Who is Looking After New Mums?

Learning to prioritise self-care after a baby

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I had a bad year in 2016; my second son was just a year old and both physically and mentally, I felt like I’d dragged myself through that first year of his life. I was looking forward to starting work again – though it had been quite a stressful lead up to my return-to-work-after-maternity-leave start date. My family had just moved to a new area, which meant moving our eldest son to a new nursery, finding suitable childcare for our 10 month old, applying for schools, dealing with a long chain, difficult seller, difficult buyer and of course packing. On finally returning to work, I felt relieved to have a sense of peace away from it all, but something just wasn’t quite right. Every day I had a headache and every day I felt tired. Two kids, right? My thoughts were I was probably going through what many other parents do – the usual fatigue and exhaustion. Yet I felt so foggy headed and was beginning to find even the simplest of tasks difficult. I was severely struggling to focus  – clamping my jaw all the time and experencing the delights of night sweats and heart palpitations.

About three months after I returned to work, our childcare for our baby fell through. We were mid kitchen renovation so thankfully, my boss kindly gave me some time off to deal with matters. Upon my return to work however, I was still feeling dire. I put my persistent headaches down to the struggles of balancing parenthood, renovations and work. This is modern life, isn’t it? Within six weeks however, I was out of work. It was a massive blow to my self-esteem and I felt like a total failure. I kept going over and over and over it, wondering how on earth I’d got myself in such a mess with a role that should have been straight forward for me.

I tried to enjoy my eldest son’s last summer before starting infant school, and the glorious weather we had in 2016. But one day, as I was leaning over the kitchen counter, my husband decided to raise the issue that every day, I was complaining about my back. I could barely get through making a cup of tea without getting Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP)/Symphysis Pubic Dysfunction (SPD) – barely a week would go by when I wasn’t ill and tired.  It’s actually quite hard to describe the tiredness – I was inside out tired, like all my organs were struggling to function and even breathing seemed an effort.

By the time my son had started school in the September, I was feeling like enough was enough. I truly felt broken. I went to see the doctors and told her all my symptoms. Within those 10 minutes I had a referral for Physiotherapy and a long list of blood tests to have.

My doctor simply said “You have never recovered from the birth of your baby”….

Me and my second born

The following week I received a call from the doctor and she bluntly told me “you’re not making enough blood, you have iron deficiency anaemia”.  With my second son I’d lost 1.8L of blood. But because I’d already been taking iron during pregnancy my iron levels seemed fine immediately after the birth.  So the hospital discharged me after 3 days of monitoring with a couple of boxes of iron tablets. When my periods returned it seems I now had flooding or menorrhagia – which had further compounded the blood loss.  My doctor simply said “You have never recovered from the birth of your baby”.

The physiotherapist identified that I had compacted back muscles from pregnancy, and where my thigh muscles had built up from compensating they were keeping me pulled forward.  I think my posture was out by about four inches. Hence pain lying down, sitting and standing. I knew it was going to be a while before I felt any results from physic sessions, but I began to console myself that I was beginning to move forward with a sense of recovery.

November came and I was taking 400mg of iron and tranexamic acid to control my periods. I had also started physiotherapy. But by then, I was feeling incredibly run down.  I remember waking one night very restless and getting up to fetch a drink. I suddenly felt really light headed and couldn’t catch my breath, my lips went ice cold and I started to lose feelings in my limbs.  I shook my husband awake and asked him to call me an ambulance; I honestly thought I was having a heart attack. The paramedics were great and calmed me down enough to tell me I’d hyperventilated. I was slightly mortified! However I think my Gran dying two weeks prior to this had just tipped me over the edge. By the end of 2016 I was a shell of myself and I vowed that 2017 would be a year of focusing on my physical and mental health.

I kept up with my physiotherapy at the hospital and at home – and four months later, by Easter 2017, I was sitting at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain with my eldest son.  I was so elated; for my son and for myself. It was such an indescribable moment, I get really choked up in fact when I think back to what a milestone that was for me.  It was my first mountain, all be it small, that I had climbed since I had the boys. And to be able to do it relatively pain free and without suffering immediate exhaustion was just an incredible feeling.

I continued to focus on my health through 2017.  My physio appointments stopped at the end of June and both the physiotherapist and I were happy for me to progress at home now.  My iron levels were also up so my tablets were stopped and the GP advised me against continuing the Tranexamic acid. But by September that year, I was already starting to feel my anaemia returning.  

And so, it was back to the GP – this time, choosing to see a female GP, who put me straight back on both the Tranexamic Acid and Iron because unsurprisingly, I was anaemic again.

I felt defeated by this point; I was just never going to feel better. I focused my efforts on being well enough to climb Ben Nevis, which is a goal I had set myself that year. I felt like I had been climbing a mountain for the last 2 ½ years – so a mere 1,345m shouldn’t have posed any real problem. It would also mean a much needed break away from the children. On October 8th 2017, two days after my 36th birthday, I climbed Ben Nevis with my Dad.  My Dad tells me I did it with pure grit and determination – and a good dose of stubbornness. There were many tears shed at the top!

