The power of the postnatal body

The postnatal body is under-appreciated, says Rowena Pelham

Rowena Pelham, 18 June 2012

Isn't the pregnant body amazing? Every single person who has ever existed throughout history got here because of a pregnancy. There can be few mothers who haven't been slightly overawed by the power of their body while it was carrying that child. It sustained a life and met its every need for nine months, with little or no conscious action from the mother. Amazing.

Mother and Child 1959 NARA.jpgBut what I've realised, after two children, is that the postnatal body is not far behind in terms of its somewhat awesome capabilities. The postnatal body, too, can sustain that life and meet its almost every need. We should be as in awe of the new mother's body as we are of her former pregnant one.

I can't have been the only first-time mother who suspected that the shopping list put together during pregnancy seemed a little over the top. Did we really need to shell out for all those things? Still, because it's exciting, and because that stuff is cute (albeit somewhat mystifying - what was I actually going to use muslin squares for?), we merrily shopped away and received the presents and second-hand items.

As a first-time parent, you are left with the impression that an incredibly fragile alien is going to arrive and that only an expert with the skills and gear of, say, a neurosurgeon or orchestral percussionist is going to be equipped to take care of it.

Oh, and throw in the budget of the Olympics too - that kit costs money!

Now, how can that be right? Ever since humans have existed we've cheerfully reproduced and raised our offspring without a baby walker or bath thermometer in sight, haven't we?

What does your baby need?

Rebecca West said: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." It has dawned on me that good parenting is the radical notion that children, too, are people - even newborns! We all need food, warmth, sleep, comfort and the occasional dose of medicine. And so do babies.

I'm no über-natural Earth-mama - I just want the world to know and appreciate how brilliant a new mother's body can be

So, you could buy artificial milk - for which you'll need bottles... and some sterilising equipment, and the bottle brush and some teats... and don't forget the bottle warmer. Or you could feed your baby using your own body. Your milk comes already sterile, at the right temperature and from the perfect teat.

It's thinner and more refreshing on hot days, and thicker and more filling on cold days. It's still often fine for your baby even if you're ill. And it's almost as good for any other baby as it is for your own. It's the only food she will need for the first six months and she'll have just the right amount at each feed. (There's more on this in Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett's fabulous book, Baby-Led Weaning). By the way, I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad about bottle-feeding their children. I gave my first child a bit of formula, and both my sons have had bottIed breastmilk as I returned to work within a few months of their births. I'm no über-natural Earth-mama either! I just want the world to know and appreciate how brilliant a new mother's body can be!

While we're on the subject of milk, did you know what else it can do, besides merely feeding your baby? Well, it's well known that breast milk is packed with antibodies, giving your baby's immune system a kick start. However, according to Gabrielle Palmer's wonderful and life-changing book The Politics of Breastfeeding, this is not just some fun extra bonus of breastmilk: research published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005 found that not being breastfed increases the risks of meningitis, certain infections, cot death, diabetes, certain childhood cancers, obesity, high cholesterol and asthma, leading Palmer to conclude that the poorest breastfed baby will have better lifelong health than the richest formula-fed baby. And that's not through extra medicine or vitamins; it's your body that can do that.

My friend's first baby wouldn't sleep anywhere but face down on her mother's chest for the first few months of her life

My second baby has had the benefit - or misfortune - of having my milk squirted directly into his eyes and nose when they were clogged, and they cleared up rapidly. In cave times there were no eye drops or nasal douches. So milk did the trick, and it still can. It's free and abundant. Brilliant. In Thomas Balmès's 2010 film Babies there's even a scene where a Mongolian mother uses her milk to wash her baby son's face. Could it be that we don't really need No More Tears bath bubbles either? Or am I hoping for too much?

My body is a bed

If you've had children, they might be like mine, who seemed reluctant to sleep in the beautiful Moses basket on the special stand. With my first baby, I couldn't understand it - I'd read the books and articles, I'd listened to the advice, and the best place for him to sleep was his own bed.

Nobody seemed to have told him this, though, and I often struggled to keep him out of our bed. My friend's first baby wouldn't sleep anywhere but face down on her mother's chest for the first few months of her life.

They'd spent nine months inside their mother's bodies, and it was going to take at least that long for them to get used to being on the outside. Of course they weren't going to settle unless they could hear a heartbeat, feel body heat, feel familiar movements, and smell their mothers (not forgetting feeding on demand).

I didn't even attempt to keep my second child out of the bed, and the eldest (now a venerable two-and-a-half-year-old) joins us from time to time. Again, in cave times, it would have made sense to all curl up and sleep together, wouldn't it? You'd be warm and comfortable, and a lot safer from wolves, or whatever.

