Childbirth: The Endurance Event We Need to Recover From Properly

“I’d rather run six half marathons in a row than go through that again.”

These were the exact words I said to my running buddy after I had my first baby, when she oh-so casually enquired, “so what was the labour like?

As it turns out, I wasn’t being overly dramatic. This month a University of Michigan study reported that childbirth is just as traumatic on a woman’s body as many endurance sports. They even went so far as to say that “childbirth is arguably the most traumatic event the human body can undergo.”

Ha! Take that, any of you out there boasting about your Everest Base Camp climbing experience.

This month a University of Michigan study reported that childbirth is just as traumatic on a woman’s body as many endurance sports.

Now, we know this is not surprising news to the majority of women who’ve ever experienced childbirth. But it’s interesting to note how we view and treat the bodily impacts on women who have just been through labour, as compared to those of elite athletes.

As Janis Miller, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing says about postnatal injuries: “If an athlete sustained a similar injury in the field, she’d be in an MRI machine in an instant.”

So why is it that athletes get all the rehab, and mums get none? When the impact on their bodies is just as traumatic?

Why do athletes automatically get shipped off to physio and osteo, and even freaking hyperbaric chambers, and then get benched for as long as they need until they’re 100% match fit; while new Mums are expected to work around the clock from the moment they get home from hospital, and are given some arbitrary six week timeline to be “good to go”?

Who even knows where this “new Mums will be healed in six weeks” benchmark came from? Just because this is the time of our six week postnatal check up doesn’t mean that we will be fully healed at that point. All women heal at different rates, and it’s often difficult to tell just by looking at a woman exactly how well she is recovering.

In fact, the study reports that for some women in the high risk category, injuries can be as severe as stress fractures in the pelvis, or pelvic muscle tears where the muscle actually detaches from the bone. Ouch! No wonder they also found that the healing of pelvic injuries sustained during childbirth can actually take eight months or longer. So much for the six week check up.

These aren’t the sort of injuries your OB or GP can easily diagnose in a 10 minute appointment. These are the sort of injuries you need “investigations” for – such as MRIs, which the researchers used in their study, or ultrasounds, or detailed physical assessments in a rehab clinic.

Think back to your six week check up. Did your doctor do an internal exam? Did they check your abdominal separation? Ask you about any “leakage” or incontinence? Offer further investigations for residual pain you might still be feeling? Refer you on to a rehab practitioner? Or did you not even mention it? Did you think to yourself, “Oh, it’s probably nothing, it’ll be better in a few more weeks…”

I really believe new mums have to start giving themselves a bit more credit for what they’ve just put their bodies through. We know that childbirth is tough. It can be really, really tough on a woman’s body. So why don’t we give ourselves the same sort of treatment as an AFL footballer who strains a groin muscle?

I believe a lot of women would – if they knew it was an option. Trust me, I work in the field of ‘postnatal rehab’ and I still get people saying to me “Oh, is that a thing? I’ve never heard of it.”

So it’s time to start getting the message out there. It’s time to start encouraging women to forget about the standard six week timeline and to start thinking about their rehab like an athlete.

Listen to your body and trust your instincts.

No-one knows your body better than you, and if you think something’s not quite right, then chances are they’re not. Don’t just put it down to ‘normal new mum aches and pains’. Get yourself to a great Women’s Health OT (like me!) or a Women’s Health Physio, so we can support you to rehab like the true athlete you are!

Avatar of Sarah Hausler

Sarah Hausler is a Women's Health Occupational Therapist and owner of Bloom Wellbeing. She is passionate about helping women to live their best life and adjust to the physical and emotional demands of being a new mum.

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