By Olivia Bergeron, LCSW at Mommy Grove Therapy & Coaching

If you struggle or have struggled with an eating disorder, pregnancy can present a host of triggers. The normal – and necessary – weight gain that accompanies the 40-odd weeks of pregnancy can feel scary and out of your control. After all, it’s difficult for anyone pregnant not to fixate on their changing shape. It can seem like everyone around you is gazing at you and your belly and also feels entitled to comment on your growing body – unnerving for anyone, and especially unsettling for those who have experienced an eating disorder. This is particularly so if you’ve spent weeks or years doing everything possible to avoid weight gain. It can be hard to avoid focusing on how your body looks, and instead on what it is doing: growing a baby.

Loss of control over your own body

The sense of loss of control over your body that may accompany pregnancy can be the hardest for people with active or prior eating disorders. Control is often at the core of eating disorders, as those suffering try to create a sense of order out of the chaotic circumstances in their lives. Paradoxically, those with control issues may need to cede the desire for things to be perfect in order to regain a sense of control. 

Karen Kleiman of the Postpartum Stress Center uses the image of a water balloon to explain this paradox to clients. If you have a wiggling water balloon in the palm of your hand, what is the best way to gain control over it? Squeeze it, and it will pop or shoot out of your hand. The only way to regain control is to open your hand and let the balloon rest in your palm, thus giving up control only to regain it again. The same applies in life. You can fight the inevitable changes in your body that pregnancy brings, or you can accept and adapt. If you can accept your body’s changes as the pregnancy progresses as normal, healthy and unavoidable – as opposed to raging against them or feeling self-loathing – you can find a sense of calm and control.

Pregnancy is motivation for help to stay healthy

The motivation to have a healthy pregnancy and baby can be profound. Many parents with a history of eating disorders may feel compelled to get the help they need to avoid falling into unhealthy eating patterns. Knowing that you are setting an example for your child can be powerful motivation to make lasting changes on many fronts. Most (all?) parents do not want to pass on disordered eating to their children.

So what can you do to stay healthy in the face of the stress of pregnancy and new parenthood?

Get help with your eating disorder prior to pregnancy.

Having months of recovery behind you can set you up to successfully manage the hormonal roller coaster of pregnancy and new parenthood. Even if you have years of recovery behind you, cope for this major life change in advance.

Line up support.

Let your friends and family know you need their support. Be direct and concrete about how your loved ones can help you. Most friends and family are well intentioned, but may not know what to do and say to best support you. Tell them! Find a therapist and nutritionist who specializes in treating eating disorders. Touch base with your psychiatrist. It is vastly easier to find mental health support before a baby arrives, when you are still sleeping through the night and aren’t yet responsible for this new life.

Ensure you have a good, honest relationship with your care providers.

Let your doctors or midwives know about your condition and discuss ways to avoid triggers. If they do not seem comfortable treating you, move on to another practice that is.

Have a postpartum plan.

Think about who can assist in grocery shopping, cooking nutritious meals to stock in your freezer, walking the dog, and giving you a break. Write out the tasks you and your partner need to accomplish on a weekly basis and farm out as much as you can, so that you can focus on your new family. Create less stress for yourself, so that the temptation to slide into disordered eating is minimized.

Self care. 

It is easy and understandable to have every waking hour devoted to childcare, but that is a sure way to burn out. Make sure you are getting your own needs met: drinking enough water, eating healthy meals regularly, getting showered and dressed every day, having contact with the outside world. Avoiding isolation is key. We were not meant to raise children alone! It does indeed take a village.

Give yourself time to recovery physically from your pregnancy and birth.

Despite what postpartum celebrity photos in magazines might have you believe, it does take time to bounce back physically following the birth of a child. It took you 40 or so weeks to come to the end of your pregnancy, give yourself about that amount to get back to your old shape.

Pregnancy and new parenthood can be extremely stressful, no matter what your health history. Provide yourself with the best chance of success by rallying more support than you think you’ll need. You won’t regret it!

Some helpful links and resources:

NEDA – National Eating Disorders Association

Eating Disorder Hope

American Pregnancy Association

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