It’s one thing to know that your body will change during pregnancy, it’s another thing to actually experience it. There are societal pressures to look a certain way – during and after pregnancy.
Some women embrace the changes that come with pregnancy and giving birth, but for many, the metamorphosis can negatively shift their self-image.
Body dissatisfaction during pregnancy can affect maternal and fetal health, prompting women to severely restrict their eating or trigger a relapse of an eating disorder. And the risk of perinatal depression is four times higher in women who are dissatisfied with their body image.
In May 2022, the Archives of Women’s Mental Health published a study showing that 52% of pregnant participants and 56.2% of postpartum participants reported feeling dissatisfied with their body image. About 80% of them said they would have appreciated a chance to join a prenatal program focused on expecting and accepting body changes.
The study suggests that doing more body image education during prenatal care might help patients anticipate, accept, and potentially embrace body changes in the perinatal period – the few weeks before and after delivery.
Changing society’s perceptions of how pregnant and new mothers should look will take time, but there are strategies to help now with the way women view their body image before and after giving birth. As one of our midwives likes to say, “It took nine months for your body to grow a baby, you should give your body at least that much time to recover.”
1. Set realistic expectations for appearance and function
One of the most visible changes during pregnancy is weight gain. The majority of baby weight is gained in the second and third trimesters, often at a rate of one pound per week – more if you are carrying twins or triplets.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that women who start out at a healthy weight gain 25 to 35 pounds throughout the course of pregnancy, while those who start overweight gain no more than 15 to 25 pounds, and those who are obese gain no more than 11 to 20 pounds.
Related reading: Eating for two? How to maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy
Gaining a lot of weight over a short time can cause stretch marks – reddish streaks that run down your breasts, belly, thighs, or other areas that gain weight. Keeping your skin moisturized with cocoa butter or lotion may help reduce their appearance. However, most pregnant woman get stretch marks, which usually turn a light silver or white color after giving birth.
Related reading: 6 skin problems that can develop during pregnancy
Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) isn’t necessarily considered “normal,” but more than a third of pregnant women experience involuntary urine leakage during the second and third trimesters. About a third have this problem during the first three months after delivery.
Throughout pregnancy, take steps to prevent or reduce stress urinary incontinence such as strengthening the pelvic floor muscles by doing Kegel exercises and avoiding foods and beverages that make SUI worse, such as alcohol, caffeine, and spicy foods.
If SUI persists, nonsurgical treatments such as pelvic floor physical therapy or minimally invasive surgery to support the urethra can reduce or stop bladder leakage.
Related reading: 5 weird pregnancy symptoms you might not know about
2. Prepare your body for childbirth and postpartum recovery
Exercising during pregnancy is healthy for you and the baby. Talk with your prenatal care provider about which activities are safe and which you should avoid.
Practicing these five simple exercises and yoga poses also can help relieve pain and discomfort and prepare your body for childbirth:
- Child’s pose (yoga)
- Deep squat
- Quadruped cat/cow
- Perineal bulges
- Perineal massage
Once you’ve given birth, specific exercises to strengthen and retrain the abdominal wall, back, and pelvic floor muscles can ease postpartum discomfort.
Related reading: 10 exercises you can do with your new baby
3. Join a moms’ group or postpartum support group
Sometimes it helps to share what you’re feeling with people who are going through similar experiences. It can be reassuring to know that you’re not alone and that your feelings are valid.
Look for a moms’ group or postpartum support group in your area, such as the Dallas Moms neighborhood and community groups. There, you’ll find soon-to-be or new moms with whom you can talk about what’s happening to your body, learn what to expect, and share helpful tips and resources.
4. Limit social media and pregnancy magazine time
We’ve all seen those photos of women who gave birth five minutes ago and look gorgeous in their first Instagram photo with the baby. Or celebrities in magazines who had a baby a few weeks ago and look as if they’d never been pregnant.
Those "postpartum perfect" photos are unrealistic and set false expectations for what to expect after childbirth and in the postpartum period. Labor and delivery can be painful, difficult, and exhausting. We want women to do what makes them feel happy and beautiful after delivery – without facing pressure to achieve an Instagram-worthy look.
Another concern is nonmedical organizations and influencers who sell products such as contraction-monitoring devices or gestational beauty concoctions that are not clinically proven and might be harmful to you or the pregnancy. Before you try something promoted on social media, talk it over with your health care provider to see if it is right for you, or if there is something else that may be better.
Related reading: Pregnancy and social media: When influencers affect health decisions
5. Set clear expectations with loved ones
Sometimes pressure to look a certain way in the perinatal period comes from family and friends. They may have good intentions, asking you to “smile more” or wear makeup to “look more like yourself again.” But don’t feel bad if you have to set someone straight for making unwelcomed comments about your appearance.
Remind loved ones that you’re focused on taking care of your pregnancy, your baby, and letting your body recover in a reasonable amount of time.
Related reading: What NOT to say to a pregnant woman
6. Discuss body image with your prenatal care provider
How you feel about your body affects your health, and your health can affect your pregnancy. If you’re not feeling good about something – physically or emotionally – let us know. We can offer suggestions, point you toward helpful resources, or provide a referral to a psychologist or counselor to talk through your concerns.
If you’re wondering whether a certain pregnancy side effect is normal, please ask. And remember that every pregnancy is unique. How you felt physically, mentally, and emotionally in a previous pregnancy may be different this time. And you may have questions you didn’t need to ask the last time around.
We want you to have all the information you need to have a healthy, happy pregnancy – and feel good about yourself long after giving birth. Talk with your prenatal care provide anytime you have questions or concerns. That’s what we’re here for!