While pregnancy and birth are written about extensively in the media, I feel that it’s the postnatal period where women need the most help. So earlier this month, I started a series of fortnightly postnatal posts on Get The Gloss, which will cover everything from stitches to placenta pills and jelly bellies. In my first article two weeks ago I covered life after birth, how I’m sticking two fingers up to Gina Ford-style baby training methods, and why I’m starting the Louise Parker postnatal health plan.
In the nine-year gap between my second and third child, I got extremely fit and (dare I say it) pre-baby No.3 I was in the shape of my life and had never felt better. However, bad habits crept up on me, and so when Louise Parker, who whips many a celebrity and - rumour has it - royalty back in shape post-birth, offered to help with her postnatal body plan, I leapt at the chance. It seemed safe and realistic and not severely restrictive. The postnatal period is a time for being kind to yourself, not going on starvation diets or killing yourself with exercise.
There was no way I would start a health plan while I was breastfeeding a tiny baby, so I waited until after I had stopped breastfeeding Willow a month ago. Louise also agreed that best results happen after breastfeeding when your hormones begin to settle down. I have always found that I never lost ‘the baby weight’ while breastfeeding – I feel that the extra love handles are nature’s way of ensuring there’s enough fat to feed a hungry human. So with Willow on the bottle, I've started a prescribed food plan, checking in with a dietitian weekly and following Louise's four pillars of health: Think Successfully, Live Well, Work Out Intelligently and Eat Beautifully. I've also been exercising both fast and slow up to five times a week.
While it’s not exactly easy when I'm tired and juggling three kids with currently no childcare, four weeks in, I’m starting to see results and change some old habits. However before I come onto the details, I would like to reflect on my experiences of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding – where do I start?
There are those women who can breastfeed while cooking a dinner party for ten, answer the door to the postman and go to the loo all at the same time. Then there are those who find it unbelievably hard and can’t bear to carry on a day longer than they absolutely have to. It can be an added pressure when you have a screaming baby hanging off you, new stitches down below, can’t sit down and you are bleeding from your nipples.
I sit somewhere in the middle. For every one of my three babies, I wanted to breastfeed and while I loved the feeling of closeness with them, it wasn’t always easy. With Bella (my first, now 11) I found it so excruciatingly painful that I would have to count to ten before I latched her on, biting my lip, curling my toes and swearing blue murder as I did so. I breastfed her for almost six months but had to use nipple shields (plastic nipple-shaped things) which were a godsend in the face of pain. For years afterwards, I would find them down the sides of chairs and sofas.
I also am not the sort of person to whip my boobs out in public; if they were a size B or C I think I’d probably get them out everywhere, but mine reached a mammoth G-cup after all my pregnancies. Call me prudish, but I never felt comfortable exposing them in public, especially when they were double the size of my babies’ heads.
With Oscar (now nine) things were easier. I had a bit of initial pain but it subsided fast, it was almost like ‘the girls’ had got into the swing of things - no nipple shields required. I really enjoyed breastfeeding him for about four months and I would express sometimes so my husband could do the last feed with a bottle. I gave up after about three months, however. Selfishly, the G-cups were doing my head in; they were painful - like rocks - they would leak everywhere and there wasn’t a hope in hell I could exercise with a stone of weight strapped to my chest.
This time, it was tough initially. On day three, my milk hadn’t come in yet and Willow gnawed so hard that my nipples were cracked and bleeding. Every feed was toe-curlingly painful, but one night, Willow was sick a little and, to my horror, I noticed her milk was tinged pink. I could only assume that, since she was well, this was my own blood. I called my cousin, mother-of-four and earth mother for advice. “I’m thinking of expressing colostrum to give my nipples a rest,” I explained. “No,” she said, “I’d feed through it else it might affect your milk supply.” And so I did, and I’m glad I did. After a few days of painful feeding, my nipples became bulletproof to Willow’s strong suck.
The pain (and the scabs) went away and feeding Willow became, for the most part, a deeply satisfying and nurturing experience. However, the size Gs were back (and then some) and while many people give up breastfeeding due to a low milk supply, my problem was the opposite. My boobs were so full that when Willow came off a feed they would just continue to squirt all over her. At night, my sheets were soaking from the milk, I couldn’t lie on my front or side due to the pain of the engorgement and my milk flow was so fast Willow would choke and cry because she couldn’t keep up. Every time my milk ‘came in’ I would screw my face up in pain if I was mid-conversation and if I tried to express any, it would only increase my supply even more. So, as with all my children, after a few months, I started using formula for one feed a day to give myself a rest from the relentlessness of it all and eventually after three months I gave up breastfeeding entirely.
