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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Pregnancy Recovery and Postpartum Health

The miracle of birth is only the beginning. New babies come with new challenges for the mind, body and spirit. Lack of sleep, managing life with a new infant and possibly returning to work in a matter of weeks can make pregnancy recovery difficult.

But recovery is exactly what postpartum moms need. Nutrient deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and physical exhaustion can set the stage for irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, low immunity, low libido, fatigue and headaches. During a time when all eyes are focused on the baby, mom needs nurturing too.

Postpartum Nutrition

A whole foods diet rich in vitamins and minerals provides nutritional precursors critical for pregnancy recovery. B vitamins support the body’s ability to handle physical and emotional stress, while zinc and vitamins A, C and E promote tissue repair. Vegetables are a good source of these nutrients and seven daily servings (or more) will help meet the body’s needs.

Essential fatty acids reduce inflammation, support the immune system and promote healthy hormone balance. They are found in foods such as olive oil, avocado, raw nuts and seeds, wild salmon, halibut, sardines and anchovies.

Refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour should be replaced with whole grains and complex carbohydrates, such as fresh fruit.

Nursing moms can prevent colic by avoiding foods that may irritate the baby’s gastrointestinal tract. These foods include carbonated beverages, caffeine, citrus fruit, strawberries, dairy products (except yogurt with live cultures), Brewer’s yeast and gas forming vegetables like broccoli and cabbage. Breastfeeding women should also avoid foods they know they are sensitive to.

Exercise and Weight Loss

The average postpartum woman loses 10 to 20 pounds in the four weeks following birth, then one to four pounds per month, returning to pre-pregnancy weight after six to eight months. Just as it took time to gain all of the weight, it will take time to lose all the excess.

Women who want to lose weight quickly may be tempted to limit food intake, but restricting protein, fat and carbohydrates compromises the body’s ability to repair tissues and bring the body into balance. Lactating women need an extra 500 to 1000 calories per day for milk production and should not attempt to lose weight while breast-feeding.

When new moms are ready to lose weight, they should get permission from their doctor to start an exercise program incorporating aerobic exercise (40 minutes four to six days per week), strengthening exercises for all major muscle groups and stretching once muscles are warmed up and again at the end of the workout. Women who have a hard time losing weight despite a healthy diet and determined exercise efforts should talk to their doctor about possible hormone imbalances, which can make dropping pounds difficult.

Emotional Health

From exhilaration to isolation, postpartum emotions are often a mixed bag. Feelings of sadness and loss may accompany changes in daily routine, responsibilities and relationships. In the first few days following the birth of a child, an estimated 50 to 75 percent of new moms experience the “baby blues,” a mild and temporary form of depression. Ten percent of women experience true postpartum depression, a more severe form of sadness lasting for at least two weeks after giving birth and interfering with daily activities.

Experts agree that these conditions are multifactorial, attributing onset to psychological variables as well as biochemical changes accompanying pregnancy, labor and delivery. When feelings of sadness persist, women should talk to their doctor about treatment options.

New moms can ease the transition by asking for help when they need it and seeking support from partners, family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers and health care professionals. Spending time with other new moms and their babies can provide regular adult contact and exchange of parenting experience and expertise.

Better Balance

A healthy diet and supplemental nutrients may be enough to address postpartum imbalances caused by nutrient depletion and changing levels of hormones and brain chemicals. If additional support is needed, botanical medicines, homeopathic remedies or supplemental natural hormones can correct more serious problems. Postpartum moms should talk to their doctor before taking any medicine, whether natural or pharmaceutical, especially those who are breastfeeding.

Like everyone else, new moms need nutritious meals, restful sleep, regular exercise, intellectual stimulation and social interaction. Regaining physical, emotional and biochemical balance after the challenges of pregnancy, labor and delivery is the best prescription for postpartum mothers and their new baby.