Women can begin light exercise like swimming or walking as early as 24 hours after delivery, Wick says, adding that "it's important to listen to your body when you're getting back to exercise." If you're tired or seeing increased vaginal bleeding, scale back, she says.
In any case, women should not expect their bodies to look like or behave as they did before pregnancy. Much of the changes that can occur – like darkening of the skin, commonly called the "mask of pregnancy" and an enlarged vagina – can be cosmetically adjusted if patients want. While most women can "get their abs back," sagging breasts seem to be "the one thing that sticks," Riley says. "They look fabulous, and then they deflate." As for sex, the dive in sex drive that follows childbirth should eventually return once hormones stabilize, vaginal healing takes place and exhaustion subsides.
But dieting has its time and place. For example, a breast-feeding mom will need extra calories, and even one who isn't needs plenty of nutrients to heal from childbirth, says Iffath Hoskins, a high-risk obstetrician and director of safety and quality in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center. Hoskins advises women to focus on a "new normal" after childbirth. And the most critical issue to address in those fragile first few months is psychological wellness.
According to Hoskins, about 80 percent of new moms feel the "baby blues," as a massive drop in hormones can spell mood swings, not to mention the frustration from sleep deprivation and grappling with a crying baby. While feeling some post-partum depression is OK, failing to talk about it isn't, she says, explaining that women often feel guilty for feeling sad and stressed.
"Don't hold yourself to any artificial standard," Hoskins says. "There is no right or wrong way in the post-partum period ... No one is going to give you a gold star for saying, 'I never cried' or 'I never felt depressed.'" About 5 percent of women who experience "the baby blues" have severe depression, including psychosis like hearing voices that may compel a new mother to harm her baby, she says. No matter what you may be experiencing, get rid of the shame and get it out in the open so you don't have to handle it alone, Hoskins says.
Remember, too, that as prepared as a woman might be for pregnancy and childbirth, it's impossible to predict how a woman will handle motherhood, whether it's her first or third child. "How are you gonna know how you feel when you've had three consecutive nights of being up for an hour each night?" Hoskins asks, underscoring the need to talk to people about your feelings during this time. "You don't have to say, 'Help me, help me. I'm drowning.' You can take all the credit for being a wonderful mother who managed to make it all OK, but in the process, talk to somebody."