This is what I have learned from breastfeeding three children:
Breast may be best, but so is a happy mother
Dear breastfeeding pushers: we all know that ‘breast is best.’ We all understand that our breast milk is the perfect composition for keeping our babies alive. We know that French and Italian women all do it without any issues and that it should be the most natural thing in the world (so everyone tells us ALL THE TIME). We almost all want to do it. However, not everyone can. I’ve lost count of the number of friends of mine who’ve been in tears or hugely depressed over their short milk supply, their hatred of breastfeeding, the sheer pain and discomfort of it all. Do NOT beat yourself up if you can’t do it, there is a limit to how much we can cope with when we’ve just pushed an eight-pound baby out of our what-nots or undergone a Caesarean and a spinal block.
Some babies are easier to breastfeed than others
And each one has a different shaped mouth. With Bella, I was doing everything the midwives told me yet it was still absolute agony at every feed. I don’t believe I had a ‘poor latch’ like they say. Maybe I just have very sensitive nipples. Whichever way, it was just hideously painful.
Midwives can be pushy about breastfeeding – but trust your instincts
The government guidelines say that we should breastfeed for six months and the midwives definitely try to enforce this. My NHS midwives were amazing, however, one grabbed Willow’s head pretty aggressively and shoved her on my boob when she was just five minutes old. I have always felt that the pressure to breastfeed in the UK is intense.
And don’t get me started on National Breastfeeding Week where a million women on Instagram display picture of themselves with babies hanging off their boobs. It’s an unnecessary pressure that women who can’t feed just don’t need.
Introduce a bottle early on
Whether you’re giving your baby expressed breast or formula milk, one of the only things I really took away from reading Gina Ford’s Contented Baby first time around was to introduce a bottle before your baby is a month old. I have many friends who wanted to get their baby onto a bottle in order to go back to work, or even go away for a night and their baby literally refused to take it. Many friends and I were told by midwives to avoid ‘mixed feeding’ (ie breast and bottle) as it caused ‘nipple confusion’ but all our babies switched easily between the two from the first week.
Formula milk is not the devil
Do you think they’d be feeding it to babies if it was? I use Aptamil because I did so for my other children, but many friends use Hipp Organic or Nanny Care (a goat’s milk formula).
The first three weeks of the Louise Parker Plan
There could not be a worst time EVER to get in shape than in a heatwave. I know they say there’s never a good time, but everywhere I turn there’s a vat of chilled rose, an ice lolly or a glass of sparkling, sweet elderflower. I’ve been to Wimbledon where I fell off the no-drinking wagon with gallons of Pimm’s and champagne. We’ve had a huge family party and this week one of my best friends is over from Australia; it has been extremely hard to say, “No thanks I’ll have a glass of sparkling water” or “I’ll take a bowl of strawberries over the Eton Mess”. I’ll be honest I have failed a little bit. However, the evenings are also an amazing time to do exercise and salads in this heat are the order of the day so I’m hoping it all balances itself out somehow.
Here are a few of the things I’ve been doing in the first three weeks of the Louise Parker plan.
Lemonising first thing
This is by no means new, but Louise suggests that you squeeze half the juice of a lemon into a cup first thing in the morning and top up with hot boiled water and a bit of cool water. This is said to spark your liver into action. At first, I was loath to give up my early morning Earl Grey (I’ve had a cup every day for about 18 years). However, this first phase of the plan is about getting good habits to stick and I now really enjoy my lemon first thing while I feed Willow her bottle. Note – you must remember to brush your teeth afterwards so the acid doesn’t linger on your teeth. Health experts also recommend you wash your mouth out with water before you do so so you aren't brushing the acid into your teeth.
(Almost) breaking my caffeine habit
Dropping my first tea of the day is one thing, giving up my beloved lattes is quite another. As I wrote last time, it’s not the pregnancy eating habits that ruin me, it’s those I develop afterwards when I am sleep deprived, ravenous from breastfeeding, strung out on hormones and craving Dairy Milk that are the issue.
