Operation Transformation dietitian Aoife Hearne believes women need to be realistic about their post-pregnancy bodies, writes.
There is a sign taped to the front door of Aoife Hearne’s house, warning off rogue door-knockers by informing them that if they wake her children, there will be hell to pay.
As mum to Dylan, four, Ailbhe, three, and Zoe, 13 months, the dietitian and consultant on Operation Transformation is refreshingly honest about the realities of life with three under five.
“Look, it’s not easy,” she admits. “There is a lot of juggling and a lot of help.”
Having spent the last five years pregnant, nursing, or both, Aoife is keen to erode the myth of springing back into shape after a baby.
“When I was pregnant with Dylan, I had this Instamom idea that I was going to run into labour, but that did not happen,” she says.
“I got SPD (symphysis pubis dysfunction, which causes pelvic pain) and I couldn’t exercise and that was really hard for me.
"I didn’t end up on crutches but I was walking around like an old lady. That led to five years of no exercise.
Truthfully, I found a way to get out of every single Operation Transformation 5k.
Just last week, Aoife set herself the challenge of running for 20 minutes, and she succeeded.
“It was the first week where I felt that I want to get my body back. I want to feel fitter. People might think that I’m fit, but I’m not — I’m hiding a multitude.”
Of course, the demands that govern new parenting do not allow for lengthy sojourns in the gym, and the key to success, says the dietician, is being realistic.
“Zoe is definitely our last baby, and I don’t think I was ready until now,” she says.
“My body is only getting back into the normal run of things — menstrual cycle and all that stuff that I didn’t really have for the last five years. It’s been a crazy few years but I’m looking forward to exercising again.”
Time is the one thing that new parents lack, says Aoife.
“That’s why running is so effective because I can do it in 20 minutes. I don’t have time for classes — I laugh at Karl Henry every week with his healthy to-do lists. I’m like, ‘Karl! Seriously!’”
Postpartum life is a busy one, and it’s important to be honest about the demands of a young family.
Aoife suggests focusing on small changes that are easy to stick to.
“I know that personal trainers say that you can make time — I’m sorry, but when you have young kids, it just doesn’t always happen.
"I think women have to be realistic too and not expect so much of themselves. There will be times when you can’t exercise, and that’s OK, but focus on eating well during that time.
"If you don’t eat well and you don’t exercise, then you’re in trouble.”
Aoife calls herself a ‘samey’ kind of eater, perhaps as a result of habits honed during years as an athlete.
She eats regularly throughout the day, starting with porridge or Weetabix most mornings.
A quick rummage through her cupboards shows that the dietitian is just like the rest of us.
Along with healthy staples like brown rice, pasta, and oats, she has a treat press — yes, really! — stocked with Curly Wurlys and treat-size chocolate bars like Penguins and Cadbury Snacks.
Her fridge is stuffed with real butter and yoghurts, lots of vegetables, and an emergency can of Coca-Cola (“only when I’m pregnant or hungover”).
Everything in moderation is the message Aoife wants to spread, and she is evangelical about it.
I’d love to see women learning to trust themselves a little more so that they recognise their own hunger and fullness signals.
“I don’t subscribe to this notion of restrictive eating. No foods should be off limits, we should give ourselves permission to eat all foods and that’s why you will see all foods in my presses,” she says.
Having three children in quick succession is intense, and sleep is a priceless commodity for Aoife.
Her middle child Ailbhe had an undiagnosed posterior tongue tie until she was seven months old, leaving her full of wind and, as a result, unable to sleep.
At the same time, Aoife’s thyroid went into overdrive, to the point where specialists were telling her that her body was toxic and she would need to stop breastfeeding.
“Mentally I found it very hard to keep it together,” she says. “I remember sitting in my GP’s office thinking I had postnatal depression and I was so worried.
"Only that she knew me so well, she was able to say ‘no, you’re just exhausted’ and that gave me such comfort.
