With her baby now 4 months old, Susannah Taylor decides it's time to tackle her post-baby 'jelly belly'. In her new fortnightly column, she gives her honest account of birth, her postnatal body and getting her health and fitness back with the Louise Parker Method
If you don’t know me already, I’m Susannah, I’m 42, and I recently had my third baby after a nine-year gap (I already have Bella, 11 and Oscar, nine). My husband Chris and I decided, after much deliberation, that life was way too short not to have another child. After a year or so of trying, I got pregnant again at 41 and our beautiful baby girl Willow was born like a rocket on 20th February.
When I was pregnant, I worried about EVERYTHING. Would we cope with a screaming child and the nights now we were older? What if something were to go wrong during childbirth? What if the baby wasn’t healthy? Would having a baby ruin the incredible bond we already have with our children? Was I going to miscarry like I had before? My worries were exacerbated by comments from other people, “Are you absolutely mad?” people shrieked at me in car parks or on the school run, “You’re nuts, how can you go back to the NIGHTS?” they said screwing up their faces. My worries didn’t go away until that bubba came shooting out vibrant, pink and healthy (and not screaming - for the record none of my children have arrived on planet earth crying) at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
The birth: three hours from the first contraction to hello baby
We don’t always hear the words ‘incredible’ and ‘birth’ in the same sentence because, as my yoga teacher says, “It’s the horror stories that get the most sensational airtime”. However, I look back on all three of my births as pretty mind-blowing experiences despite being excruciatingly painful ones. Each labour was faster than the last and Willow’s was three hours from first contraction to hello. I didn’t have any drugs, not because I’m some weird martyr but they all came out way too fast to get round to it. I'd also be lying if I also didn't have a strange urge to know what childbirth really felt like.
Because of the long gap since Oscar was born, I sought the advice of a doula called Georgie Ruthven , who took my husband and me back through all the stages of an active labour. She was amazing. When it came to it, there was no time to even take my clothes off let alone think about drugs. Willow was born within two minutes of arriving at the birthing suite - the midwives literally caught her when I was standing up after my waters broke all over their reception chairs (so much for wearing the ‘birth nightie’ I’d spent so long choosing!). The contractions were overwhelmingly brutal, but a reminder of how life is an incredibly powerful force.
Life after birth: this time it's two fingers to Gina Ford
So how has it been? So far (and I’m touching wood as I type) having a child 11 years after our first is one of the loveliest things I’ve ever done. When I was younger, I always felt I was missing out on life. Now I know that family is life. It does help that Willow is unbelievably calm. People ask if I think it’s because I’m so much calmer this time around and perhaps that has something to do with it (or perhaps we are just damn lucky). With our first, Bella, we fussed over the temperature of her bedroom, counted the minutes of sleep she had each day and it was a total crisis if she left a fluid ounce of milk at night undrunk. This time around, I feel we are on cruise mode and it feels amazing.
Back when I was 31 I would put Bella in her cot at 6.30pm and did the ‘crying it out’ that all the baby books recommend. While this works for some people, it seems crazy to me now. Willow falls asleep when she does, usually around 8pm, and we’ve stuck two fingers up to any regimented Gina Ford-type advice. If she cries in the night, she comes into our bed as I’m too damn tired to stand over her bed shushing her to sleep.
For me, one of the toughest parts of having a baby is the way you feel after birth. No books will tell you (everyone focuses on the actual birth or the pregnancy) but whether you’ve had a Caesarean or a natural birth, both normally mean stitches of some sort and most women will feel utterly beaten up. Some are so sore they have to sit on an inflatable rubber ring for the first few weeks of their baby’s life.
This time, I really took time to nurture myself, allow my body to heal and bond with my baby once I got the hang of breastfeeding again (more of which next time). I didn’t get dressed for many days, didn’t answer my phone and put off most visitors – it was heaven, just us and Willow who I would tuck inside my dressing gown as I lay on the sofa.
The 'third baby' body
So how is the body post-third human? Surprisingly, health-wise it seems OK – I had no major complications in pregnancy or since, aside from a weird pain in my right buttock (apparently my piriformis muscle) which a chiropractor is helping with. I also feel very stiff in the mornings which is new (if anyone knows a cure please let me know, someone told me it is postnatal arthritis). I also had a few stitches after labour – being stitched up was possibly worse than the labour itself - but they healed fast.
One thing I would highly recommend is exercise during pregnancy. Whereas our parents’ generation were told to put their feet up, we are now told to keep active. I exercised (I took a lot of advice as to what exercises to do) up until the last trimester which kept me sane, and despite being older I have felt stronger for it post-birth.
The worst bit of the old baby bod? Unsurprisingly that’s my stomach - a flabby, jelly-like mass that looks like a deflated balloon. While part of me doesn’t care (I got a beautiful baby in return for heaven’s sake), there is also part of me that opens my wardrobe full of patterned dresses, pretty blouses and skinny jeans and wants to feel like my old self. I have spent my life working on fashion magazines (I was beauty and health editor at Vogue) and what I wear every day actually seriously enhances my wellbeing. I also got myself super fit and lean between the last two pregnancies and I feel a long way from that. So when health and fitness expert Louise Parker emailed me to do her health plan for 12 weeks, it didn’t take me long to say “HELL YES!”.