When I had my initial meeting with the Louise Parker dietitian Alejandra (who now calls me weekly) she asked me how many caffeinated drinks I had a day. Three? Four? “Five!” I squeaked, explaining frantically that three of those were very weak Earl Greys, followed by two coffees. She looked at me like I’d sworn at her and said, “You are only allowed three caffeinated drinks a day and no lattes.” So far I have stuck to her rules and I’m having cappuccinos rather than lattes, which are less calorific.
Weighing my food, even though I swore I wouldn’t
The crux of the Louise Parker plan is eating three meals a day and two snacks. However, you can’t just have any old meals and snacks. I’ve been given a plan of how to mix my macronutrients throughout the day. For example, for breakfast, I need to mix one portion of protein with one portion of low GI wholegrain and one portion of low GI fruit or veg. I also have lists of the foods I can mix together. One of my breakfast options is two eggs (my one portion of protein), a slice of wholemeal toast (my low GI wholegrain), plus berries (the portion of low GI fruit), which has been my breakfast three times this week.
Crucial to the plan, are the portion sizes. There’s definitely truth in the fact that we all eat way more than we need. I can have 50g of goat’s cheese for lunch, for example, which is about half a small roll. I found myself very resistant to weighing my food because I feel it takes the enjoyment and natural ease out of eating (plus I’ve always sworn I’d never do it), but I have initially weighed out a few things as I have absolutely no idea what 200g of yoghurt looks like, but when you actually notice that a normal single yoghurt pot contains 125g, it’s actually quite a decent portion.
Confronting my grazing and learning to snack ‘right’
The one good thing about being given a food plan and being told not to deviate from it is that you become aware of when in the day you go wrong. I now notice how much I graze - a potato wedge here, a few bits of the kids’ pasta there, another latte, a couple of pieces of chocolate with cups of tea, a few elderflower cordials, plus fruit a couple of times a day. It all adds up to many more calories than I need.
The Louise Parker Method tells you how to snack correctly – and that means always including some protein. This might be: one apple or pear with a level tablespoon of nut butter, one Ryvita with 100g of cottage cheese and cucumber, or 20 cherries with 25g of good Parmesan cheese. This really does keep me going until the next meal.
While some nutritionists in the past have told me not to snack at all, Alejandra explains that it’s important not to get too hungry otherwise we tend to gorge on the wrong things, so it’s better to keep blood sugar levels stable.
Alcohol and abstaining in social situations
It’s incredibly hard in this weather to abstain from social drinking. I’m sure everyone can relate to me when I say half of me wants to get in shape and be ‘good’ but half of me says “Sod it, you only live once”. Drinking lots of rose means calories I just don’t need. But I’m getting better at opting for ‘better’ drinks. I love vodka, soda and lots of fresh lime, otherwise known as a Skinny Bitch. It’s refreshing and definitely hits the spot. Alejandra also said better options (if I have to drink, obviously it’s better if I don’t) are Champagne or prosecco because they are lower in sugar and calories than many drinks. However, both hit me quite hard postnatally and I feel totally wiped out the following day after just a few glasses of the stuff.
After three weeks am I seeing results?
As of yesterday, I have officially lost three to four pounds and my clothes are ever-so-slightly looser. I have a gorgeous black sundress by LoveShackFancy that I burst a button off while changing a nappy on the floor just before I started the plan and it’s actually starting to feel loose around the waist.
And even though three pounds isn’t a huge amount, a few people have commented on the way I look too, which is positive. Alejandra explains that fat takes up more volume than muscle, so while I think I haven’t lost much in pounds, my body composition is beginning to look very different, because I've been exercising more - HIIT twice a week, running and yoga. Louise Parker recommends exercising most days but mixing up slower and more intense exercise. The suggestion is also to generally ‘move more.’ I will be covering postnatal exercise in my future posts.
I calculate that if I lose weight at the same rate for the remaining nine weeks of the plan, I’ll be back to my pre-pregnancy weight by the end. Is that doable I wonder? Regardless, one of the happiest benefits I notice so far is how I feel – more upbeat and more energetic than I was a month ago.
Next week – placenta pills and weeks four and five of the Louise Parker Method. Missed the first diary? Read Susannah's introduction to Louise's method here
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