Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Pilates for hypermobile people (those who are too flexible)

What is Pilates?

Pilates (pronounced Pi-lah-tees) is an exercise system devised by Joseph Pilates in the mid twentieth century. He developed his ideas by studying other exercise methods such as yoga, gymnastics and circus training, initially with the aim of strengthening his own body. He went on to teach dancers and athletes in New York, and over the past decade, Pilates has become widely available in the UK.

Pilates is a series of exercises that take place either on floor mats (“matwork”) or on machines in a studio. The exercises aim to rebalance they body by strengthening weak muscles and releasing tight areas. The movements are precise, controlled and flowing and there is a focus on maintaining correct posture throughout. You do not tend to break into a sweat (apart from performing the very advanced exercises).
How could Pilates help a hypermobile person?

Pilates can be very beneficial for those suffering from hypermobility syndrome and related disorders. Many of the exercises target core stability: using the stomach and pelvic floor muscles to help stabilise the lower back. There is an emphasis on strengthening the muscles that support individual joints (for example, shoulders, knees, hips). Stretching is dynamic and gentle, so you tend to move in and out of stretches rather than holding prolonged and more extreme positions as in yoga. In addition, the exercises focus on maintaining even flexibility in all joints, especially those of the spine (even hypermobile people tend to be tight in some places!).

However, the hypermobile person should approach Pilates with care, being aware of their own vulnerabilities and taking time to choose a teacher. Many of Joseph Pilates’ original series of exercises (the “full mat”) should only be attempted after years of preparatory work, especially by those with hypermobile joints. A good teacher will not let a novice try exercises that are too hard, so be wary of drop-in classes in gyms where the teacher cannot know the backgrounds of all participants.

Pilates helps you learn body awareness and you will be encouraged to listen to your body in order to decide how far to take each exercise. This is a very useful skill to transfer to everyday functional movement.

What types of Pilates are available?

Ideally you should start with private lessons, which at the time of writing (2010) cost from £30 to £50 an hour. The teacher will take a history of your symptoms, watch your body move and listen to how you experience each movement. This information will be used to prescribe suitable exercises, check you are performing them correctly and to flag any movements that should be avoided. You may then be able to progress to group classes, which cost between £7 and £14 an hour and are usually booked in a block.

There is also the option of machine work in a Pilates studio – here you will sit or lie on a large machine with pulleys and springs to perform the exercises under guidance from a teacher. Machines offer weight bearing exercises and give useful proprioceptive feedback, both of which enhance stability and improve muscle control. The cost for machine work is more than matwork classes but less than 1:1 lessons.

What should I look for when choosing a teacher?

• The teacher understands your hypermobility and will monitor you and adapt exercises accordingly. Teachers who work with dancers tend to have good experience of hypermobile joints, but make sure they appreciate the difference between those suffering symptoms and those just enjoying greater flexibility.

• The class is not drop-in and there is a limit on numbers so individual attention is possible.

• The class is the correct level, you should start with a beginners course or private lessons.

• The teacher is well qualified in Pilates (and not just in teaching general exercises classes). Comprehensive Pilates training bodies in the UK include Body Control Pilates, The Pilates Foundation, Stott Pilates, Australian Physiotherapy & Pilates Institute and Polestar. Each of organisation has a website listing qualified practitioners.

Where can I find out more?

Although no replacement for a trained teacher, you can get a sense of what Pilates involves from a DVD or book; the following are recommended start points:

• Book: The Pilates Bible, Lynne Robinson, Lisa Bradshaw and Nathan Gardner

• DVD: Pilates Weekly Workout, Lynne Robinson

The same caveats about choosing a class apply – if you are hypermobile avoid advanced exercises aimed at the very fit and young. Take care as watching a DVD or referring to a book whilst trying to do an exercise can strain hypermobile necks and shoulders.

Be patient!

