When my first son was 20 months old, I caught sight of my reflection in a store window and thought, "Wow! How did that extra padding get onto my hips?" It didn't make sense. I'd lost my pregnancy weight within six months of giving birth, I wasn't eating any more than usual, and I hadn't changed my activity level dramatically. What had happened was that, despite weaning Nate three months before, I was still eating as though I were nursing. I'd gained six pounds without realizing it.
When you become a mom, your habits can change so subtly that you may not even notice. Snacking with your kids, say, or walking just a little less now that you have a child to tote around can have a major impact. "If you burn off one hundred fewer calories a day than you did before having kids -- which doesn't seem like much -- you'll gain ten pounds in a year," says James Rippe, M.D., founder and director of the Rippe Lifestyle Institute, in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
The good news: Being a mom needn't be hazardous to your shape -- if you know how to avoid the most common pitfalls.
Trap 1: You're still eating as if you were pregnant or nursing.
While pregnant, you need an extra 300 calories a day; breastfeeding demands 500 calories more a day. (And 300 calories is just two cups of reduced-fat milk.) Often, moms-to-be give themselves permission to ease up on eating restraints -- and that can continue after pregnancy or nursing.
But once you're no longer pregnant or breastfeeding, your metabolism slows down to its prepregnancy level. To get back in sync with your body, "think about smaller portions, not dieting," suggests Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Take about two bites less at every meal." One pregnancy habit you should retain, says Bonci: "Try to keep up the healthy eating behaviors you developed during pregnancy -- you'll benefit from them now."
Time (and calories) to burn
Trap 2: You spend lots of time sitting while you supervise your kids' activities.
You're probably devoting many hours to watching over your child, at home and at the park. The downside is that sitting doesn't burn many calories. But there are easy ways to turn up the activity level.
If your baby's in a bouncer seat or a swing, for instance, you could put on an exercise video or do toning moves while you watch her. When Ginny Wright of San Anselmo, California, takes her two boys, ages 5 and 7, to the playground, she doesn't park her derriere on a bench. "While they're playing, I'll do chin-ups and dips on the bars," she says. "Or we'll take the bat and ball to the park so I can pitch to the boys and chase down the balls." Even walking around the playground instead of bench-warming will help you burn extra calories. At home, you can put on rock or R&B music and dance your heart out with the kids. "It's fun, and it sends a great message to your kids about the importance of keeping active," Bonci points out.
Trap 3: You've made a habit of munching with your kids.
"One of the biggest faux pas is when you clean their plates," says Kathleen Zelman, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Or maybe you're snacking with your kids when you feed them dinner, and then wind up eating a full meal with your husband later. You don't realize that all those nibbles really add up.
Here's a reality check:
* A bite of grilled cheese = 50 calories * ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich = 88 calories * A bite of a Pop-Tart = 26 calories * Four french fries = 60 calories
Snacking doesn't have to be taboo, as long as you kid-size your portions. Instead of eating crackers out of the box, for instance, put a single serving into a bowl or onto a plate so you really see them and don't just eat half a box without thinking. It's also smart to offer your kids wholesome choices for snacks, as Robyn Ryan, mom of a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy near Albany, New York, does. "I cut up two pears and a kiwi, and we share it. I want my kids to get into the habit of eating nutritious snacks."
Work it out
Trap 4: You feel guilty about taking time to exercise or go to the gym.
Why does it seem selfish -- or just a really low priority -- to work out, or even take a long walk, once you have kids? It is harder to find time, but being a good parent partly depends on your own well-being and contentment.
Try to find creative ways to carve out time for physical activity. You might look for a gym that offers daycare, swap kid-watching favors with a friend or neighbor, or exercise in the evening while Dad's on duty.
"Twice a week, I go swimming after my husband comes home from work," says Ryan. "It's a great way to relieve stress and tension too."
For the overly time-pinched: Remember that even 10 minutes a day counts. Currently, experts recommend 30 minutes a day, or three and a half hours a week of moderately vigorous activity (walking, bike riding, swimming). But start out small and build up; that way, you don't set yourself up to fail.
