It’s no secret that women’s bodies change dramatically during pregnancy. You gain weight, your uterus grows, and your organs shift. And the changes don’t end there. After giving birth your body is further faced with healing from either a vaginal or cesarean delivery. These postpartum body changes all occur in 9 months or less.
Many women have a hard time dealing with the significant changes that their bodies experience during pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum recovery. In a poll of nearly 7,000 moms conducted by Babycenter, 64% of those polled reported more negative feelings about their body after giving birth. Postpartum body image is an important topic to discuss since the majority of new moms struggle with accepting their new bodies.
What do you mean by postpartum body image?
Postpartum body image is a term that describes how you feel about your body after giving birth. Women may vary in how they feel about their postpartum bodies.
A significant number of postpartum women struggle with negative feelings about their bodies. Research on postpartum body image has found that women reported feeling less satisfied with their bodies as time went on. They had more negative feelings about their bodies at 9 months postpartum compared to right after they gave birth. Studies have also found that postpartum women with negative body image are more likely to suffer from depression.
How do women’s bodies change during pregnancy?
Women’s bodies change dramatically during the 3 trimesters of pregnancy. These changes begin well before a woman starts “showing” her pregnancy. Once you give birth, there may be significant pressure to return to your pre-pregnancy appearance.
There are countless ways that a woman’s body changes during pregnancy. Some of the most significant changes include:
- Weight gain. Women carrying one baby are encouraged to gain an average of 25 to 35 pounds during pregnancy. The weight gain recommendations depend upon a woman’s pre-pregnancy weight and whether a she is carrying one baby or multiples. While weight gain is accepted and even encouraged during this period, you may still find it hard to watch your weight increase. At the same time you may struggle to hold realistic expectations about how long it will take to return to your pre-pregnancy weight.
- Breasts. Your breasts may change several times during pregnancy and postpartum recovery. Initially hormones may cause your breasts to increase in size to prepare for breastfeeding. After delivery, your breasts may continue to change in size, either going up and down depending upon your milk supply. You also may experience pain, discomfort, engorgement, leaking, and mastitis.
- Diastasis recti. This is a condition that involves a separation between your left and right abdominal muscles, which causes your belly to protrude outward. During pregnancy the connective tissue between the abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the growing baby. After delivery, some women find that the muscles return back together, while other women may not heal properly. Diastasis recti can be upsetting for women because their bellies may continue to look pregnant for months after giving birth. If you develop diastasis recti, consider seeing a physical therapist that works with this condition. Your doctor or OBGYN should be able to assist you with a referral.
- Stretch marks. It’s no surprise that during pregnancy the skin stretches, especially during the third trimester. In some cases this may cause colored streaks on the skin that may or may not go away during the postpartum period. Stretch marks can be especially upsetting to women because these changes are not “celebrated” in the same way that weight gain is during pregnancy.
Coping with your postpartum body
You can’t change the fact that your body has transformed as a result of giving birth. Even if you still have weight to lose, you can work on accepting yourself, as you are now, while you take steps toward your health goals. Embracing your body – changes and all – is the key to coping with your new and improved postpartum body.
Consider the following tips for coping with your postpartum body:
- Change your mindset. Instead of fixating on how you look, focus on the miracle(s) that your body has created. Your body has always served many functions, but now it’s created life. Practice gratitude and express love for the fact that your body was able to grow a beautiful baby.
- Avoid triggers for poor body image. Triggers like pictures of “perfect” bodies on social media lead to comparing, which leads to negative feelings like inadequacy and shame, which leads to depression. Make an effort to avoid exposing yourself to whatever it is that might contribute to negative feelings about your body and yourself.
- Surround yourself with body positivity. While you can benefit from staying away from unrealistic images, you can also seek out realistic, positive images of body positivity. There are several websites, social media pages, and groups that promote body positivity. Shape of a Mother is one website that celebrates mothers of all shapes and sizes.
- Be realistic. Your body didn’t grow a baby overnight, which means it will take time to heal and reach your “new normal.” Your energy level and motivation also need time to bounce back after having a baby. Don’t expect immediate results because you will only be disappointed.
