat yourself like the mama-goddess that you are.
You’ve got this.