Schedule exercise appointments on your calendar just as you would a business meeting or a doctor's appointment. "It has to be deliberate," says Kara Witzke, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Norfolk State University, in Virginia. "You can't just wait to find time in your day; that'll never happen when you have kids."
Trap 5: You're preparing higher-fat meals.
Many children won't touch foods that are mainstays of a healthy diet: green vegetables, legumes, broiled fish, and whole grains. To make sure that the whole family can sit down to dinner without your having to prepare separate meals, you may be catering to young palates by cooking macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and french fries, chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, and other high-fat dishes.
You can still prepare kid favorites, just in healthier ways. Go light on the butter and use skim milk in macaroni and cheese (and throw in peas or beans for a nutritional boost). On the other hand, don't go overboard trying to please your kids. It's important to expose them to a wide variety of foods, and if you always give in, you'll only wind up restricting what they want to eat. And why sabotage your own nutrition by catering to the lowest common denominator?
So provide healthy meals you want to eat, and establish a rule that your kids have to take at least a bite or two. Their food preferences are still developing, and this is a prime opportunity to nudge them in the right direction.
And if they won't go near what you've prepared for the family? "Give your child a peanut butter sandwich or a bowl of cereal with milk," says Zelman. He won't starve, you won't resent caving in to his umpteenth demand for chicken nuggets, and you won't take in extra calories.
Lowering your standards
Trap 6: Now that you're a mom, you've relaxed your weight-control efforts.
You have more important things to think about than your shape, right? As you pour more of your time and energy into your kids, you may become more blasé about the circumference of your thighs or the love handles at your waist. To some extent, it's good to shift your focus away from the tyranny of the scale, but weight control is still crucial for your health. "I often see women accepting those extra five or ten pounds because life is so hectic," Zelman says. "They just can't deal with it."
To find the middle ground of sticking with a healthy diet and lifestyle without becoming obsessed about it, keep in mind the benefits of controlling your weight. If you're only a few pounds over your prepregnancy weight, it may not be worth worrying about -- as long as you're eating well and staying active. But if you're more than 10 percent over your ideal weight (for example, you weigh 154 when you should be at 139), try to do it slowly and steadily, losing no more than two pounds per week. You'll increase your chances of succeeding in the long run. Some programs, like Weight Watchers, promote gradual weight loss without restricting foods.
Trap 7: You're eating lots of junk because you're so busy.
Let's face it: Preparing nutritious, balanced meals can seem like a hassle. It's a whole lot easier to order take-out Chinese food or grab a hamburger and fries. But these habits can be hazardous to your waist and your health over the long run.
So make savvy choices by ruling out anything crispy or sweet and sour when ordering Chinese food and by picking items that are steamed or stir-fried instead, says Zelman. Request half the cheese and lots of veggies on a pizza (and no meat or meat only on half). At fast-food joints, hit the salad bar or order a grilled chicken sandwich with no mayo or a small burger without french fries.
In your freezer, keep some microwave meals from such brands as Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine -- they're fast and low in calories and fat, and they're tasty enough to satisfy.
It's also a good idea to stock up on healthy staples that can be used to prepare meals quickly: frozen vegetables to toss into a stir-fry; spaghetti sauce to put on pasta or in tacos; a variety of sandwich fixings. Keep plenty of fresh fruit or carrot sticks in the fridge for snacks. It can be just as easy for you to shortcut with good nutrition as bad nutrition.
Ultimately, having the shape you want is a matter of being mindful about what you eat and seeking out opportunities to move your body as often as you can. I dropped the extra pounds that had crept on by cutting back on snacks and desserts, joining a gym with childcare, and setting up a twice-a-week running date with a neighbor who's also a mom. And now that I have a new baby, I already know what I need to do to get my shape back once he stops nursing.
Stacey Colino, a mom of two, wrote "Short on Sleep...," in the May 2003 issue.