Mindfulness practice for postpartum body positivity
Mindfulness is the practice of staying aware of the present moment. It can help you cope with negative feelings, including those about your postpartum body. Mothers often find it hard to devote time to self-care, but taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness can help you re-center and recharge.
Here is a quick mindfulness practice for body positivity:
Take a few minutes to get comfortable in a chair or bed, either sitting or lying down. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths, breathing in for 4 seconds, briefly holding, and then breathing out for 5 seconds. Focus your attention on how your body feels.
What sensations are you feeling in your body? Take note of anything that you’re feeling without judgement, such as “cold air against my skin.”
Give yourself a few minutes or more to continue this practice of noticing the different sensations in your body.
Once you’re ready to move on, begin thinking of what you appreciate about your body. Whatever it is, express gratitude for that part of your body.
Next think about what your body does or has done that you appreciate. Are you grateful for your senses, being able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch? How about growing and birthing a human being? Allow these thoughts to come to mind and think about them for a moment.
When you’ve spent some time thinking about the reasons why you appreciate and love your body, you can come out of your meditation.
Try to make an effort to practice at least one body positive activity each day.
Should I seek help?
Some dissatisfaction with your postpartum body is normal, but if it reaches a certain point then you may benefit from seeking help outside of your support system.
Consider getting help if:
- You think negatively about your postpartum body constantly with little relief.
- Your feelings about your body are affecting your ability to function in several areas of your life, including caring for or bonding with your baby.
- You feel depressed or anxious and are having a hard time coping.
If you have a cold you probably wouldn’t hesitate to see a doctor. The same is true for your mental health. If you’re having a hard time coping with the transition to motherhood, there is nothing wrong with getting help for yourself.
How can I get help?
There are several different ways to approach getting help if you’re struggling with postpartum self-esteem issues.
Psychotherapy can offer you an opportunity to discuss and work through these issues with a trained mental health professional.
If you already have a therapist, you can begin by speaking with them about what you’re experiencing. Your therapist may not directly ask about postpartum body image issues, so you may have to be the one to bring it up first. If your therapist doesn’t have the expertise to help you, they may refer you to another professional who specializes in this area.
If you’re seeking a therapist that specializes in postpartum recovery consider:
- Asking for referrals from your doctor, OBGYN, or by word-of-mouth from friends or family.
- Contacting local professional associations for psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or other mental health therapists. Their websites typically have a directory of local providers and may also list their areas of specialty.
- Conducting a search of Psychology Today, a website that offers a listing of local providers. The site allows you to narrow your search down by city and specialty. A specialty option is available for “pregnancy, prenatal, and postpartum.”
- Postpartum Support International is an organization that offers a directory of local providers that specialize in postpartum issues, a helpline that is accessible by phone or text, and online support groups.
If your symptoms are moderate to severe, you may consider medication in addition to psychotherapy. To find out whether you can benefit from medication, speak with your doctor or a psychiatrist.
Postpartum support groups allow you to connect with other moms who are experiencing similar feelings. Support groups may be facilitated by a professional or peer and may be held face-to-face or online. Some groups allow you to bring your baby with you, while others may suggest that only you attend. Each support group is different.
If you’d like to find a local face-to-face support group, you can search Psychology Today, consult local professional organizations, or ask your doctor, OBGYN, or therapist if they know of any local groups. Many hospitals also offer support groups for former patients.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Weight gain during pregnancy.
Office on Women’s Health. (2018). Pregnancy and body image.
Clark, A., Skouteris, H., Wertheim, E. H., Paxton, S. J., & Milgrom, J. (2009). My baby body: A qualitative insight into women’s body‐related experiences and mood during pregnancy and the postpartum. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 27(4), 330-345.
Gjerdingen, D., Fontaine, P., Crow, S., McGovern, P., Center, B., & Miner, M. (2009). Predictors of mothers’ postpartum body dissatisfaction. Women & Health, 49(6-7), 491-504.
Hodgkinson, E. L., Smith, D. M., & Wittkowski, A. (2014). Women’s experiences of their pregnancy and postpartum body image: A systematic review and meta-synthesis. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 14(1), 330.