Pilates is not a quick fix. If done correctly, you should start to feel some benefit after four to six weeks. It is worth persevering: there is much anecdotal evidence that that regular Pilates practise can dramatically reduces the symptoms suffered by many hypermobile people.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Being a slob and saving the planet

Until recently there were few excuses for being a slob. Now it is possible to shun the washing and ignore the ironing, all in the name of global warming. For reluctant housewives who find the domestic grind duller than, well, cleaning a toilet, there is finally a virtuous excuse for doing less.

Washing clothes is one place to start: the aim being to minimize the number of times the washing machine is tuned on. Instead of throwing all the children’s clothes into the drum, try to be a little selective - only wash what is visibly mucky, pushing the rest back into the drawers for tomorrow. If you sort the clothes at bath time you can use the flannel to wipe off the odd stain before recycling. Slightly scummy, but you’d do it if you didn’t have a washing machine. Save water, save electricity, save time....save the planet!

Washing less means you iron less too. Unless, that is, you don’t iron at all. I am of opinion that ironing should be saved for weddings and funerals. Embrace your dishevelled self - put your crumpled-looking legs on the sofa and read a book instead of hunching over steam and shirts. Unironed clothes don’t need to be folded carefully in drawers, so, when the kids are old enough, you can let them rootle around and choose their own clothes, shoving other ones back without triggering a refolding panic from you.

I revel in finding new domestic lows whilst maintaining a shiny capable exterior. My son often leaves half a bowl of uneaten cereals in the morning but has taken to preferring them without milk. I was delighted when I realised I could tip the remaining offering back into the cereal box and put the bowel back into the cupboard. Likewise, pans that have been used to cook pasta or potatoes don’t need to be washed, toilets that only contain wee don’t need to be flushed. If anyone complains, say you’re doing it for the environment.

For every bit of food you throw away, you have to shop for and prepare more to replace it, so minimize the waste. I keep left over fruit bits in the fridge, when they start changing colour and scaling the salad crisper drawer I wiz them up with milk and a little chocolate powder to make a smoothie. Oh, the joy of having a healthy concoction lapped up when you know the components parts would be spurned!

The trick is to recycle the food without the kids recognising its former life. Children young enough not to notice are easy – an older sibling’s half eaten apple can be returned the next day to the little one with the bite marks cut off. I even scrape bits of cheese off plates to use for cheese on toast or a gratin topping later. Left over bread and butter at lunch time can reappear as jam sandwich for mid afternoon, and I made some wonderful roasted nuts and seeds when my toddler emptied the contents of the healthy food cupboard onto the floor.

I’m particularly proud of my minimum-effort bed wetting solution. Changing the beds is a struggle at a sensible time of day, but after a few sleepy changes at 3am you start to lose your patience. Instead, while the child changes their clothes, put a towel over the wet patch and turn the duvet over. In moments of true slobbery, I just then wash the towel in the morning and leave the bed (with the hope that all the wee will have wicked into the towel). I may have even occasionally forgotten to wash the towel.

And what to do with the mountains of craft brought home from preschool? A few bits are stuck on the wall (only to be ripped down by the younger sibling), I have a folder for the odd favourite and cute items are sent to Granny. Then, once every two weeks (prior to green bin day and in the quiet of the evening), I strip the lot – salvaging split pins, pipe cleaners and googly eyes for crafts at home and putting paper and card into the recycling bin out of sight. If you are ever found out then reply “I’m not throwing it away, I’m just recycling it”.

Be bold and seek out your scummy mummy within! Let her out within the privacy of your home and liberate yourself from the grist of domestic toil. Practise smiling and saying, “I’d love to do the washing/ironing/cleaning but I’m minimizing my carbon footprint”, and then go and do something much more interesting.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Why I hate being pregnant

I hate being pregnant. The only advantage I can see is that people let you jump queues. But that’s when you are the size of a double garage and they feel sorry for you.