Bottled milk.jpgThe bodies of new mothers, particularly the breasts, respond to the body temperatures of their babies, warming up and cooling down as necessary. No wonder babies want to be held and cuddled all the time. Unlike us adults, they have not read the experts' latest advice, or listened to cynical friends and family for nine months prior to birth. The only clues they have about how to survive are the instincts evolution has granted them. So regardless of what Gina Ford or your mother-in-law has to say, babies will want to sleep on their mothers and breastfeed on demand, no matter how un-trendy it is at any given moment, or how unappealing it can be to us. They don't know that anything else will keep them alive, even if we do. Instinct keeps babies near their mothers. Don't you wish we had a kangaroo-style pouch? Me too.

The next best thing has to be a basic sling - one of those ones which is just a strip of fabric. It holds the baby close to his mother, where he can hear her heart, feel held all over and feel the rhythm of her walking around - much like in the womb. Anecdotes abound about how nothing would get this baby or that baby to sleep, until in desperation mother put baby in a sling just so she had her hands free to make herself some toast, and within seconds the baby was asleep. What did that baby need? Why, the postnatal body. To be fair, any adult body will make a good substitute, as sling-wearing fathers everywhere will testify, but the new mother's body has the added bonuses of the scent of milk and the already familiar movements and voice.

I think one of the most depressing bits of baby gear I've seen on sale has to be the self-rocking baby seat. For the parent who won't pick up and rock their own baby. Again, I don't blame parents for buying this, as we all want to lavish gifts on children, but it does seem that companies out there are trying to replicate and steal every little job that the new parents' own bodies can do, and make profit from it. And it doesn't do our children much good.

The message I received as the birth of my first child drew nearer was: you are not capable of doing this

Postnatal body vs patriarchy

If you're reading this, chances are you're a feminist. And as such, you might not be new to the idea that society distrusts the female body (not to mention the fluids it produces, including milk). From girlhood, we grow up being told that our bodies are wrong, dirty, smelly, too big, too small, too weak.

Pregnancy changes your relationship with your body. However miraculous its task may be, lots of women are ambivalent towards its new shape, and you certainly do get (too) big and clumsy as the months pass. Then comes the birth. "Give me all the drugs!" cry the women in the sitcoms. Friends and family tell how they could never have faced giving birth without their epidurals. Books, leaflets and health professionals list the different pain relief options available to stop you feeling much of the labour or birth.

I don't know about you, but on reflection, the message I received as the birth of my first child drew nearer was, "You are not capable of doing this." Or rather, my body was incapable.

But then again, countless women everywhere have manged with no pain relief and many still do - they have no choice. Their bodies are strong enough, and ours must be too. Of course, there's no criticism levelled here at women who choose pain relief, but I do wonder if pain relief, hospitalised births and interventions - however well-intentioned - have distanced women from trust in their own bodies.

People accept it when you've got the baby bump, but don't like hearing that you won't have a second glass because you're breastfeeding

If we were constantly told to have faith in our pregnant bodies, that our bodies are capable of giving birth, would we then have more faith in our postnatal bodies? Would we be more confident that our own bodies can feed, comfort, heat and soothe our babies? I know, before the existence of these technologies, maternal and infant mortality was high, but have things gone too far the other way? Surely these days we can support women to believe in their own bodies, but have the doctors on hand should anything go wrong.

Typically, society views a woman's body as being in one of two states: pregnant or not pregnant. But the third state, postnatal, needs to be recognised and its importance elevated. Everything, from your employment and your social life, down to your clothes and sex life, seems to be under pressure to return to its 'not-pregnant' state. Well, it's not that simple.

Here comes the rant:

Let's take work. It's assumed that you'll return on just the same terms as before. I had to go back to work very early, but I thank my lucky stars that I've been in a position to go home and breastfeed or express milk during the day, and I keep relatively short hours compared to most people in similar roles.

Other women in less-flexible circumstances presumably stop breastfeeding. And we all miss our babies and they miss us. There is legislation to protect the rights of breastfeeding mothers, but few employers and women seem to be aware of it, and even fewer invoke it.

Goddess of Fertility Ankara.jpgNext, your social life. I love booze, I really do, but consecutive spells of pregnancy and breastfeeding have meant that I haven't had more than a couple of glasses of wine a week for nearly four years! I'm doing the right thing by my children but I feel like a total killjoy sometimes. People accept it when you've got the baby bump, but don't like hearing that you won't have a second glass because you're breastfeeding. And they always ask when you plan to stop. Well, pal, the World Health Organization recommends that every child is breastfed for a minimum of two years, so get over it.

As for clothing, almost everyone I know who has had a baby in the last few years has posted a celebratory Facebook update when they manage to lie down and use a coathanger to yank up the zip of their pre-pregnancy jeans. Hoorah! The thing is, though, that no clothes actually seem to fit the postnatal figure. Maternity wear won't do after the first few weeks as it's just too large, and pre-pregnancy clothes don't accommodate the fetching paunch that now hangs down instead. You drag your six-week-old round the sales, buying things you don't actually like, in a size bigger than usual, just to have something to put on each day. To date, I have come across just one line of clothing, called 'transition clothes', designed to shrink with your body as the weight comes off. And they were out of my price range. And a bit frumpy.