Me climbing Ben Nevis

Coming into 2018 my youngest had started nursery so I was getting more time to myself for a bit of ‘self care’ and to get on top of the final problem I’d been ignoring.  I’m not going to lie, the frequency I was visiting the GP had me worried, but I had finally found one who was listening so I felt like she was going to be the one to help me.  I probably wouldn’t normally be so open about my problematic bowels, but seeing as I think it’s something that is rarely talked about post pregnancy, I’m keen to start that conversation here.

It’s very common for iron tablets to cause constipation and thus making going to the toilet difficult. However it had the opposite effect on me, but going to the toilet was still difficult and I never felt like I was fully emptying my bowels. I’m sure most parents can sympathise with me when I say I couldn’t have leisurely toilet breaks and that even a moment out of the sight of my toddler would lead to a full on hunt for Mum! So again I just put my pesky bowel habits down to a lack of time. My GP was excellent and referred me straight to see the Colorectal Consultant.

The impact on my mental health has been massive and I think had I not ended up under a better GP, I may be seeking help for that too.

The initial exam, which is quick and painless, was, and I quote, ‘unremarkable’ – *scoffs*.  But a small rectocele was discovered which is ‘a bulging of the front wall of the rectum into the back wall of the vagina’ and possible pelvic floor obstruction when I went to the loo.  By the end of March I had been to radiology for a Proctogram (I’ll let you Google that) and a Colonosocopy. Inflammation was found during the Colonoscopy and biopsies taken.  I’m still waiting on the results of all these tests, but my head tells me a lot of this has been caused by long term use of iron tablets. It’s been three years since I had my second son and I can’t help but feel a lot of this could have been addressed in the first year.  That the road to recovery would not have been so long had bloods been routinely taken, and had I been to see a physiotherapist as part of my one year check. The impact on my mental health has been massive and I think had I not ended up under a better GP, I may be seeking help for that too.

Me with my second born

I know I am not alone in feeling frustrated regarding the care received after having a baby. The problem is, when you are dealing with a newborn and recovery after the birth you have little time to think of anything else – least of all your own wellbeing.  I dismissed much of my pain and symptoms and put it down to looking after two children, simply hoping it would all just go away during that first year. I just don’t think the standard question of “how do you feel?” offered up by Health Visitors and GP’s is enough.  Sometimes you don’t even know how to answer it because you’re so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the question. Some problems, like prolapse, can be embarrassing to talk about let alone admitting to a stranger that you think you aren’t coping.

I really think blood tests and a visit to see a physiotherapist as part of a six month or even one year postnatal check would go some way to preventing further and more complex issues further down the line. We are lucky in the UK to have the NHS, it’s no secret that it’s under immense strain right now, but I believe that a more preventative approach in the care of new Mothers could be taken and more of a 50:50 approach to recovery is the way forward.

Of course GPs, Midwives, and Health Visitors can’t look at a Mother and simply know that there are problems, so we do need to look after ourselves too. Don’t leave it like I did. If six months down the line, you feel orried about anything then go and see your GP. It may take a few weeks to get an appointment but it will be worth it to get peace of mind and get on the road to recovery. There is no shame in going to see your Doctor – no matter what your concern may be.

Do your pelvic floors! Doing a star jump and having a little wee doesn’t have to happen.

In the first six months at least, it’s a bit of whirlwind with a new baby and it can be hard to find time think about ourselves. However out the other side of six months, you do start to get a little bit of the precious you time back, and yes I know there is housework and all the other million things you have to get done, but if you aren’t looking after yourself you may find you start to struggle to look after your baby.