I remember a friend phoning me at the end of my first pregnancy to announce that she too was pregnant. My automatic response was “Poor you!”. Thankfully my brain kicked in before my mouth and I mumbled congratulations, I was just relieved not to have the full nine months ahead of me.

The first 12 weeks of pregnancy can be grim – you feel at your worst but do not yet have ‘sacred vessel’ status as the news remains secret, and there is the fear that not all may go to plan. The joy of announcing at the end of the first trimester is not always accompanied by the expected end of nausea, and even when abated it can strike back unexpectedly.

Thankfully we forget many of the hardships. Whilst going through morning sickness with my second pregnancy I was convinced it was much worse that my first. But looking back they were both dire, I’d just forgotten quite how unpleasant otherwise I wouldn’t have repeated the experience.

I put on a lot more weight in my first pregnancy. I felt so tired during the first four months that I needed a constant stream of sugar to keep going at work. I went through a stage of hankering after childhood treats, and remember stashing a bowl of chocolate Angel Delight under my desk and furtively eating it at my feet. During my second pregnancy I was working part time so coped with the tiredness by watching hours of CBeebies with my firstborn. I felt slightly guilty, but at least it meant my bottom ended up smaller.

The ability to rest made the second pregnancy easier. Although, looking back, it wasn’t so much the opportunity to rest, as the mindset that I need not struggle on. In first pregnancies you try to keep going like normal as much as possible, in subsequent ones your life has already drifted far from its baseline and you learn that to survive you have to be a bit easier on yourself.

I normally get a lot of pleasure from expending energy (cycling and walking to toddler groups, sneaking out for a run whenever I can), and an equal amount of pleasure from replacing the calories with good food. During pregnancy, apart from a small window in the middle when it is possible to do some gentle cycling and walking, I’m too knackered to even vaguely raise my pulse rate.

At least you can eat generously during pregnancy; however food doesn’t taste the same. Both my pregnancies have been characterised by permanent metallic taste in the mouth (made worse by potatoes for some reason), and nausea to varying degrees. At the beginning I found eating was the only way to reduce the sickness, and by the end the lack of stomach volume was a real hindrance to enjoying a full meal.

Of course I miss the forbidden foods and drinks too. Eating a curry without a cold beer is not the same. And a small glass of something chilled and alcoholic is a gentle treat on a warm evening. The ever-changing advice on alcohol consumption means there is always a twinge of guilt even if you have a little. It never tastes the same and it puts you to sleep anyway.

I have, however, discovered the joys of non-alcoholic beer. It comes in the same bottles, the taste has improved greatly since I last tried many years ago and you can drink as many as you like. It also has the benefit that you can have one for lunch if you want, and it can be very amusing to watch other diner’s reactions when, obviously pregnant, you drink three alcoholic looking bottles in a row in a restaurant. I was very tempted to go and sit on a park bench, with a huge bump and a can or two of (non alcoholic) lager whilst my son played on the swings, just to enjoy the disapproving glances.

Sleeping and pregnancy do not go well together, especially near the end. Sleeping on your stomach is obviously not possible, and lying on your back can also cause problems. There is a general feeling of the lower intestines being squashed, and the baby not having much room. Far better is to sleep on your side, but a tower of pillows is needed to find comfort, and a crane necessary to move the construction when you change sides. I found night waking a real problem from about 30 weeks, even before the need to frequently use the toilet. Frustratingly, it seemed that my mind was waking me up rather than my body.

It has been said that being pregnant gives you a preview of what it’s like to be old. Bending down is certainly a struggle and there are bits of your body that gradually become less accessible. I found it strangely unnerving that others could see things between my belly button and my thighs that I was not aware of.

I’m not a fan of the general hormonal mindset that accompanies pregnancy. I tend to cry like a baby and drive like a pensioner. I suppose the hormones are nurturing ones, but when they change your personality it can be quite disturbing. During the last few weeks of both pregnancies I developed a worrying obsession with cooking – borrowing recipe books from the library, marking pages with post-it notes, concocting creations to squirrel away in the freezer, and copying out successful recipes onto little cards. I found it easier to relax doing something gentle standing up, rather than squashing and compressing my insides by sitting down, and the resulting frozen food mountain was wonderful postnatally.