Where are all the groovy postnatal clothing ranges? And I'm not even going to start on the new phenomenon of clothes with a 'panel' to squish the saggy bit into submission...

Finally, sex. It is a well-kept secret that breastfeeding delays the return of your periods. It's not foolproof, but the fact remains that fully breastfeeding your child will greatly reduce your chances of conceiving another one any time soon. Not for the first time, I am astounded at how clever the postnatal body is! It knows you can't cope with a pregnancy as well as a tiny baby, or a tiny baby as well as a bigger one, so it keeps track of your child's age by the amount of breastmilk needed, and judges when you'll be ready to have another one. If we breastfeed for the recommended minimum of two years and periods return around then, doesn't that space children out manageably?

Reading between the stretch marks

So the postnatal body is truly amazing. And yet society would have us believe that it only has value in terms of its appearance.

The women in the sitcoms remove the prosthetic bump and are back down to size 8 instantly. Countless magazine articles focus on regaining your pre-pregnancy body shape. Praise is heaped on Amanda Holden for her slim frame weeks after the birth of her daughter.

We should simply accept that there is a long period after pregnancy when a woman's body is in another (awesome) state

I don't know what she's been up to, but I do wonder how much time she gave her daughter, and how long she spent on the treadmill. Not that I blame her - she works in the public eye and press and readers alike relish any chance to criticise a famous woman's looks. Doubtless she didn't have much choice but to hit the gym. Alternatively, the Daily Mail interviewed Claudia Winkleman three months after her son's birth. "I've put on three and a half stone - AND DON'T CARE!" screamed the headline. Well, that's very positive, but given that the bulk of the interview was about balancing motherhood with her work on Strictly Come Dancing, why should her weight dominate the headline?

I fall more into the Winkleman camp than the Holden one. My weight loss following each of my enormous babies has been slow and erratic. When my first child was three months old, I tearfully posted a plea on a feminist mothers' forum for support: "Anybody else frankly bloody disgusted with their postnatal body?" Here are few choice phrases from my post and the replies it generated: "I'm so desperately unhappy", "I'm 27 and I feel like a 40-year-old", "I feel like Waynetta Slob", "I really really miss my breasts", "I am simply overwhelmed with disgust sometimes when I look at my naked body", "I'm just a bloated 'Mom' in 'Mom' clothing", "I just can't stand my stomach."

Such is the relationship many a new mother has with her own body. Messages from women whose children were older were much more positive, I must say, and two years and another pregnancy later I am far more at peace with my body. I feel sorry for my body of 2009 and how little regard I had for it and the wonderful things it could do!

Don't fight the flab

One of the benefits of breastfeeding promised by health professionals is that it will help you to lose pregnancy weight. It's true that you need an extra 500 calories a day when breastfeeding (more than when pregnant: you're sustaining a much bigger baby) and the action of suckling causes the womb to contract back down, giving a slimmer appearance.

We should demand that this extraordinary phase in women's lives be recognised and respected for what it is

However, several women I know have grumbled that breastfeeding seemed to keep a certain amount of weight on them, and it was only once their babies were older and feeding less that their own appetites dropped and likewise the number on the scales.

I reckon that nature keeps plenty of fat on the breastfeeding mother to protect against famine. If food suddenly becomes scarce, the mother is still able to nourish her baby and has enough fat stores to keep herself alive as well. (It's just a theory. I have no background in biology or anthropology, so don't take my word for it, will you? But maybe I'm onto something.)

With this in mind, it seems ridiculous to try to lose masses of pregnancy weight quickly. We should simply accept that there is a long period after pregnancy when a woman's body is in another (awesome) state, and just as it behaves differently to the not-pregnant body, so it may look somewhat different, too.

Your postnatal body might, on the surface, bear little resemblance to anything more impressive than a deflated balloon, but this exterior belies the spectacular things of which it is capable. As feminists we should demand that this extraordinary phase in women's lives be recognised and respected for what it is. Yes, there are bits of kit which are a godsend when nature or society doesn't get it right, but women's bodies are powerful, and just as we would rather carry our babies to full term than see them in a plastic incubator for the last two months of pregnancy, so should we embrace our bodies' power to meet our young children's needs, rather than rely on the other bits of hardware - the bottle, the cot, the self-rocking seat - to replace us.

First image of a painting of a mother and child, obtained from Wikipedia (via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Second image of a bottle for bottle feeding, uploaded by Flickr user nerissa's ring. Third image of a statue of a fertility goddess from a museum in Ankara, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Comments From You

mommie's girl // Posted 21 June 2012 at 01:05

What a wonderfully encouraging article Rowena. Wish every young mother could read this. It knocks the spots off of Spock and every other man who has no advice from experience. Well done!

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About the author

Rowena Pelham

Rowena Pelham works full-time as a primary school teacher in London, where she lives with her husband and two young children. Unsurprisingly, she is passionate about breastfeeding, baby-led weaning and good-quality early literacy teaching. More surprisingly, she is also a fan of the British brass band movement, and is a great euphonium player

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