She called me because she was exhausted after exercise and wasn't sure why...
Every month or so I hear from a new mother who loves her baby, yet feels completely overwhelmed and wonders if she's ever going to look like she did before the baby. She's watching every bit of food and pushing herself to exercise. She heard that nursing takes the weight off and she's wondering what's wrong with her and why life isn't like the commercial.
So we talk about how old the baby is, what was her exercise routine before pregnancy, what she's eating, and whether she naps every day. And I tell her what was most important for me each time I was getting back to "normal" after a baby: sleep, hydration, protein, rest, sufficient calories, supplements, moderate exercise, and sleep.
These women in their 20s are under eating much of the day, and causing cortisol to rise, leading to poor sleep, forgetting to take vitamins, and feeling too frazzled to plan and sit down for decent meals. Then they eat too much of fatty, sweet and salty foods, and not enough protein. When the baby sleeps, they deep clean or check email and facebook, and may not feel refreshed when the baby wakes up.
With my first baby I was just this spacey and the weight wasn't coming off. It took me a while to sort out how much more I needed to hydrate, managing my intense nursing appetite, resting and showering when the baby was asleep, taking supplements regularly. Ultimately I lost my weight while breastfeeding - 5 times after 5 pregnancies - IF and only IF I slept as much as possible at night, plus one nap each day, plus tons of hydration, plus continuing to take prenatal vitamins so my thyroid functioned well, and I wasn't anemic. Nothing to do with restricting calories, just being moderate about sweets.
For exercise, I did nothing more than a brisk walk, no running for the first few months, since I wasn't adapted to that before pregnancy. Overall, I averaged 2-3 walks with a bit of jogging, for a total of 8-10 miles per week, some stretching, hand weights, pilates, not much. I was never in the habit of cardio every day (wipes me out), and I went back to what I did before. Moms who were more active before pregnancy would aim for their own typical exercise routine, or a version that suits their schedule now.
Of course I ate mostly real food, though in my 20s I could have a brownie or two each day and still lose the weight. In fact, by the time the baby was a year old, still nursing many times a day, I was typically underweight. In my 30s with a somewhat slower metabolism, it was a few treats per week. But sleep was still the biggest thing - cortisol wrecks my (already undeveloped) self-control and makes me want cheesecake and chips for breakfast, and it's like I gain weight overnight. Even using self-control, it's very hard to assess hunger and appetite when under slept.
Once I had a system down, I could feel pretty much like myself within 6 months, and well on my way even by 3 months postpartum, which was good enough for my purposes. After my 5th kid I was back in my regular clothes in a couple of months because I rested as much as possible after she was born, laying in bed to read whether I was really tired or not, just to keep my cortisol down. (It was summer, we were moving 2 months after she was born, and I knew if I wasn't as recovered as possible, it would start bleeding again and perhaps damage my body being on my feet and setting up a new place so soon.) The other moms I know who've had many kids do something similar, staying horizontal as much as possible, at least for the first few weeks if they're able.
So yes, you can get your pre-baby body back, more or less, if it wasn't dependent on you being a professional athlete. Lots of moms set aside time to exercise every day, and if you maintained a normal weight without tons of daily exercise before the baby, you can probably do it again. But the methods may look different. For many moms, sleep and nutrition make a much bigger difference than exercise.
Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby sleeps, so I'll say it differently: Rest when the baby sleeps, even if you aren't going to sleep. Clean when the baby is awake, 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Whatever you do is interesting for the baby, especially if you chat with him and if needed, carry him. So do everything you can - shopping, meal prep, laundry, etc,... - while the baby is awake, so you can be truly off the hook when he sleeps and enjoy a shower, meal, book, hot cup of tea, a little workout, and whatever else will be fun to do alone.
Everyone also tells you to keep taking prenatal vitamins, and here's why it matters. First, a nursing baby takes more calories than a baby in the womb. And now this person has a fully functioning thyroid and needs iodine in order not to develop permanent disability. So you're supplying iodine for the baby and yourself, and few people eat enough ocean foods to get enough iodine, even for themselves before pregnancy, without supplements. The same case can be made for many other vitamins - both you and the baby need them, and odds are you won't have the time or interest in eating that much food to get all those nutrients each day. It took me a while to get in the habit of taking supplements every day, but this made a huge difference in how I felt after having babies - not only in my general energy, but mental awareness. After figuring out what it took, I was not a space case after my subsequent girls were born, though it took some extra supplements once I was over 35.
I know many moms of 6-12 kids who look terrific. None of them run marathons or visit the gym every day. From what I hear, they don't follow a specific food plan other than "salad most days for lunch" or "don't eat dessert regularly". They are busy on their feet, and perhaps they walk or lift weights at home. They drink lots of water. They don't stay up too late or make themselves get up too early. They have figured out what works for them, with practice and time, and so can you. Now lay down to rest while you figure it out.