Louise Parker to the rescue
Louise, ‘The Figure Magician’, Parker has three children herself, looks insanely lean and polished and has helped many a beautiful celebrity as well as (rumour has it) royalty, post birth. One male friend of mine went to see her and lost four stone. I decided, after speaking to her and discovering how sensible and normal she is, that she was the best person for the job. I have always felt that, contrary to public opinion, you don't shift the baby pounds until you have finished breastfeeding because your body holds onto it to keep your baby alive (in fact Serena Williams was saying the same about weight loss and breastfeeding just this week). Louise reiterated this, telling me that I would get best results from her plan once I had finished breastfeeding and my hormones have settled a bit.
While I have always considered myself reasonably healthy, I have lately fallen into baaaad habits. Forget the ‘eating for two’ they warn you against in pregnancy. It’s the ‘eating for ten’ post-birth that no one tells you about. I defy any breastfeeding mother not to shovel in about 400 pieces of toast and jam in between feeds (poor Willow constantly had a cluster of crumbs on her head in the first few weeks). I’ve also developed a really sweet tooth and drink barrel loads of tea and coffee.
The Louise Parker Method focuses on four pillars of health: Think Successfully, Live Well, Workout Intelligently and Eat Beautifully. It aims to help us change bad habits, sleep well, de-stress, eat good, nourishing food and move more frequently forever. It appeals because it’s sensible, it’s about creating good habits that stick hard and it is not, she stresses, a diet, but a re-education in how to eat and live.
So it was that I found myself in the wood-lacquered confines of the Harrods Wellness Clinic a few weeks ago, disclosing my bad eating habits to a pencil-skirted, killer-healed Mexican dietician called Alejandra. She looked like a Bond girl and didn't look like she snacked on Custard Creams at midnight.
I told her, happily, that I didn’t own any scales as I never want anyone in my family to get hung up on weight. But after a weigh-in and body composition test, I discovered to my horror, that I was almost a stone and a half heavier than pre-pregnancy and that most of it was sitting around my middle.
About to cry, I then spent an hour with a lovely, very upbeat personal trainer called Zoe, who seemed quite impressed by my strength (or maybe she was just being nice). She videoed our session and sent it to me so I could see exactly which exercises to focus on. From squats to side planks, crab walks and press-ups, they were exercises to build up my strength rather than get me super fit. The Louise Parker plan suggests you exercise five times a week and mix it up from HIIT workouts to something more slower paced. Louise's aim is to build movement into our daily lives, to make it a habit.
I’ve always been told that body shape is down to 70 per cent nutrition and 30 per cent exercise and in this plan too, the focus is mainly on food. Once Alejandra has devised my plan, we had a Facetime call to go through it.
The crux of the plan is this: three meals and two snacks daily, with lots of water (two litres a day). Calories are balanced throughout the day to maintain blood sugar levels. With a combination of food groups, each meal consists of low glycemic (low GI) foods to ensure slower energy release so I shouldn’t get hungry at all. I am also not allowed to miss breakfast - Alejandra feels you can get way too hungry and then overeat. Meanwhile, I have to eat protein at every meal and I must always ask myself “Where is the protein?” to keep my metabolism revving and hopefully my muscle intact if I lose weight.
I get a very simple breakdown of how to combine food groups. For example, for breakfast, I must choose one portion of protein (eg two eggs) plus one portion of low GI wholegrain (eg toast) plus one portion of low GI fruit or veg (eg spinach or a cup of berries). There is a breakdown like this for each meal and there are helpful lists of food and importantly how much to have of each. It’s OK to eat nut butter for example but not three tablespoons of it, like I did one day post-birth, with a dollop of honey. Snacks are also mapped out in this way - e.g. one portion of protein plus one portion of low GI wholegrain mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
The list of foods to avoid is just seven lines long and are all the obvious culprits: sugar, sugar alternatives, refined carbs, heavily processed foods, table sauces and, to my surprise, root vegetables except celeriac, beetroot and carrot. Root vegetables, Alejandra says aren't ideal within the 'Transform' stage of the plan because they are a very rich source of carbohydrate. Instead other, lighter carbohydrates are spread throughout the day to ensure that energy levels don't dip. Fruit is restricted to low GI and I can have a maximum of two portions a day. There is a list of what I can pick from e.g. one cup of berries and two plums for example.
Drinks-wise, I’m not allowed alcohol (gulp, no rose??), fizzy or diet drinks, shop-bought smoothies, fruit juices, lattes, cordials, low-calorie drinks or milk (other than a small daily allowance). I am not allowed to deviate off-track, nor drink more than three caffeinated drinks in a day (I was having about five or six) and I am advised to do the plan 100 per of the time to begin with. I'm not allowed to steal the kids' potato wedges nor finish their ice cream.
Alejandra puts about eight appointments in my diary every week to ‘catch up' and I have to keep a food diary as I go. There is no escape.
Next week: Breastfeeding, and the first few weeks of The Louise Parker Plan
Follow Susannah at @Susannahtaylor_