The Swedish Approach to Postpartum Health

It seems like all too soon, mothers of newborns are concerned about losing the baby weight.

“What a cruel scheme to keep a woman from knowing her power. To put the focus on what pregnancy did to her body rather than focus on what her perfect body just did. Here we sit, creating and nourishing the guture and we are diminished to “baby weight.” I will not succumb to your demanding ideals.” —Amethyst Joy

One thing I noticed upon arriving to Stockholm was that all of the Swedish moms at my six-month postpartum check-up all looked super fit. Didn’t we all just give birth six months ago? 


Mental Health

My postpartum appointment was focused on my mental health. My midwife asked me how I felt about my delivery, how I was handling the sleepless nights, and how often my baby was nursing. 

I don’t recall her weighing me or even inquiring about my physical health aside from sleep—which I obviously was not getting much of.

But maybe it was because I was only six weeks into a 52-week parental leave stint but I was feeling great. I felt like I could kick back, relax, and enjoy this second baby in a way that I couldn’t possibly do in 12 weeks of leave with my first baby. 


Physical Differences

Physically, I noticed a huge change from my postpartum experience in Sweden than I experienced in the US.

In the US, I was very active and walked every day of my pregnancy. I gained the recommended 35 pounds (16 kg)and watched everything I ate. The epitome of health and perfection or so I thought.

However, in Sweden, I was much more casually active—that is, I wasn’t doing specific workouts but I was walking miles and miles every day.

When I was pregnant in Sweden, we didn’t own a car and I would hike down two large hills to my son’s daycare and then haul him—on my shoulders in the beginning and then pushing in a stroller— back UP those same two monstrous hills. I did this roundtrip twice a day and was logging in a huge workout without realizing it.

Here are my main observations in differences in my physical health between Sweden and the US:

1. Swedish mothers stroll a few hours every day

Stroller culture is huge in Sweden—not only in the city but out in the suburbs as well. Due to their long parental leaves, you’ll see parents out and about with their gorgeous black bassinet-style prams with their supply of extra diapers, clothes, and food fashionably stowed out of sight.

I’m not sure if you know this but Sweden can get quite the amount of snow in the winter.

If you’re lucky, like I was, to have a baby during the winter months, that meant that I was pushing my stroller (now with two kids in it) around in a few inches of snow.

For those living in warmer climates, just head to the beach and push your stroller around a bit. You’ll get a sense of how much resistance is involved and how much of a workout a simple walk around the block can become.

My advice: channel your inner viking and go outside no matter what the weather forecast looks like.

2. Many Swedish women workout in addition to the hours of strolling

For me, it was always an either or. I was either going to workout and then reward myself by lying on the couch all day OR go for a long walk outside with my toddler and baby. 

However, for the especially brave and motivated, many Swedish women do both.

There is a great program called Mom in Balance Stockholm and they have pre- and postpartum workout groups for moms in the parks around Stockholm. (If you live in the area, definitely check them out.)

My advice: Find a Stroller Strides or Baby and Me Yoga or whatever program near you that is designed to accommodate babies and mothers.

I would say to do some yoga on YouTube, and I’ve definitely done that too, but the social aspect of meeting other postpartum mothers is really beneficial. Take care of your emotional, mental, and physical health in just a few meetings a month.

3. Taking public transportation becomes another accidental workout

Popping your strolled onto and off a bus, up escalators, and all around town definitely burns a few calories.

My advice: if you live in a place that is car-centric (like the US), then take your car to a nice walking path and walk for an hour in addition to everything else. 

4. Breastfeeding

I’m not anti-formula, let’s not start that, but Sweden is very pro-breastfeeding and Swedish mothers who do breastfeed reap the benefits of those burned calories. If you’re going to breastfeed anyway because that’s your plan, then just know that breastfeeding burns 300-500 calories per day. No pressure either way, of course.

For whatever it’s worth, I breastfed in the US, too and I didn’t feel as fit as I did during my six-week postpartum check-up as I did while living in Sweden. I’m going to attribute my overall increased physical fitness to the casual physical activity I was doing in Sweden over the benefits seen by breastfeeding but with too many variables to consider, who knows why I felt like I did? 


