Why Pregnancy and Postpartum Can Trigger Eating Disorder Relapse

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The process of growing and bringing a baby into the world are generally considered a joyous time for most women. We are used to seeing the highlight reels of people’s lives: the beautiful maternity photos, the baby showers in celebration of new life to come, and the kodak moments of bonding with a new baby.  

What we don’t always see or hear about are the harder, messier aspects of the pregnancy and postpartum journey. Reality tells a different story, and growing, birthing, and nurturing a baby is not without challenges.

For women who may be pregnant or postpartum after eating disorder recovery, this time can bring about changes that can trigger a relapse. An eating disorder relapse can be defined as a regression to active eating disorder behaviors, such as restricting food, binging and/or purging, over-exercising, and more. Some of the common eating disorder behaviors that can resurface during this time of a woman’s life can be associated with anorexia or bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or orthorexia.

The Eating Disorder Triggers No One Talks About

If you are a mama in recovery and going through pregnancy or postpartum, be aware of the potential triggers you might encounter on your journey. Awareness helps you understand that you aren’t alone nor are you failing in your recovery, even if you experience urges to engage in your eating disorder at any point during your pregnancy or after having your baby.

Here are some of the common changes that women may encounter during pregnancy and postpartum that could potentially trigger an eating disorder relapse:

Physical Changes

A woman’s body has to change in order to accommodate a growing baby. These changes can be overwhelming, especially for a mama with an eating disorder past. Weight can become a focal point during pregnancy, and many women will see their weights escalate to places they have never experienced before.

Physical symptoms and side effects of pregnancy, like nausea, fatigue, etc. can make eating uncomfortable. After birthing a baby, a woman is also adjusting to a body that has been transformed from pregnancy, and these body changes can be triggering for a mother with an eating disorder past.

Emotional Stressors

The combination of hormones with the many stressors of pregnancy and postpartum can trigger a variety of intense emotions, including everything from overwhelm, confusion, sadness, grief, anger, happiness, and more.

The emotional rollercoaster of pregnancy can be taxing on anyone, and it’s no wonder that eating disorder behaviors may feel like a comfortable way to self-soothe.

Mental Health Challenges

Mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, often co-occur with eating disorders, and many women may continue to struggle with a mood disorder, even while in eating disorder recovery. Perinatal mental health is an important area that is often neglected during both pregnancy and postpartum. Women with a history of an eating disorder may be more at risk for perinatal mental health conditions, including prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety.

Changing Support System

Having a baby means moving into a different season of life. Many women may experience their core support system changing as they begin having children and growing a family. This can put added strain on relationships, which can be triggering for a woman during pregnancy and postpartum. Growing and birthing a baby also changes the dynamic of marriage/partnerships, and close family and friends. A women can feel isolated during this season of her life, especially in postpartum, where the majority of her time and focus centers around her baby.

Body Image Struggles

The changes a woman experiences in her body can be difficult to cope with. Some women may find that pregnancy and postpartum have helped them better embrace and celebrate their bodies; other women may find that the changes they are experiencing in their own bodies are scary and hard to adapt to. Either way, pregnancy and birth are transformative: physical, emotionally, and mentally, though the physical changes are what may feel most apparent. This can be challenging for a mother in eating disorder recovery.

These changes are all a normal part of growing and birthing a baby. If you are experiencing urges to return to your familiar eating disorder during your pregnancy and postpartum, it may be due to the many different triggers you are experiencing. Again, this does not mean you aren’t strong enough or are failing in eating disorder recovery. It simply means that you might need a little extra help and support along your way, and that is okay.

Screening For Eating Disorders During Pregnancy and Postpartum

Sadly, over 90 percent of women with disordered eating are not identified by healthcare professionals during pregnancy. Eating disorders often go undetected and untreated during the vulnerable times of pregnancy and postpartum. If you find yourself struggling, please advocate for yourself and your child by confiding in someone you trust, be it a health professional, family member or friend.

Consider these questions during your pregnancy and postpartum to help you determine if you need further support:

  • Does your weight affect the way you feel about yourself?

  • Do you ever eat in secret?

  • Are you satisfied with your eating patterns?

  • Do your eating patterns cause you to feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed?

Answering yes to these questions might indicate that you need some extra help and support to navigate the eating disorder triggers you are facing in pregnancy and/or postpartum.

Hope For Eating Disorder Recovery

Remember mama, you are not alone. The pregnancy and postpartum periods bring about so much change, and it is easy to want to go back to something that is comfortable and gives you a sense of control.

The good news is that there is help available to support you through your own pregnancy and postpartum journey should you find yourself struggling with old eating disorder behaviors. Even with all the triggers you might be experiencing, it is possible to have a healthy pregnancy and baby while remaining in eating disorder recovery.

Tell your doctor or midwife about past or present eating disorders; early intervention can be essential to ensuring a positive outcome for both mother and baby. Working with a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders can also help you successfully navigate any challenges you may face during pregnancy and postpartum. Consider nutrition counseling and therapy for your pregnancy and postpartum eating disorder recovery.

While having children often changes the way a woman views herself and her body, this can still be a strenuous time for a mother in eating disorder recovery. Give yourself the extra care and support you to build a positive future for yourself and your children.