Talking taboos: How this mums’ gym class is normalising post-birth bodies

The thought of leaving home for the first time with her newborn daughter was so overwhelming for Elysse Bird that she almost didn’t make it out.

“Is he going to cry all the time? Is he going to be hungry? Am I going to have to breastfeed?” Mrs. Bird thought.

With no family support and a husband who worked far away, it wasn’t until she met a group of mothers and children at a Rockhampton gym that she focused on her postpartum health.

New mom Elysse breastfeeds her baby in the gym.
Elysse Bird, with her 12-week-old daughter Adeline, says the class has been a great way for her to transition back into society.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“I saw all these other mothers breastfeeding and bottle-feeding their babies, and I felt very comfortable,” said Ms Bird.

She is one of about 100 women who have participated in an eight-week post-pregnancy program that uses evidence-based exercises to help women get back on their feet.

The program, which has been running for 18 months, also gives women the space to speak candidly and normalize their bodies after childbirth.

Gym staff hug babiesGym staff hug babies
As soon as the babies start to fidget, there are helpful staff to take over the cuddling duties.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“There are big changes when you have a baby, and I was a little surprised, even though I knew it was coming,” Bird said.

exercise mixed messages

Gym co-owner and physical therapist Micheline Hansen turned her attention to women’s health after going through her own childbirth nine years ago.

“I realized that I had to do my own education because there were really mixed messages in the community and on the Internet,” said Ms. Hansen.

Micheline Hansen in her office, smiling at the cameraMicheline Hansen in her office, smiling at the camera
Ms. Hansen worked to find the right exercises for postpartum moms.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

A set of physical activity guidelines for pregnancy was developed last year and published by the federal department of health with a paragraph related to postpartum exercise.

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It says a gradual return to recommended levels of activity is generally safe after a mother’s postnatal health check at six weeks, but this can vary depending on individual circumstances.

“There’s a lot of advice for the pregnant mom, but once you have your baby, it’s assumed that your body is completely fine and life resumes as usual,” Ms. Hansen said.

Moms smile at their babies as they stretchMoms smile at their babies as they stretch
More than 100 moms have participated in the program since it began 18 months ago.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

Advice and support were almost non-existent and frustrating, which is why the moms-and-kids group was started, she said.

Ms. Hansen said that she had treated many mothers who had tried to exercise too hard, too fast.

And the injuries she saw weren’t just torn muscles, but also urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse, when the bladder and uterus descend into the vagina.

A baby lies on his blanket and shakes his fists in the air.A baby lies on his blanket and shakes his fists in the air.
Moms relax with slow, simple exercises with a focus on doing them correctly.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“It takes nine months for a baby to grow, so you actually have to take some time to prepare your body to go back to impact exercise,” said Ms. Hansen.

devising the plan

The idea for a class for mothers and children was born, but it wasn’t until physical therapist Chloe Petith became pregnant two years ago that it became a reality.

Petith said she was like most new moms, assuming she could hit the gym after her six-week checkup.

“I did a class and I was like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t feel right,'” he said.

Moms on their hands and knees, stretchingMoms on their hands and knees, stretching
12 weeks of strengthening exercises are needed before the body is ready to return to impact exercise.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

Ms. Petith searched the region for rehab and postnatal programs and found nothing, so she spent her maternity leave researching evidence-based exercises and created her own program.

Escalated exercises, which target pelvic floor, abdominal muscles, upper back strength and mobility, fill the gap between birth and return to exercise.

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“All of the exercises have been tested by me, so I knew what I was putting moms through. I knew what felt good and what felt challenging,” she said.

This is round two for Kellie Finglas, mom to 18-month-old Reya and three-month-old Sam, as she gets back into exercise.

“I’m not a big fan of exercise, so it was manageable for me,” she said.

Kellie with her two childrenKellie with her two children
Kellie Finglas, with Samuel and Reya, says the program has helped her get back on her feet.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“It helps you not feel alone…and it’s a good start to motherhood.”

Normalizing Postpartum Bodies

Ms. Hansen said that the classes were a way for mothers to talk openly about taboo subjects.

“The most common, obviously, is wetting, and poor bladder control is the other one that most of us expect after childbirth,” she said.

“You can have tears and that can lead to all sorts of concerns, whether it’s bladder problems or bowel problems from faecal incontinence.

A mom with her baby in focusA mom with her baby in focus
The classes offer a way to get out of the house, meet other moms and make social connections.(ABC Capricorn: Erin Semmler)

“And you can have physical incontinence, where you can’t hold your farts in.”

Ms. Hansen said that when things were not equal then it brought a whole new set of problems into the equation.

“Returning to sexual activity is a big step for most women and we are addressing and exposing it.”

For Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Finglas, the classes have also helped them make easy friendships when being a new mom can be an isolating experience.

“It’s been really lovely to have that interaction; we’ll all go out for coffee afterwards,” said Ms. Bird.

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