Your Mommy Body
A head-to-toe guide to the changes -- and what you can do about them
Teeth, breasts, midsection, and more
Teeth Folklore has it that a tooth is lost for every pregnancy -- which would be quite a dramatic price to pay for our beloved children. But there is a factual basis for its origin. Progesterone and estrogen can increase circulation, bringing more blood to the gums, causing swelling and sensitivity to bacteria. "Pregnant women are more prone to gingivitis," says Kimberly Harms, D.D.S., of River's Edge Dental Clinic in Farmington, Minnesota. "And any gum disease you have can grow worse during pregnancy." If not taken care of, pregnancy gingivitis can damage the supporting fibers and bone that hold teeth in place -- hence the old wives' tale. "All the problems can be avoided with meticulous dental hygiene during pregnancy and afterward," says Harms.
Breasts Laments about postpregnancy, postnursing breasts are common (the breasts of 95 percent of women won't look the same afterward, one expert estimates). They fall into one or both camps: the lessening or the drooping of these prized pieces of real estate. Going down in bra size is thought to be caused by a change in the makeup of the breast. When you get pregnant, the ducts, lobules, and other glandular matter inside spring to life and push aside some of the fatty tissue, according to Natalie Angier, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography. Each breast can gain as much as a pound while working to sustain your baby. Afterward, the milk-producing apparatus shrinks, but, says Angier, "the fat grows lazy and doesn't reinfiltrate the spaces." So the breast gets smaller. Drooping breasts can be blamed on overly stretched skin and connective tissue. Nothing can be done to counteract the shrinking breast. But you can lessen any additional sagging during your next pregnancy and in the months after by wearing a good maternity and nursing bra, day and night, to ease the load on ligaments and skin. The nipples don't escape unchanged, either. During pregnancy, the areola around the nipple darkens due to hormonal changes, and it may stay that way. Some women complain that after nursing their nipples are constantly on alert. They may also become larger after breastfeeding simply because "they're being pulled out every time you nurse," says Sumeeta Nanda, M.D., an Oklahoma City obstetrician.
Midsection Of all the things I've lost since having babies, I think I miss my waistline the most. One study of the postpregnancy body used a charming description of this area: "redundant skin." "This tissue only has so much elasticity, so once stretched past that, it does not completely return," says Laura Irwin, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist and associate professor at the Medical College of Georgia. Also problematic are the abdominal muscles, some of which stretch 50 percent during pregnancy, according to Sylvia Brown, coauthor of The Post-Pregnancy Handbook. After such extreme stretching, the muscles will never again be as strong, she says. This means that it will be next to impossible to have a stomach as toned and flat as it was when your baby was just a glimmer in your eye. Part of the prescription to improve your chances of ever showing your midriff again is not to gain more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy and to return to your ideal weight after the baby. Good posture and daily stomach-strengthening exercises can help, too. Women who've had c-sections have a special challenge -- a scar. "There are several layers in the abdominal wall, and that affects the way the abdomen heals," says Bruce Flamm, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of California, Irvine. The most common complaint of those who have had c-sections is that their abdomen pooches over their scar and that it's difficult to get muscle tone back.
Lower back Back problems are expected during pregnancy, but one study found a third of women still reported them three months after delivery. Why? It's difficult to pinpoint all the factors, but it may start with a hormone called relaxin, which loosens the joints in the pelvis to allow the baby to pass in delivery. "This loosening may change the support structure of the spinal joints," says Anthony Lisi, a professor at University of Bridgeport College of Chiropratic in Connecticut. Then, after the baby is born and before ligaments have tightened up, you could put more of a strain on your back by lifting and nursing in an awkward position. To help prevent back problems, do abdominal-strengthening exercises, and use leg muscles more than back muscles when picking up things -- including children -- by bending from the knees, not the hips. Also, make sure not to hunch over when you nurse, which can exacerbate back pain.
Thighs and rear end Treasonously, the female hormones estrogen and progesterone encourage the collection of fat in the thighs, buttocks, upper arms, and breasts, especially during pregnancy. "In evolutionary terms, women who collected more fat were the ones who could keep their babies alive through the winter," says Mary Vernon, M.D., a bariatric physician in Lawrence, Kansas. This may have made sense for hunters and gatherers, but it's a brutal anachronism now. Much of the collected padding disappears over time, especially if you breastfeed, since this uses up fat stores. Still, experts estimate that on average a woman retains eight to ten pounds with each pregnancy. "The double whammy of it all is caring for your kids," says Helen Darling, a mom of two from Austin, Texas. "I can't find time to exercise now without paying a sitter." Studies have found that women who gain more than the recommended weight during pregnancy are more likely to retain it. This makes it all the more important next time around to gain a reasonable amount of weight and to continue to exercise during and after pregnancy -- even if you can manage nothing more intense than pushing the baby in a stroller.