I found that being kicked in my internal organs quite hard work during my first pregnancy. However, during my second I had become so used to being treated as a punchbag/climbing frame/trampoline by my son that the little feet were far less intrusive. Second time round I also had a friend who suffered a late miscarriage, so I saw the rapidly strengthening kicking as a reassuring sign.

I wish I had written a few more notes when I was pregnant the first time. I did copy down my blood pressure and bump measurements from my handheld notes and they have been fascinating to compare with the next pregnancy. However, the timings of other things were forgotten. When did the baby get hiccups last time? When did the linea nigra appear?

I didn’t whinge and whine during my first pregnancy. Partly because I was expecting to blossom and didn’t know what was coming, and partly because I was so thrilled to be pregnant after miscarrying. But second time round it was more hard work, with each stage being painfully familiar.

Once you come out and admit to disliking pregnancy, you find that most other people do too. That is, they will admit as much when they are pregnant themselves. If it was a while since they were pregnant then selective memory loss may prevent a more honest response, especially if they are planning to do it again. I know there are people who enjoy the whole experience, but they are probably less common than generally thought.

Oh, there is one thing I love about being pregnant. I’m growing a baby. A soft, warm creature that will make me fall in love and forget the previous nine months.

Separate beds for babies

Sleeping with a warm baby next to you in bed is divine. When my second son was very small I remember curling up on my side to feed him. When he’d finished he drifted off to sleep with his head nestled between my breasts. As my husband said, that’s every boy’s fantasy. We both slept much better than had he been in a cot.

And yet the only times we shared a bed this way were when I was too shattered to sit up and feed. So why, when we both slept so well, did I decide not to make it a habit?

Firstly, there were downsides to the sleeping arrangements. My baby possetted a lot and it spoils the moment a little if you have to sit up and burp the baby after a feed. It spoils things even more if, when you lie back you get vomit down your cleavage and have to change your clothes and even the bedding. For me, feeding in a chair meant that the sick was much easier to deal with.

I also had experience of a firstborn baby sleeping happily on their own in a cot. And when I say I slept well when my newborn baby was in bed with me, it was only well in comparison to the alternative of an unhappy boy in the cot. It was not well when compared to a full night’s sleep in a bed on my own.

Sleep tends to be better if you are able fall asleep and settle yourself when you come into a light sleep. I decided I’d rather put in the leg work at the beginning to help my baby feel comfortable and safe in his own cot, in order to get better sleep for both of us longer term.

Some people feel it is unfair to expect babies to sleep on their own as we are social animals. I suppose it depends on the way you help your baby to sleep. I’m not in favour of just leaving a baby to cry (although I try not to rush in as they often stop of their own accord). I used the approach in the Baby Whisperer books by Tracey Hogg, who puts a high value on patience, saying we get into ‘accidental parenting’ when we need a quick fix. She suggests staying with the baby initially in order to help them fall asleep on their own eventually.

In the early days (from about one month onwards) I spent hours cuddling, putting in the cot, then taking out and cuddling again. I would intersperse hourly feeds with rocking and holding until he finally dropped off in the cot for long enough for me to leave. With time, I found I could soothe him without picking up - stroking, patting and comforting with my voice.

I normally started after bath time at 6.30pm, and to begin with it would take about three hours. Sometimes I’d give up completely, give baby to my husband and crawl into bed myself. But what kept me going was that each week the time it took got shorter, until we were approaching the magic 7pm bedtime. It took weeks and weeks with child two (and no time at all with the firstborn). I’d like to think neither woke up and felt alone.