My self care tips after having a baby

  • Make time to switch off – When you’re feeding, whether that’s in the quiet hours of the morning or mid-afternoon, take the time to switch off from everything and have a think about how your body feels. By six months, your physical recovery from the birth, whether C-section or vaginal, should be well under way. You will know in yourself if something doesn’t feel right. It could be at the site of delivery, it could be hair loss, and it could be feeling so exhausted you’re unable to function?  Maybe there are other aches and pains that you don’t think you should have and that you’re worried about.
  • Take time to be quiet. I’m sitting here now, my toddler is asleep, the patio doors have been flung open and I’m listening to the bubble of the coffee machine, bird song and lawn mowers.  When you have a child, and whatever stage that child is, life is busy and it can start to become overwhelming. There is always something to, always. But it’s ok to leave it and take time to be quiet.  That’s why you hear Mum’s talk about hiding in the toilet or cupboards!
  • Exercise. Now it’s taken me a good three years to take my own advice. Exercise is good for mental and physical health (as illustrated wonderfully by author Clare V. Kent in this piece on A Life Loved). Start by just getting out with the pram. Go for a short walk, even if it’s in your garden or just up the road. There are also lots of great workouts, postnatal specific too, free on You Tube. Yoga with Adrienne is great to discover tight areas of the body and engage with your breathing again. This is particularly good if you are an anxious person of suffer with anxiety. 
  • Do your pelvic floors! Doing a start jump and having a little wee doesn’t have to happen. And we all want to enjoy the trampoline and bouncy castle don’t we!
  • Rest, rest, rest. You will not get better unless you take time to rest.  Take it from someone who burns out every winter. The moment I think I’m better I’m running around at full speed again, and low and behold, two weeks later I’ve got another cold.  So when you feel bad do the bare minimum. The housework can wait. Look after yourself and your child/children and that’s all you need to do for a couple of days. My Husband has been home to me and the kids snuggled in bed.  They’re on the IPad and I’m half asleep. It’s not like that every day so it’s ok for that to happen when you’re poorly. Keep some ready meals in the freezer and soups in the cupboard so you have some food ready prepared that only takes the effort of shoving it in the microwave.
  • Eat well – yes I am a sucker for the sweet things too. And take your vitamins!
  • Talk. Finally the big one for me – talk to other parents, friends, and your own parents about how you feel.  You’ll be surprised that being open often allows the other person to open up too. It will give you both confidence to go and seek professional advice.  I was told by my midwife with my second son that nothing much could be done about my PPGP (Pregnancy Pelvic Girdle Pain) so I never bothered to fill out the physio forms.  The fact is it can and had I spoke to anyone about it perhaps I’d have known how life changing that physio would be. If you struggle to talk face to face then there are various groups on Facebook.  A Life Loved has a private parenting group where we discuss everything from financially planning for a baby, conception, baby loss, birth and beyond. And you just feel less alone.

Whether your a new mum navigating the exciting and exhausting world of parenthood, or someone trying for a baby, the A Life Loved Parenting group is a wonderful, safe, closed group space on Facebook to share your thoughts in confidence with a community of women who really care.

Me and my boys (see more here) – image by Joanna Brown

Iron Deficiency Anaemia

Anaemia can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, headache, coldness in your hands and feet, pale skin, chest pain, weakness, and fatigue (tiredness).

Also, the red blood cells your body makes have less haemoglobin than normal. Haemoglobin is an iron-rich protein in red blood cells. It helps red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

If you don’t have enough haemoglobin-carrying red blood cells, your heart has to work harder to move oxygen-rich blood through your body. This can lead to irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), a heart murmur, an enlarged heart, or even heart failure.

(Source: National Heart, Lung and blood Institute)

Pelvic Girdle Pain

Different women have different symptoms, and PPGP is worse for some women than others. Symptoms can include:

  • pain over the pubic bone at the front in the centre
  • pain across one or both sides of your lower back
  • pain in the area between your vagina and anus (perineum)

Pain can also radiate to your thighs, and some women feel or hear a clicking or grinding in the pelvic area. The pain can be most noticeable when you are:

  • walking
  • going upstairs
  • standing on one leg (for example, when you’re getting dressed or going upstairs)
  • turning over in bed
  • It can also be difficult to move your legs apart – for example, when you get out of a car.

(Source: NHS)

#maternalmentalhealthweek

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5 Comments

  • I’m so sorry you had such a hard time – I totally relate to your struggle – 4 years after I had my 3rd and final baby I still have back and hip pain. My pelvic floor is destroyed. No one talks about what it will be like – instead we have images of Kate Middleton on the steps of the hospital hours after giving birth. At that point I was still passing clots as big as my fist!
    Thanks for writing this article – your babies are gorgeous

    • Thank you Lauren. It was hot topic at the last lesson of my NCT group “but what happens to us after” Where’s the checklist and the manual to tell us what to expect and how to deal with it. What’s normal?

  • Such a timely post, I’ve been talking about similar with my friends recently. The saying is that it takes a village but when your village is scattered over the country/ working full time/ dealing with their own shit it’s no wonder so many new mums are struggling on without the help they need. Since my daughter started nursery in January I started getting ill with one thing after another and just never felt well. Combining running a business and looking after a young child I was definitely not taking the time to think about my own health and it cumlminated in me ill in hospital with pneumonia. I saw a post recently that said you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others and that analogy resonated, we need to be kinder to ourselves. Hope you are well and truly on the mend x

    • I love that analogy about the oxygen mask. It’s so true. When I see and hear Mum’s heading for burn out i tell them it’s time they looked after themselves.
      Sorry to hear you got so Ill too. It’s easy to carry on and hard to stop and I’m sure ending up in Hospital was a real shock. X

    • This is such a key point – about when your village is scattered over the country and working full time/dealing with their own shit! I’m not at ALL saying generations prior to ours had it easier, but things tended to be more ‘close knit’ – families living on the same street, children more freely allowed to play outdoors without having to fear for their safety. I truly think that modern life and it’s encouragement to be ‘on call’ almost 24/7 with social media apps that have no ‘stop-prompt’ and encourage such time wasting don’t help either.

      I also have two children – and it takes for me to get pretty poorly with stress and overworked induced migraine to realise I’ve overdone it so massively sympathise from a running your own business perspective too. And my children are 7 and 12 – a reminder that the self care thing requires constant attention!

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