Having a child is both the most challenging and rewarding thing you will do in your lifetime. It not only causes a huge change in mindset, but it also places an incredibly large physical and mental toll on your body.
Which is why returning to sport after having a child is so damn difficult – hence the reason why we wanted to dedicate an entire article to the intricacies of juggling motherhood and sport.
Is having kids career ending?
There is a common misconception among the public that having children means that your athletic career is over – that you simply cannot participate in sport, even if you wanted to.
However, research has shown that this is not necessarily the case (Sundgot-Borgen, 2019).
In fact, it has been demonstrated that 95% of elite athletes return to sport after having a child within 12 weeks. Moreover, more than half of these perceive that their performance improved beyond pre-pregnancy levels within 9 months of recommencing their selected sport.
So, we can safely say that having kids is not necessarily career ending.
Within this, it is important to note that only around 50% of highly active people from the general population do recommence sport within the first 12 weeks after giving birth – which may indicate that having children can influence the post-pregnancy exercise levels of the general population.
Which makes a bit of sense when we consider that these guys don’t make money from their sport, and simply do it for health and enjoyment.
How body changes after having children
While we are on the topic of returning to sport, I feel as if we should highlight some of the changes the body undergoes during pregnancy that can make returning to training a bit of a challenge.
Some of these key changes include:
- Weight gain
- Increased energy expenditure through breastfeeding
- Heightened joint laxity
- A loss of muscle strength (through pregnancy related detraining)
- Loss of cardiovascular fitness (through pregnancy related detraining)
- General lethargy and decline in energy levels
- The possibility of post-natal depression and anxiety
While the severity of these issues certainly changes on an individual basis, they will undoubtedly impact your ability to return to sport after giving birth in some capacity.
How long does it take after having a baby to get back to competing?
This is where things start to get a little bit murky – see while early research has suggested that some women can return to training within 6 weeks of giving birth, the training intensities that they can tolerate are markedly lower than normal.
As a result, it can take some time before they are ready to compete at a high level again.
Making it more difficult is the fact that the way everyone responds to the rigors of childbirth is complete individual. Which simply means that it may take some people much longer to recover than others.
With this in mind, you can expect most athletes to return to completion between 9 and 12 months after giving birth – however there will be some people who return earlier than this, and some who return later.
And there are numerous reasons for this.
Psychological distress after children
In conjunction with all the physical changes that accompany pregnancy and the ensuing childbirth, it is also important to note that many women suffer from some form of psychological distress after having children (Di Blasio, 2015).
Some of the more common forms of postnatal psychological distress include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Maternity blues
- Mood instability
Each of these can have serious implications for the health of the mother and child – and within this, they can make exercise seem damn near impossible.
In each of these scenarios, both energy and motivation remain very low. Not to mention the crippling fear that comes with being required to leave your child for even the briefest periods of time – which makes getting out for a workout very hard indeed.
Like I said – damn near impossible.
Breastfeeding and training
Another one the difficulties that come with juggling motherhood and sport is related to training while breastfeeding.
While evidence does suggest that around 80% of athletes do manage to juggle breastfeeding and training, it is far from easy (Giles, 2016).
First and foremost, breastfeeding means that you must organise your entire life around someone else’s schedule. This obviously limits the times that you can train, and how long you can actually train for.
Secondly, especially during the first few weeks, breastfeeding means that you are going to be up every 2-3 hours during the night to feed your baby. This impairs sleep, which can in turn impair exercise performance.
Finally, it is also important to note that breastfeeding requires energy.
While this is not necessarily a barrier to training, it does mean that you need to pay attention to your diet closely. In doing so, you need to make sure that you are consuming enough energy to ensure that both your physical recovery from exercise, and your production of breastmilk, is optimized.
For most mothers, this means eating around 500 calories extra per day on top if your normal training energy requirements (Dewey, 1997).
Time constraints after having children
Both psychological distress and breastfeeding offer serious barriers to training – but there is one rather obvious one that still needs addressing.
Yep, I am taking about time.
After having a child, all your free time goes out the window. Your life suddenly revolves around keeping another human alive, and it takes so much more time than you would think.
Between feeding, changing diapers, and trying to get them to nap effectively, your days literally disappear.
Which is why it is so important to carve out certain times of the day that are just for you.
During these times you can get your partner to look after the little one and sneak of for a training session. While you may feel a little guilty at first, it is important to note that this time is important for both you mental and physical health – and more importantly, remember that you deserve it.
Identity changes after having children
Within all this, it is important to highlight that most people (athletes included) experience significant identity changes after children (McGannon, 2018).
In short, their identify evolves from being an athlete, to also being a mother– and this alone can have some rather serious implications.