Neither am I a fan of having older children sleep regularly in their parents’ bed. I’m too possessive of my sleep, and of the time with my husband. I have tried to approach this in a similar fashion – it may be harder work, but it pays dividends longer term. Instead of having the child in your bed, you go to them. If they are in a cot you sit or lie next to them, if they are in a bed you can get in too. When they are comforted you return to your bed.

But just as I’ve occasionally co-slept with the baby, of course there have been circumstances when we’ve had our older boy in the bed. And as long as I’m not getting jumped on or kicked, I’ve cherished the shared time.

So although I have wonderful memories of sleeping together, I find the nights are longer and the days are easier if we are all refreshed from sleeping in separate beds.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Losing a pregnancy

I miscarried four days before my 12 week scan. On the cusp of sharing my burgeoning excitement with friends and family my first pregnancy ended nearly a third of the way through. I still attended my scan appointment, to confirm the bad news rather than celebrate the good. It was a miserable experience sitting in ultrasound waiting room watching other pregnant ladies proudly collect their scan pictures, knowing that I would not have a photo to take with me.

On returning home, I made a list of the (thankfully few) people I had told I was pregnant. Instead of the joy of telling more I had the task of breaking the bad news. The most unhelpful question I was asked was “What happened?”, as if I have been tandem sky diving or binge drinking and brought the dreadful events on myself. Miscarriages just happen, and with early pregnancy tests we are a lot more aware of them.

In some ways I didn’t feel like I was grieving a baby, but a pregnancy. Perhaps there was not even a baby at all, indeed there was no evidence of one. It appeared that something had gone wrong after the initial hormone surge and my body hadn’t got the new message to stop nesting and growing fat.

I felt lucky in that I had spontaneously miscarried. For others, there can be the upsetting and painful experience of a medically managed miscarriage (a hormonally induced labour), or a surgical procedure (dilation and curettage). Waiting for treatment is a difficult time. Some people hold off to see if nature will take its course, others have to wait for interventions to be scheduled. My miscarriage happened over a week and included a few hours of painful contractions two minutes apart. The initial period was the hardest – not knowing if the bleeding was benign or signaling something very wrong, and then the slow realization that the worst was actually happening.

I was struck down by the loss of the hope, expectation and excitement that accompany a first and most desperately desired pregnancy. It is hard not to make instant plans around the due date – this is when I would stop work, this would be my new life. Now that was all gone and there was a dreadful hole where my dreams had been.

The initial intense sadness passed and I was left with residual, bruised emptiness mixed with cautious anticipation. I held on the fact that I had become pregnant relatively easily, there was no reason why it wouldn’t happen again soon.

Miscarriages normally strike in the ‘secret semester’ – the first three months when you feel your worst but look no different and have not told the world your news. This often means that the pain can be secret too – husbands sympathise but they did not feel a baby growing inside them. Friends and family are surprised, they did not know you were pregnant.

The speed of events surrounding miscarriages can be painfully slow. It takes time to conceive, time for you to find out things have gone wrong, and time to get pregnant again. Years can pass, and it can be hard not to put your life on hold.

For me, the time between miscarrying and conceiving again was long and tough. Passing my due date without having another pregnancy to celebrate was a sad milestone. Over that time I remember slipping away to the toilets at work on receiving yet another email announcing a friend’s brand new pregnancy with attached 12 week scan – is that what my baby would have looked like? I avoided contact with babies, subtly leaving the cuddling and cooing to others, not risking the floodgates opening. Watching other pregnancies unfold around me was painful, especially those with due dates around mine.

It was eight months before my periods returned and I conceived again. The pregnancy was bound to be very different from the start. Silent cheering followed every morning sickness vomit, a sign that this time I had plenty of baby glue. I didn’t relax completely until I passed 30 weeks, finally a healthy baby seemed possible.

Now I have my son, the events of my first pregnancy seem less raw. But they will never lose their pain or be forgotten.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Sleep deprivation

I’m emerging from a long period of sleep deprivation. My baby is now five months old and we’re starting to have the odd night without a feed. For the final three months of pregnancy I slept very poorly, so it feels like a long time since I woke up refreshed.

