First 2 Weeks Postpartum – Diaphragmatic Breathing

Early Postpartum Safe Exercises, image of woman holding newborn

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“What can I do the first 2 weeks postpartum?”

First of all, REST. 

You should rest your first 2 weeks postpartum – that should be the #1 priority aside from keeping the baby alive.

The postpartum period is HARD. You are sleep deprived, your nipples are likely raw and bleeding if you’re breastfeeding (I know, I know… bad latch but not many moms and babies are expert latchers and feeders right away), and your body is sore from the actual birthing event. With a vaginal birth, your pelvic floor muscles stretched 250% their normal size. Think about that. Imagine your mouth opening 250% it’s normal size. Even if you did not tear during birth, your pelvic floor muscles, tendons, and ligaments still need a hot second to recover. And if you had a Cesarean birth, you just had major abdominal surgery. Don’t gloss over that – Major. Abdominal. Surgery.

So, take this blog post with a grain of salt. Aside from walking, I didn’t do *any* of this with my first baby. And I turned out okay. However, with baby #2, I know more and want to do things a little differently this time around.

Story time …

L&D Nurse: You need to feed your baby every 2-3 hours.

Me: What about at night?

L&D Nurse: *awkward silence*

Me: *blissfully unaware of newborn schedules, politely staring back*

L&D Nurse: Yes, at night too. 

Me: Wait – what?? 

I heard babies just eat, sleep, and poop… so where is all the sleep? I was WOEFULLY misinformed. Maybe people tried to tell me and I just ignored them. WE WILL NEVER KNOW.

Anyway, I left the hospital with a ton of reading material, flyers, paperwork – but none of it was advice for me and my body. I want you to have some exercises to do if that’s a priority for you. Just know that if you don’t have time right now or did not do these when you were a new mom, it is OKAY.

I repeat – These exercises are excellent in the first 2 weeks as a new mom, but do not torture yourself to get them done nor shame yourself for not doing them.

I just had a baby, now what?

Alright, let’s get started.

You just had your baby. You’ve done your Golden Hour of skin to skin, you’ve nursed some colostrum, the umbilical cord is cut, baby has been weighed and height has been measured, the pediatrician made an appearance, the nurses have left you to fend for yourself, and now it’s just you and baby. (Your experience might be a tad different if you are having a home birth or have a Cesarean, but you get the idea.) 

Image of mom holding newborn baby
You know those moms who have great hair and make up after giving birth? That wasn’t me. Clearly.

You have your phone alarm set for every 2-3 hours for feeding (haha… oops) and instead of “sleeping when the baby sleeps” you’re staring at your baby as he or she sleeps soundly in the bassinet by your bed. Or maybe you doze off for a few seconds and your baby somehow has radar for you resting and starts screaming for attention. God forbid you rest. God. Forbid.

But maybe you have a few minutes to yourself and you think … “Okay, I got this.” The following exercise can be done starting from Day 1. And the one we go through today can be considered restful activity.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

This is the number one exercise that I encourage new moms to start right away. Literally, breathing. 

Sounds easy, right? Well, it is. 

But, it’s also work. It’s work because your abdomen just lost an entire human, amniotic fluid, and the organ you grew while also growing a human (the placenta). So, you aren’t going to break a sweat with this “exercise” but it’s still an exercise.

“Piston of the Core”

Your abdomen is set up like a pressure system – Julie Weibe coined the term “Piston of the Core”. Your diaphragm is the top, your pelvic floor is the bottom, your abdominal and back muscles are the canister or cylinder of the piston.

When you take a deep breath in, your diaphragm contracts and moves down. Your ribs open up like an umbrella to allow air into your lungs. This starts displacing pressure into your abdomen down towards your pelvic floor – the piston is moving down. Then, your diaphragm relaxes and your rib cage umbrella closes. The air escapes out of your lungs and the pressure moves up towards the ribs – piston is moving up. This happens every time you breath; it’s pretty subtle. But if you take a deep breath, you should be able to feel that pressure pushing out into your abdomen and down into your pelvic floor, and then release when you exhale.

If you’re more of a visual learner, check out this quick animation, by pelvic floor PT Jeanice Mitchell, of what I just described.

Image of diaphragm, abdominal muscles, and pelvic floor
Image used with permission by Pelvic Guru, LLC pelvicguru.com

Why should I care about diaphragmatic breathing?

So, for the past few months you’ve had this every growing uterus just making itself at home – pushing your abdominal contents this way and that way without much regard for your personal comfort… rude.

Image of late term pregnancy

Just make yourself at home, why don’t ya??