Not because the identity change itself is bad, but because with it results in the development of conflicting priorities. On one hand, these mothers have an innate desire to do the best for their children, no matter what the cost.
However, on the other hand, they also want to train and compete – which will take them away from their children.
With this comes the fear that their sport is detracting from their ability to be a good mother. There is also the fear that they will be perceived to be putting their sporting endeavours before their children – both of which result in guilt and unhappiness.
Which is why it is integral to reinforce that as a mother you can have multiple identities, and that by taking time to better yourself through your athletic endeavours, you will be a much happier human as a result.
Which will only have positive implications on your children.
Examples of successful female athletes with kids
Now, just to demonstrate that this whole juggling motherhood and sport ‘thing’ is actually possible, I wanted to give you some examples of famous female athletes who are mothers.
So, without further ado.
Candace Parker has spent more than a decade on the basketball court playing in the WNBA. During this time, she was well and truly established herself as one of the best players on the planet.
Arguably most impressive is the fact that she gave birth to her daughter in 2009 and has not stopped dominating the world of female basketball ever since.
Arguably one of the most influential female long-distance runners in the USA, Kara Goucher is a legend of the sport.
Her list of awards includes thrice being a National Collegiate Athletic Association champion, multiple podium finishes at world championships, and she has even represented the USA at two Olympic Games.
Kara fell pregnant in 2010, and subsequently took the entire season off. However, she was back to competing in 2011, and has not looked back.
One of the biggest names in the US athletic scene, Lashinda Demus is renowned for her silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics in the 400m hurdles – which is hands down one of the most competitive events in the world.
Making this even more impressive is the fact that Lashinda gave birth to twins in 2007 and had to manage her training around the massive lifestyle changes that came with that.
This Canadian MMA athlete is often regarded as one of the world’s best female fighters – and competing on a regular basis in the UFC, there is a very good reason for her reputation.
Competing in the bantamweight and flyweight divisions, Alexis has accumulated a whopping 19 victories from 26 fights – two of which have recently come after giving birth to her son in 2017.
Last on this super impressive list, we have the legendary Christie Rampone. A powerhouse on the soccer field, Christie has made not just one comeback after children, but two.
She played in the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Olympic Games after the birth of her first daughter in 2005. She then came back to soccer again after her second daughter was born in 2010
And that comeback netted her a 2nd finish at the 2011 World Cup, and the opportunity to captain the US soccer team at the 2012 Olympic games.
Tips on managing motherhood and training
I wanted to finish this article with my favorite tips on managing children and training.
While I certainly appreciate that there will be times when training simply does not happen, by following these tips you will make managing the two a whole lot easier.
- Start implementing shorter sessions: With time being poor, you might want to start prioritising shorter sessions of a higher intensity (HIIT for example). This is a great way to improve your fitness with a much shorter time commitment.
- Schedule it within your routine: while the first few weeks after giving birth can seem overwhelmingly chaotic, you will eventually settle into a routine. This will allow you to pick the optimal time of day that you can train – and once you have that time sorted, try and keep it free no matter what.
- Don’t pressure yourself: one thing to remember is that you are in no rush. Take the time to recover, and make sure that you ease back into your training. There is nothing wrong with taking the time you need to settle into your new life as a mom, and then commence training after.
- Don’t feel guilty: building on a couple of my points from earlier in the article, when you do get back into training, there is no need to feel guilty about it. Taking time out of your day to do something just for you is important. It will positively impact your physical and mental health, which will in turn improve your ability to be a good mom.
- Get your family involved: and finally, try and get your partner and even your children involved. If you can all come down and train together (even if bubs is just watching from the pram) then you will all reap the benefits and get some quality family time in the process.
Take Home Message
The birth of a new child is one hell of a game changer – but that does not mean it is the end of your sporting career.
By taking some steps in the right direction and realizing that you can indeed be an athlete and a mother at the same time, you will get back into competing at a high level in no time.
Sundgot-Borgen, Jorunn, et al. “Elite athletes get pregnant, have healthy babies and return to sport early postpartum.” BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 5.1 (2019).
Di Blasio, Paola, et al. “Emotional distress following childbirth: an intervention to buffer depressive and PTSD symptoms.” Europe’s journal of psychology 11.2 (2015): 214.
Giles, Audrey R., et al. “Elite Distance Runners and Breastfeeding: A Qualitative Study.” Journal of Human Lactation 32.4 (2016): 627-632.
Dewey, Kathryn G. “Energy and protein requirements during lactation.” Annual review of nutrition 17.1 (1997): 19-36.
McGannon, Kerry R., Jenny McMahon, and Christine A. Gonsalves. “Juggling motherhood and sport: A qualitative study of the negotiation of competitive recreational athlete mother identities.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 36 (2018): 41-49.