Saralyn Ward Helps Moms Feel Even Better After Baby Than Before

    By 24Life

Saralyn Ward noticed something was missing as she taught Pilates to clients and trained instructors. Her prenatal and postpartum students wanted to understand how their changing bodies worked, but there wasn’t much information for them to use.

That reality hit home when Ward had her first child. “I really felt blindsided by the lack of information,” she says. As the first among her friends to have a child and without other new moms to consult, Ward felt especially alone. Suddenly, her passion for helping women became a mission to help moms, and she began The Mama Sagas blog.

Research about pregnancy and fitness is scant in part, Ward says, because new moms aren’t willing to take chances when they—and their new babies—are physically and psychologically vulnerable. Based on the overwhelming response to The Mama Sagas, Ward began to put together an e-book, tapping experts in pediatric and postpartum health to answer tough questions that new moms have about a wide range of topics.

Ward also started thinking about ways to get that information into the hands of new moms in particular, in a way that was more accessible. She remembered one specific night when her baby was having trouble nursing. In pain and feeling helpless at 3 a.m., Ward looked at her phone and thought, I wish there was something I could tap into in the palm of my hand, to give me answers now.

Ward wanted answers that were credible and easy to understand, that didn’t require reading a long article in the middle of the night, “and also, some advice from other moms who have been there,” she adds. From that flashback, inspiration struck, and The Better After Baby app was born.

Now also serving as an editor for Healthline Parenthood, Ward is busy helping people navigate parenting challenges from breastfeeding to maternal mental health. Now, as more parents turn to digital sources to help them navigate life in a pandemic, she’s more passionate than ever about changing the conversation about postpartum fitness. And she has a 7-year-old in distance learning, a 4-year-old who wants to do everything big sister does, and a new baby who’s busy eating, playing and sleeping.

24Life recently asked Ward to share her insights into prenatal and postpartum fitness, what it means to be better after baby, and how she manages her own mental and physical wellness as life gets busier than ever.

On changing the conversation about postpartum fitness

One of the things I’m most passionate about is changing the “bounce back” narrative. That’s the most antiquated way to look at postpartum. I’m guilty of it myself: I worked in fitness for eight years before I became a mom. I thought that’s what new moms should want and aspire to do, to bounce back to this pre-baby version of themselves.

Before isn’t possible, after: What we’re realizing with not only research but also in so many stories of moms sharing their truth, is that bouncing back is impossible. Quite literally, it’s physically impossible to get back to where you were before the baby was born. Our bodies aren’t the only things that change: our brains change, our hormones change, our perspective, priorities and identity change. Sometimes even our eyes, feet or hair changes! Encouraging women to try to return to a version of themselves that is no longer available does more harm than good.

According to research, hormones play a huge role postpartum health. Cortisol, the hormone associated with stress response, is often at an elevated level postpartum because you’re not getting a lot of sleep. That makes losing weight harder, among other things. When the placenta is delivered, progesterone takes a nosedive. This can incite a stage of estrogen dominance, which also makes losing weight more difficult. So, we’re telling moms just to work out harder, but from a foundational level, your body is trying to regulate and find its baseline again when everything is out of whack.

The old routines delay good health: If you try to go back to a high-intensity workout routine before your body is ready or before you’re fully healed, it can increase cortisol levels, which will make your body hang onto belly fat. It can lead to higher blood sugar levels, too. We need to pay more attention to hormone levels postpartum and let that determine what we should be doing in the exercise studio. Women usually want to pick up where they left off with exercise, without realizing that their bodies need to heal and their hormones haven’t yet regulated.

I think the thing to remember is that more is not always better. For me, personally, not only in having children but in getting older, it’s been important to learn to move with appreciation for my body, rather than punishing my body for something that I was not happy about or didn’t like. Our bodies are amazing. The fact that we can even carry children to begin with is phenomenal and a miracle in and of itself.

On knowing your readiness to return to movement

Before diving into an intense fitness routine, look at your levels of postpartum anxiety. Fifty percent of cases of postpartum anxiety and depression start in pregnancy. A lot of women don’t realize that it’s not always just the baby blues, that they should seek help for something hormonally and biochemically driven. Exercise can certainly help with mood regulation. But high intensity exercise can further elevate cortisol so proceed with caution.

Also, women should ask a doctor or physical therapist to assess the pelvic floor and abdominal wall before hitting the gym. Conditions like diastasis recti or prolapse can worsen without the proper exercise considerations.

