Don’t believe those shots of a celeb’s taut 6-week postpartum tummy for one second. Real life looks a whole lot different unfiltered.

It was a breezy California day and mother of two Lisa Amstutz was feeling good. She was 10 months postpartum and enjoying a birthday party with her family… until a fellow guest struck up a conversation.

“Baby number three?!” the guest said excitedly, pointing to her stomach.

Nope, not pregnant.

“I tried to laugh it off,” she says, but the remark cut. As a one-time Ironman athlete and lifelong runner, it was particularly tough. Her postpartum physique was different, especially after baby number two, and the post-baby weight she had lost crept back since returning to work from maternity leave.

“I did not deal well with it emotionally,” she says of the comment.

And who would?

Culturally, we are obsessed with postpartum bodies (and pregnant ones too, let’s be honest). In the last 2 weeks alone I’ve counted 6 mainstream articles about the status of a celeb’s post-baby body, while a quick spin on Instagram reveals 8 of the top 15 trending postpartum hashtags are related to diet, fitness, and weight loss.

Our unrealistic expectations of what a postpartum body should look like don’t just lead to a social faux pas at a birthday — they can be deeply toxic to a person’s self-esteem and sometimes jeopardize a healthy recovery if it leads to premature exercise or food restriction. (Fact: You require more calories when lactating than you do pregnant.)

To help you come to terms with the real reality of this new phase of life, here’s a high-level look at what to expect after birthing your baby, from the first hours through the first year.

Whether had a vaginal or cesarean delivery, yes, you will look pregnant for at least the first few days, if not the first 2 weeks.

Don’t be alarmed! Uterine contractions will begin soon after birth, as your uterus starts the process of returning to size (aka “involution”), which can take up to 6 weeks. This will help your extended baby bump diminish. You may also be swollen for several days after the birth (especially if you were induced or had a C-section and were given IV fluids).

“After giving birth, you will lose about 10 pounds right away and a little more as body fluid levels decrease. Don’t expect or try to lose additional pregnancy weight right away,” reports the Office on Women’s Health. “Gradual weight loss over several months is the safest way, especially if you are breastfeeding. Nursing mothers can safely lose a moderate amount of weight without affecting their milk supply or their babies’ growth.”

Whatever state your physique is in, rest is crucial during the first 2 to 4 weeks as your body recovers. Gentle movement is good (minimizes blood clots), but too much activity at this point can lead to excessive bleeding (beyond normal lochia) and injury, especially for C-section mamas. Don’t lift things heavier than the baby, no reaching up high on shelves for stuff, limit stairs, and for God’s sake, don’t do laundry or vacuum.

Unless you are dealing with a vaginal birth trauma of some kind, the one exercise that has been shown to be a good idea at this point is gentle pelvic floor exercises. (No, not for sex — it’s to prevent future incontinence.)

Let’s be clear: A flat tummy by 6 weeks postpartum is not normal.

The first 3 months “is the time of restoration of muscle tone and connective tissue to the prepregnant state. Although change is subtle during this phase … a womanʼs body is nonetheless not fully restored to prepregnant physiology until about 6 months post-delivery,” states a compelling 2010 study focused on pelvic floor health. “Some changes to the [reproductive organs] are much longer in resolving, and some may never fully revert to the prepregnant state.”

It’s not just your reproductive organs that are in question. Your entire postpartum body is on its own timeline, based on your genetics, circumstances, and the birth itself.

For example, breaking your tailbone during labor while giving birth to multiples will create a much different postpartum journey than someone who experienced an uncomplicated vaginal delivery of one child.

If everything is on the mend, you’ll likely get the green light from your OB-GYN to resume exercising around 6 weeks postpartum. And the American College of Gynecologists notes that exercising while breastfeeding doesn’t affect composition or production of milk. (Though nursing moms may want to feed before exercise, to avoid the discomfort of engorged breasts while jogging or lifting!)

Ramp up mindfully between 6 weeks to 3 months postpartum. Whatever you’re doing, protect your ligaments and joints. They may still be looser than normal due to relaxin, a hormone that increases during pregnancy to soften joints and allow your hips to widen in anticipation of birth.

Postpartum bodies from 3 to 6 months postpartum are as diverse as they were prior to pregnancy.

Everything influences where you might be at in this stage: your weight before pregnancy, your level of activity, your diet and access to food, social support, a return to work, and whether you are contending with any perinatal mood disorders or other birth-related trauma.

An older 2008 study examining postpartum depression and weight gain found that women who had new-onset postpartum depression were twice as likely to retain a “substantial” amount of weight by their baby’s first birthday. It’s particularly striking in light of the fact that up to 15 percent of birth persons will experience postpartum depression.

Another surprise: The adage that breastfeeding will help you lose weight? Not true! The most compelling (though dated) study I’ve found on breastfeeding and postpartum weight retention discovered that breastfeeding only helped you lose weight if you gained no more than 26 pounds during pregnancy. And, even then, it took a full 6 months for the study subjects to achieve their pre-pregnancy weight. (Stretch marks, fat redistribution, and loose skin not measured!)

Finally, a multi-year study published in 2014 found that women who gained more than the Institute of Medicine’s weight gain recommendations for pregnancy were more likely to be hanging on to a few extra pounds 18 months postpartum. (Makes sense.) However, by and large, most of the 56,101 women in the study did return to their pre-pregnancy weight within 18 months. (So tell those judgy jerks that all bets are off until baby is 1 1/2 months old. )

On average, it’s about a year to recover physically and emotionally from birth — at least according to a prominent 2012 study.

If you’re like most people (not a ride-or-die Crossfitter who signed up for a half marathon 8 weeks postpartum), somewhere between 6 to 18 months postpartum you’ll find your rhythm. Will you look like “you”? The one you knew before baby? That’s hard to say.

Anecdotally, some women I know became thinner. Some never lost the last 10 pounds. Others became substantially heavier. Another person intentionally kept the weight on as a sacrifice to her beloved baby; the lactation-inducing medication she needed came with weight gain as a side effect.

Scientifically, there are a few things to watch out for. Postpartum thyroiditis will impact your physique, as will diastasis recti (up to 60 percent of women may have this separation of ab muscles). Outside of conditions such as those, the stats say it typically boils down to time, energy level, priority of weight loss, and motivation.

Energy is all about sleep, and no surprise there: Sleep has a massive influence on weight and motivation. An older 2008 study found that women who slept less than 5 hours within a 24-hour period at 6 months postpartum were 2.3 times more likely to retain at least 11 pounds at 1 year postpartum.

And let’s not discount how many first-time mothers in the United States will return to work. This places enormous time constraints on moms, especially if any “free” time at work is used to pump. Exercise, carefully curated meals, and self-care are frequently the first things sacrificed.

That said, carrying excess weight into subsequent pregnancies can lead to poorer pregnancy outcomes, including gestational diabetes, overweight babies, and lower rates of breastfeeding. And today, 45 percent of women begin pregnancy overweight or obese (up from 24 percent in 1983), which may be a primary factor in midlife obesity.

Discounting these facts would be unwise. However, the incessant and immediate message of “get your body back” is deafening. It’s also completely tone-deaf. Science agrees. It may take 9 months to grow a tiny human, but it takes most of us 18 months to rebuild our bodies afterward. And even then they still may look different, but damn if they aren’t absolutely incredible.


Mandy Major is a mama, journalist, and certified postpartum doula PCD(DONA). A perinatal specialist, her mission is to support new parents and help them thrive during the fourth trimester. She is the founder of That’s Major! (@thatsmajorbaby), a nationwide virtual postpartum doula service. Follow her @doulamandy.