A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Body image changes: Pregnancy and postpartum

Body image is the thoughts and feelings you have about your body. When your body changes, so can the image you have of yourself, which affects your overall well-being.

A pregnant women holding her belly and looking in the mirror with a smile.

Your body changes a lot during pregnancy and postpartum. These changes can affect your body image.

In pregnancy and postpartum, women see the most change in their bodies in a short amount of time. Pregnancy body changes happen over months, while postpartum can happen almost instantly as your baby is delivered and the months, or even years, after childbirth.

Pregnancy body changes

You often imagine a pregnant person with a belly bump or larger waistline. However, pregnancy leads to many bodily changes, such as stretch marks, larger breasts, body aches, swelling of face, feet and hands, leg cramps and itchy skin.

“Every system in your body is changed by the pregnancy,” said Amy Roff, certified nurse midwife at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “From nausea and vomiting to back and pelvic discomfort; a lot is going to change.”

Weight gain is the most noticeable change during pregnancy. Roff said depending on your body mass index (BMI) to start pregnancy, your women’s health provider can review and explain how much weight you should gain throughout your pregnancy.

“Much more than the number on the scale, the focus should be on what you are choosing to nourish your body and your baby with, and how often you are moving your body by staying active,” Roff said. “Taking the focus off the number on the scale or the number or pounds gained and placing the focus on taking care of your body through nourishment and movement can help women through some of the challenging physical changes throughout pregnancy.”

Roff encourages cardio fitness, resistance training and stretching throughout pregnancy to not only help with your physical health but also for your emotional health.

Body image during pregnancy

Body image impacts all women in different ways. A women’s past history with their body image can impact her throughout her pregnancy as many challenging changes occur.

“Even for women who have never struggled with body image, it is helpful to have a realistic idea of the changes that will happen as pregnancy progresses,” Roff said. “This is something that we spend time educating women on at their first prenatal visit and revisit often throughout their prenatal care. Depending on the situation, it may be helpful to involve a support team from different disciplines, such as counseling and a registered dietician.”

Social media impacts body image

Rebecca Morris, clinical social worker at Marshfield Clinic Health System, says social media, in regards to pregnancy body changes, is significant.

“Social media posts and photos are often misleading regarding pregnancy and postpartum physical appearance,” Morris said. “I encourage women to look to their role models – mothers, aunties, older sisters; for open discussion and ‘real-life’ expectations and outcomes.”

One approach to healthy body acceptance is focusing on aspects of your physical well-being that you can control, Morris recommends. She gives an example of setting a goal to walk daily so you focus on strength, cardiac fitness and toning instead of how you look.

“This approach allows for a growth mindset, and helps us celebrate the bodies we have, rather than getting caught up in negative thinking cycles,” she said.

Postpartum body changes

Postpartum bodies can have similar body changes as pregnancy.

Stretch marks may be present, along with loose stomach muscles or saggy skin where you grew your child. With breastfeeding and weight gain, your breasts may continue to be larger and sag with gravity.

Additionally, Roff said the postpartum period brings along a whole new set of emotions and changes throughout a women’s body. The same basic principles as pregnancy and beyond applies – nourish your body with whole foods and slowly add in movement. These strategies will be helpful both physically and emotionally.

“Give yourself some grace along the postpartum journey,” Roff said. “If you are struggling with pelvic floor or core strength, let your health care provider know as it is important to slowly build strength with the appropriate exercises.”

Roff recommends a referral to physical therapy for pelvic floor and diastasis recti therapy as needed.

Negative body image

Similar to pregnancy body image, social media or comparison to other moms can lead to some negative thoughts about your body during postpartum. The expectation to “bounce back” to the body you once had can be overwhelming.

“I often tell patients that negative thoughts and self-denigration can become a habit, that we can engage in on ‘autopilot’; without ever considering how these thought cycles can negatively ‘flavor’ our day and the way we look at the world,” Morris said.

It is normal to have fear, or even some dis-satisfaction, with pregnancy and postpartum body changes, but Morris said it is what you do with those thoughts that matter.

“How we choose to respond to negative thoughts, ultimately, determines our quality of life,” she said.

When to seek help

Morris recommends seeking help if you are feeling overwhelmed to the point that you might not want to live, or that your family would be better off without you. In more extreme cases, you may have thoughts of harming yourself or your child.

Call or text 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-833-943-5746 for mothers who need support.

“If specific symptoms, such as anxiety, become so prominent they are intruding on her ability to function effectively in her day-to-day life; that is also a sign to seek help and support,” Morris said.

Marshfield Clinic Health System has a perinatal mental health clinic with experts who care for women who are pregnant or postpartum with depression, anxiety and other mental struggles. The team works with you and your primary or women’s health provider to find the best treatment options for you and your family.

Healthy body acceptance

The culture today places a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way during pregnancy and post baby. Finding a healthy way to accept your body as it changes can be important in taking care of your health.

Roff says a women’s experience in pregnancy and postpartum are just as unique as their birth story.

“The wonder of it all is that you are growing another human being,” Roff said. “This can be both elating and challenging as you progress through your pregnancy and postpartum period.  The key is nourish your body, mind and soul throughout this journey.”

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