Mental health is important. Talk to your doctor; be open about what you’re feeling from the standpoint of mental health. For instance, a lot of new moms have intrusive thoughts. They don’t want to talk about those intrusive thoughts—I had them myself—because it’s scary: you don’t know if somebody is going to want to take your child away because you have had thoughts that pass through your head about hurting the baby or hurting yourself. In fact, one study that questioned 100 women found that every single one of them had fears of accidental harm coming to their baby. Almost half of them thought they could be the cause of the harm. These thoughts are terrifying and very common.

We’ve got to create safe spaces for women to share their truth and what they’re going through and realize that a lot of these things are not an emotional problem; they’re a biochemical problem.

Diet can help—or hurt: A lot of [hormone regulation] is diet-related too. A dietician and an endocrinologist may be able to figure out your hormone levels and adjust your diet. Some research has shown that cutting carbs—which a lot of women do to lose weight—can make your serotonin levels drop. Seratonin is a feel-good hormone, and linked to mental health. So, there’s reason to believe that moms have a higher risk of postpartum mood disorders if we encourage them to “bounce back” by cutting out all carbs.

The sum of your body is not just parts: Many women experience diastasis recti, essentially a widening of the gap between the two sides of your abdominal wall. It’s a stretching of the connective tissue between the diastasis recti which creates an unstable core. When this happens, there are certain exercises that should be avoided until it has healed, such as crunches and planks. But lot of women gravitate to crunches and planks right away, because they want to get their abs back.

Another area that’s misunderstood is the pelvic floor and how it works. [Women are told] do Kegel [exercises], which is a contraction of the pelvic floor muscles. But you can be TOO tight and still have problems with incontinence. Kegels can make that problem worse.. If you only tighten a muscle without teaching it to lengthen and relax, it’s going to become very short and taut and it won’t be able to expand when it needs to expand – like with a full bladder. That’s why we need to tell women about alternatives, like pelvic floor physical therapy, where they can get a customized diagnosis and regimen.

On changes in Ward’s routine

I give myself so much more grace and so much more compassion than I used to. During my third pregnancy, I didn’t worry about the pounds. I didn’t step on the scale unless I was at the doctor’s office. That was really hard for me to do [with my previous pregnancies]. But this time I focused on waking up every morning and meditating and doing some easy movement and stretching, gentle Pilates and yoga. And I gained less weight than I did in my other pregnancies.

Self-care includes breaks from self-care: You have to create time for yourself, especially busy moms—before you give everything you have to everyone else. I get up very early. I wake up to meditate and to exercise and to do my work on The Mama Sagas at about 4:30 in the morning. And that works for me because I can wake up that early, and I love those early morning hours before anyone else gets up.

There are times when I’m sick or I’m tired and it’s hard to wake up early, but I give myself the grace of knowing “This is a period of time. This is a season. I’ll come back to it when I can.” It’s most important to do what you can with where you are right now.

Her best advice for raising siblings. As new moms, we are biologically wired to answer the baby’s every call. When you have a newborn and a two-year-old or even a five-year-old at home and they both need you at the same time, who do you answer first?

My mother-in-law gave me the best advice. She told me to put the baby down somewhere safe and attend to the older child first. They’re old enough to remember that they’re being put second and putting them first at a moment like that will go a long way toward gaining their trust and making them feel safe. They’ll bond with the new sibling much quicker because they’ll see that the new baby isn’t a threat. Eventually, they will see the new baby as part of the family that they can help with, and they can take a bigger responsibility, which will develop a sense of pride instead of jealousy.

Clear space and new thoughts will come in: What I’ve learned to do is sit in stillness, and the answers will come. I always try to come back to meditation: that has been key for me. If I don’t meditate, I notice a huge difference in my day. And I think it’s just because I need time to clear my head. If I don’t have that time to clear it out, then nothing new can come in. If I clear my head, I notice I’m much more able to give myself grace in letting some things slide and knowing when to say no and not take on too much.

Practice observation: It’s important to be able to notice what’s going on around you. That crucial skill of observation that can be lifesaving in some situations. It can also be the key to finding happiness when things feel frustrating or grim, like in the midst of this pandemic. Slowing down and noticing the simplicity of the wind in the trees or the way a bird flies can be a sort of meditation. Observation helps you open the door to appreciation and know what your body needs on that given day. Being able to observe how you feel without passing judgment—and then making decisions—is so important not only as a person but as a parent.

Whether you’re a new mom, about to become one, or you’re her No. 1 supporter, you can find new weekly postpartum workouts, expert tips and webinars and much more in the Better After Baby app, available in the App Store or Google Play. At The Mama Sagas, you’ll find inspiration, wisdom and new ideas from other moms, too.

Photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com