Other differences

1. Mama Gruppen

After you give birth in Sweden, you are assigned to a Mama Group (Mama Gruppen) of other mothers who recently gave birth by your midwifery practice.

Usually, you only have two things in common with these women—geographic location and time of birth—but oftentimes, that is enough to create some sort of bond to get you through those initial postpartum weeks and months when you feel isolated with your newborn.

While I was pregnant with both of my children, I joined virtual mama groups on Facebook and BabyCenter, but I will say that meeting up IRL (in real life) with other women was a lifesaver. Internet friends can’t give you IRL hugs and the process of meeting up with my IRL friends forced me to shower and take care of myself—something I could ignore if I only maintained online relationships.

My advice: ask your midwife or pediatrician to connect you with another mom who gave birth recently or check the internet yourself for someone with common interests. Sure, you may not have much in common but it’s okay.

All you really need is to connect with someone who can commiserate with exactly what you’re going through at that exact moment and those people are your peers. Even mothers who gave birth three months ahead of you will be too far along in the developmental stages to help too much.  

Find someone in your same birth month (or ideally, birth week) and meet up once a week for a lunch or stroll around the neighborhood. 

A great place to connect with English-speaking moms in the Stockholm area is at Hogalids Hedgehogs run by Jill Leckie who also runs events and provides a ton of helpful information through Little Bear Abroad.

2. Lack of healthy sleep

One might think that with 480 days of parental leave, everyone is sleeping in and taking naps. In reality, Swedish parents with long parental leaves put off any form of sleep training and end up struggling through sleepless nights. Those poor sleep habits become ingrained and it’s only 12 months later, when the mother is often returning to work, that she realizes that she has a real problem on her hands.

In contrast to my time in the US, when I had to be back at work when my baby still wasn’t sleeping through the night (not exactly a check on the “Pros” side of the list), I had to get serious about our sleep habits and routines. 

Sleep deprived at work, my manager reassured me that yes, my six-month-old baby could physically sleep through the night and she encouraged me to read a few books on healthy sleep.

Yes, we did the No Cry Sleep Solution and it didn’t work so we tried the “cry for 7 days solution” and it worked! 

In short, you all deserve sleep and believe me, your entire household will be healthier and happier when everyone (including you!) are sleeping.

My advice: regardless of how long your parental leave is, prioritize your family’s sleep routines. Develop good sleep habits from the beginning and keep reinforcing those.

My good friend and two-time USA Olympian, Courtney Landin, is a sleep coach and runs Happy Sleeping Baby.

She helps families figure out the best sleeping routines for their family. The trick: you have to follow her advice (which most people don’t do because they’re coming to her with bad habits already ingrained). (Tell her Lisa sent you for extra special sleep tips ;-))

They know what works and you don’t, which is why you hired them in the first place, right? If you hire a sleep coach, do yourself a favor and follow their advice.

3. Parenting Magazines

One thing both Swedes and Americans have in common is the need to share information about parenting via online parenting websites and digital magazines.

Ditt barn & Du is a great resource for Swedish-speaking moms to learn about their child’s social and emotional development. Encouraging mama’s to follow their “gut intuition” when it comes to following parenting advice and guidelines, Paulina Gunnardo has created a digital magazine that covers a variety of topics for new mothers to consider. Read more here.

My advice: read all of the parenting books, websites, and magazines and try out various approaches to nutrition, bonding, and postpartum exercise. Listen to your intuition and realize that a different combination works for everyone (psst, that’s why there are so many books out there to begin with. Nobody has THE answer, you know?).

Emilie Terstegge-Nuyens of Mom in Balance Stockholm, gave me this gift to pass along to you for free because she is amazing and cares about pre and postpartum mamas.

Click below to download a free PDF e-book (no email required) on exercises that are safe to do in the first six weeks after childbirth.

There are even safe exercises for women who have had cesarean sections. 

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