Image used with permission by Pelvic Guru, LLC pelvicguru.com

Your rib cage umbrella has also expanded; always the People Pleaser, the ribs have expanded out to allow your abdominal contents some room. Imagine everyday your ribcage umbrella opens a tiny bit more but doesn’t close back down, it just keeps opening and opening. (Your body is made for this to happen, this isn’t a bad thing.) You may have noticed your breasts grew during pregnancy, but so did your bra band size – that’s because your ribs expanded out, an itsy bitsy bit each week. All of this opening put extra pressure on the diaphragm (the base of your ribcage umbrella) and made it harder to breath during pregnancy. You had to learn a “new way” to breath while you were pregnant, constantly adapting to what the uterus was deciding to do each week.

(If you really want to nerd out about “hyperventilation” during pregnancy, check out this article and scroll to “mechanical effects”.)

Now, the uterus is shrinking back down – thank you very much – and your ribs, diaphragm, and abdominal contents can start to shift back to their normal positions. 

Can you see why diaphragmatic breathing is going to take some time to figure out? It will be a physical exercise but also an exercise for your brain as you suddenly have to “re-learn” the motor plan you used before you were pregnant. And if you didn’t have a really good breathing strategy before pregnancy, then now is the time to get that in check. (It took me 18 months to realize I never figured out this whole breathing thing after I gave birth… so, it’s never too late! Also, no shame.)

So, now that I’ve convinced you that diaphragmatic breathing isn’t a waste of your time, let’s learn how to do it correctly.

How to perform diaphragmatic breathing correctly

Assume the Position

Sitting comfortably – cross legged, at the edge of your bed or couch, or reclined in bed – place one hand on your chest over your heart, the other on your belly. (I know it’s a little hard to see with my pregnant belly in the way – I plan on updating the photos in a few months when I’m actually postpartum!)

Image of woman with hand on chest and hand on belly
Please ignore how painfully awkward I am with taking photos of myself

Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 3 and exhale through your mouth for a count of 5. Do this 3 times, just taking some nice, long, deep breaths.

Now, bring your attention to the hand on your chest and the hand on your belly. With each deep breath in, the hand on your chest will move a little. Think about your ribcage umbrella, your hand will move out with the umbrella and then in with the umbrella. Your belly hand should move more noticeably – outward like an opening umbrella.

Image of woman performing inhale and exhale using diaphragmatic breathing

Caution!

If your hand is moving up towards your chin and then back down, then your shoulder and neck muscles are doing more of the breath work than your ribs and diaphragm. Your shoulder and neck muscles are called accessory breathing muscles because they are supposed to help you get more air into your lungs during a strenuous activity and you need to breath heavier – not while you’re resting. You may have also used these muscles more towards the end of your pregnancy because your ribs were so far out they didn’t have much room to expand anymore and your accessory muscles needed to help out a bit. All of that to say – your diaphragm needs to do the work now, not your neck and shoulders. Your diaphragm is a muscle, it responds well to training just like any other muscle.

Image of woman performing diaphragmatic breathing versus chest breathing

Umbrella Breathing

If your hand on your chest is moving up towards your chin with each deep breath, you want to set your focus on your ribcage moving like an umbrella. Place both of your hands around your ribcage and breathe into your hands allowing your ribcage to expand 360 degrees. This may take some practice!

Image of woman performing diaphragmatic breathing with hands encircling ribs

Let. It. Go.

Back to the hand on your belly now. Your belly should expand with each deep breath. You want to feel your breath moving into your entire abdomen (not just the front of your belly) all the way into your pelvic floor. To really feel this, you have to let go of your belly and abdominal muscles – Let. It. Go. Allow your stomach to expand when you inhale and feel it pull back in when you exhale. 

Image of woman performing diaphragmatic breathing with hands on belly, sides, and back

That’s it – diaphragmatic breathing!

Visual learner? I got you – check out this video by Julie Weibe to see what diaphragmatic breathing looks like!

This form of breathing taps into the calming side of your central nervous system (the opposite of fight or flight) so it is also any excellent tool to use when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little calmer after practicing your diaphragmatic breathing – you’re welcome.

Infographic summarizing correct way to perform diaphragmatic breathing

Practice Makes Perfect

I recommend you practice this breathing for a few minutes at a time – start with 10 deep breaths, that’s it. Try to do 10 deep breaths a few times a day those first 1-3 days. You can start to incorporate 3-5 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing a few times a day as you notice you are getting the hang of it. You can practice while feeding baby, during a diaper change, during nap time, right after a nighttime feeding to help you fall asleep faster instead of running through your million mile long to do list, or if you have older kids you can practice while you’re sitting on the ground playing dinosaurs with them. Or you can simply set a timer for 3-5 minutes at any time during the day.

It’s easy enough, right?

Next week, we’ll get into some more exercises you can do during those first few weeks. Make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to get access to the Free Resource Library – I will upload a synopsis of ALL the exercises discussed in this series! 

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