"It was a very difficult time for my husband and I. We were both trying to work, and never knowing if we were going to sleep. Sleep is everything.”
Add filming Operation Transformation into the mix and it’s hard to marry the Aoife Hearne who came across on screen with an exhausted mum dealing with a health issue.
That time was not an easy one for the family, she admits.
“It was really challenging in that I had to be ‘that person’ for Operation Transformation, and I felt I did a good enough job, but it took every single drop of energy that I had inside, so when I came home I was useless to everyone else.
"Hair and makeup covers a multitude and definitely helped me put the game face on. I knew I could crumble when I came home, but it was unfair in some ways, crumbling on the people who are most important to you. I suppose that’s life, isn’t it?”
In the face of years of sleep deprivation, it stands to reason that diet rules go out the window for most of us, she says.
“When you don’t sleep, hormones in your body change to drive you to want sugar and high fat because your brain hardwired to know that’s what’s going to help you get through.
"Because I knew that, I tried to set myself up for success, and not have those things around me as much, so I couldn’t lean on them.”
Like most new mums, Aoife had a freezer full of dinners when her firstborn arrived, but by the time Zoe was born last year, that kind of militant planning was out the window.
She stocked her kitchen with healthy snack foods like oats (“great for milk supply”) and a steady stream of fruits and veggies.
Eating the correct number of calories in the early days of breastfeeding is an essential contributor to establishing milk supply, she points out.
When you are breastfeeding in the early weeks you need more energy to fuel that milk supply. I would recommend around 500 extra calories for the first six weeks because that milk supply is very ramped up during this time.
Aoife cites breastfeeding as crucial to regaining her shape postpartum.
“Without a doubt, breastfeeding made getting back into shape really easy for me. It really helps to contract the tummy.”
One of the greatest myths around food and breastfeeding is that that you need to eat in a specific way to increase your supply, says Hearne.
“There is no science behind that at all. Your milk quality is not affected by what you eat.
"Oats are really good to increase your milk supply, and you must drink enough water to make sure that you are making enough milk.
"There is some evidence that caffeine may make the baby more irritable but generally, although women always blame themselves for their children being fussy, it’s probably because it’s the early weeks and babies are fussy by nature.”
It’s important to be realistic about our bodies in that fourth trimester, and role models like Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are doing a great job of showing what real women look like postpartum, according to the dietitian.
“Bouncing back and snapping back into shape is not normal. We saw Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle after their babies with a little tummy and that’s how most women’s stomach’s look after giving birth.
"There are a few women who don’t look that way, but it is very rare. I think that women should know that you will probably be in your maternity clothes for the first few weeks, and that’s normal.”
For those who wish to get back into their old routine, it’s all about being kind to yourself, advocates Aoife.
“I totally understand that at some stage, you want to get out of your maternity jeans,” she laughs. “There is nothing wrong with getting moving and getting into some kind of a routine.
"It can be a very difficult transition from never really having to actively lose weight to be in a place where you do.
"Knowing how you do that is quite daunting and you feel like you are never going to fit back into your clothes again.”
Having a baby changes us inside and out, and it’s important to realise and celebrate the journey that your body has been on, says Aoife.
Be gentle, nurture yourself, and realise the journey you’ve been on.
I would love to see women accepting their bodies for what they are, and appreciating what they’ve been through.
"It’s pretty amazing that we can make our own people and then grow them and keep them alive — all on our own!”
Self-assessment is key
Constant self-assessment is key to reintroducing early postpartum exercise, says performance and lifestyle nutritionist Fiona O’Donnell.
“Once you’ve been cleared by your GP at your six week check, it’s a good time to start introducing some gentle exercise,” she says.
“It’s important to be checked out by a medical professional, just in case there is any Diastasis Recti (separation of abdominal muscles) present.
“In terms of starting exercise, walking is great. To me, it’s all about taking a step back and assessing your situation as a whole.
“Oftentimes, sleeping or ensuring that you are getting nourishing meals take precedent, and that is totally fine.”