Not long after I gave birth, I found myself in the gym nearly every day, using energy I didn't have from food I didn't have time to eat. As the mother of a newborn, there weren't enough hours of the day to prioritise my nutrients, my weight goals, and my baby. Something had to give, and it wound up being my eating habits.
When the weight fell off, everyone complimented me. But they didn't know I was struggling to find time to eat. My energy levels and overall health had began to suffer.
What are the long-term implications of the comments we make to new mothers about weight? Prioritising physical appearance over wellness comes with consequences — first child or not, new mums are in a period of transition that may cause uncertainty. Bystanders need to realise that comparing new mums' pre-baby body to their post-baby body can make them feel they lack support or acceptance.
“Comments about the 'pre-baby' body convey that we can step back in time and reclaim the person we were before — this isn't possible and the message is damaging," says Juli Fraga, a psychologist with a focus on prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety.
“Pressure to lose weight can sting one's self-esteem, triggering feelings of hopelessness, instead of compassion and acceptance,” says Fraga.
I felt pressured to be who I was before motherhood—but after a while, I realised that not only was this not possible, it wasn’t necessary.
Even well-meaning comments about weight can have negative effects on the mental health of new mums, says Fraga. “These comments can feel intrusive, sparking feelings of insecurity and shame, especially if the woman has a history of an eating disorder or body image concerns.”
As a new mother, I was too preoccupied with keeping a tiny human alive to dedicate hours to weight goals. But somehow, the comments got to me anyway. The "fourth trimester" is hard—harsh opinions only make it that much more challenging.
“The postpartum period, the year after a mum gives birth, is a time of hormonal adjustments, sleep deprivation, and adjusting to the parenthood role. It's a vulnerable time, and women are at an increased risk of postpartum depression and anxiety during this time. Weight comments aren't generally supportive, nor are they encouraging," says Fraga.
These comments aren't just bad for your mental health — they're bad for your body, too. “When you prioritise weight loss, you end up restricting essential nutrients from your diet. Breastfeeding mums need to maintain a balanced diet to produce adequate milk," says Erica Leon, a registered dietitian nutritionist and eating disorder specialist.
Leon encourages mothers to make eating choices that lead to health instead of weight loss. Dieting leads to a generalised slowing down of someone’s metabolism, and can make new mums more likely to overeat when food becomes available, says Leon.
"Dieting in the pursuit of your pre-baby body can increase preoccupation with food and physical activity at a time that your baby needs your attention more,” she adds.
In my fourth trimester, even while breastfeeding, I did exactly what she said — I put a body type ahead of my health. In retrospect, it sounds foolish, but at the moment, I just wanted to look like I did before.
Leon recommends sticking to a realistic timeline for your return to your pre-baby figure and weight — but keep in mind, your body will likely never be the same. “Your body had to work hard to maintain the pregnancy, and it needs time to recover by eating a healthy, but not depriving diet. Your body will return to its healthy place in due time," says Leon.
And, Leon points out that a new mum's relationship with food has an impact for her child's relationship with food, too. “Show your child through actions, not just words, that food is fuel, as well as pleasure," says Leon. "Teach your child to recognise when they feel physically hungry, and notice when their bodies tell them they have had enough to eat.”
If you find yourself wondering the best way to interact with a new mum in a way that isn't damaging, consider avoiding the topic of weight all together. Instead, mention how well she is interacting with the baby.
Mums want to be seen, says Fraga. She recommends simply asking a new mum how she's doing. "Don't make any assumptions about how they're feeling or what they may need. Mums desire honest and open conversations that focus on their new roles as mothers," says Fraga.
As I discovered, keeping the focus away from the return to pre-baby weight is better for my health — and my baby's.
This article originally appeared on Rodale's Organic Life