When I’m chronically sleep deprived I notice certain behaviours in myself. I’m ratty to those I love very much and I’ve normally snapped at my husband by breakfast. Somehow I manage to find the effort to be pleasant to everyone else. I’m also on a very short fuse – behaviour in my pre-schooler that I would normally shrug off winds me up intensely.

Such things are not much fun for everyone else and when they go on a long time you start to think that they are part of the real you. Now I’m beginning to get a proper night’s sleep I’m relieved to see that I’m a nicer person again.

More seriously, when I’m not sleeping properly I get a little worried about my mental health. I have suffered periods of depression in the past, and before my mood sinks I have a long period of anxiety, during which I wake up worrying. Then I find I start worrying about not sleeping. Sleep is as much for mental refreshment as for physical rest, and it has been shown that dreaming discharges your daytime worries. So if you suffer disrupted sleep, you are more likely to hold onto those worries with the anxiety then turning into depression.

So for the past year I have forfeited my social life and leisure time and gone to bed early. Throughout pregnancy and the first months of babyhood it was rare that I went to bed after 9.30pm. I have to be strict with what I do the hour before going to bed, if I try to do jobs, or email then I won’t fall asleep easily, no matter how tired I am. For me, this means starting to wind down about 8.30pm (which only gives between 7.30pm and 8.30pm to do anything On My Own).

Given I have an hour of leisure time a day, I’m not keen to spend it on chores round the house. So I tend to do these during the day. When my older son is at preschool I just stay at home with the baby and do them then (normally carrying the baby with me, so it’s a bit slower). I’d like to be out at a group chatting to mums, but having a free evening is more important to me.

Going to bed early is a good safety net. I’ve found that baby sleep seems best for the first part of the nights (from 7pm), so if I follow shortly afterwards I get a few hours in before the milk bar has to open. It’s all terribly dull, but it means I’m a calmer person to be with. I’m lucky that I’m naturally a ‘lark’, so find it easy to go to bed early; I imagine it would be harder for ‘night owls’.

I do get frustrated by the need for early nights. I hated sloping upstairs leaving others having fun downstairs. I’ve calculated that, on the basis of 1.5 hours of leisure time lost a night over a year, I have lost at least three weeks of 24 hour non-stop pleasure.

I’m now hoping that the good nights with my baby will continue as he grows up. Sleep is not just an issue for newborns, it goes on for years, and I’d really like to go out and party once in a while.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Mother love

I went upstairs to check on my little boy in his travel cot. Two eyes glowed back at me in the semi-dark. I bent down and whispered “I love you”. He whispered it back, and we both said “You’re the best” together.

I asked if he would like me to stay and he nodded. I lay down next to him, and put my hand through the cot to hold his.

He gently played with my hand as he fell to sleep, occasionally letting go to stand up and settle down in a different position. At one point I felt both a hand and a foot.

Inside my belly I felt the little hands and feet of my growing baby moving around. It felt difficult to imagine that I could love the little one inside me as much as the one holding my hand, but I was sure it would happen.

I hadn’t realised how strongly I would love my boy until he was born and how it would strengthen, deepen and change as he grew. Once you get married you assume you have left behind the thrills and excitement of falling in love with someone else. But I had fallen in love all over again.

It is not the first time I have experienced completely unconditional love. I needed to become a mother to understand that I have been the recipient of such love from my parents. Whilst not fully appreciating the depth of their feelings, I have always known they would love me, whatever I did. I have taken it for granted, but it has been a strong prop in my life.

Now I am the giver, rather than the receiver, I understand the nature of mother love more. I love my boy so strongly and completely that I fear letting him go, something that must happen as he grows. But I’m sure my love will change and soften as he needs me less. I know I will love him whatever he does with his life, and whatever his feelings for me.