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Gwyneth Paltrow and Apple Blythe Alison, 4 months

"Pomme" is one of Paltrow's nicknames for her daughter. (It means "Apple" in French.)

Forget the first smile (though they are heart-melting). The real milestones in a new mother's life are: (1) Getting back into skinny jeans; and (2) Leaving the kid with a sitter for the first time. By returning to her yoga mat—which she had used throughout the pregnancy, alongside supportive husband Chris Martin—Paltrow, 31, turned up scarcely a month after Apple's May 14 birth in a pair of slender Seven jeans. (Recently, Martin, 27, dropped the wife off at an East Hampton, N.Y., yoga studio to down-dog it alone.) Though she now jokes that "blush and a girdle" explain her enviable appearance just days after a 70-hour labor, she allows that losing the 35 lbs. she put on was "tough." Tougher still for Paltrow is leaving her golden, delicious Apple at home. Their daughter was 5 weeks old before Paltrow and Martin entrusted her with a nonrelative—"a very sweet lady," she told PEOPLE on the June night she and mom Blythe Danner went to an awards ceremony in L.A. These days awards mean little to her. "I've done everything careerwise that I wanted to," says the Oscar winner. "Now I have the luxury to fully dive into this domestic bliss." And going out is getting a little easier. On Aug. 29 she happily presented at the MTV Video Music Awards (page 68).

Daddy Duty: Martin "sings to her all the time," says Paltrow. "Lullabies. Joke songs. She loves his music. I played it a lot while she was in my belly."

Brooke Shields and Rowan Frances, 16 months

Rowan's favorite bedtime books: Ten Little Ladybugs and Pat the Bunny

"I know every mother says the same thing," says Shields, 39, apologetically. "But I think she's the most beautiful baby in the world. Sometimes I look at her and I'm not sure I bargained to love that much. Did really need to feel this much love?" Though she and her TV writer husband, Chris Henchy, 40, doted on Rowan after her May 15 arrival last year, Shields felt another thing she hadn't counted on: postpartum depression. Since confronting the problem, the actress is writing a book, to be published next year, called Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression. Even in those early months, however, Shields could good-naturedly tease Henchy about their unequal division of labor. "I heard someone ask Chris if Rowan was sleeping through the night, and he said, 'Yeah, she's great.' I looked at him and said, 'Whose house are you in?' He said, 'Wait. That's me. I slept through the night.' " Despite the dark days, and the rough time she initially had getting pregnant (Shields suffered a miscarriage and made six attempts at in vitro fertilization), she remains an optimist. "I really want to have other children," she says. "A sibling is a bonus for a kid. If I can provide that, I would love it."

Back to work: Later this month Shields will step into the lead of the musical Wonderful Town on Broadway.

Denise Richards and Sam, 6 months

Shedding her pregnancy weight was easy: four weekly hour-long cardio-weight workouts starting six weeks after daughter Sam was born on March 9 did the trick. But shedding the guilt she felt about her decision to stop nursing at six weeks was another matter. "Breast-feeding was exhausting," says Richards, 33, wife of Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen. "I'm glad I did it. I just really started to feel like myself and had more energy when I stopped." Energy she can use for new hobbies such as Mommy and Me classes and, once a week, Daddy and Me time. "Charlie and I used to laugh when people would say they have a 'date night.' Now we get it," says Richards, who adds that the real change is mental: "We have moments where she's sleeping in her crib and we're like, 'Oh my God, there's another person in our house, and she's not leaving!' "

Body After Baby: She did a Playboy shoot in August. "It was weird," she says. "I was like, 'I'm a mom now.' "

Peri Gilpin and twins Stella and Ava, 4 months

"I still pinch myself," says Peri Gilpin, 43, of being a mother. "When they are in their car seats, I'll say, 'There are little people back there!' " The Frasier star and husband Christian Vincent, 38, an artist, had tried since she was 36 to get pregnant. "It was hard on us as a couple," she says of years of failed in vitro treatments. After turning to a surrogate, they became parents to fraternal twin girls on May 7. Then the real fun started. Unlike her "mellow, happy" sister, Ava was initially a colicky infant. "She would sometimes cry from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m.," says Gilpin. Now, "Ava is a perfect baby. They both are." Not that every day is perfection. Gilpin paints this recent picture: "The girls have colds, my husband threw his back out, and I had food poisoning. He's trying to get me to eat, I'm putting Bengay on his back, and we're trying to give the babies medicine." She adds with a laugh, "Finally—that family weekend we've dreamed of!"

Marriage Monitor: "We're a good team," says Gilpin. "We've seen each other's threshold of patience. We're war buddies."

Debra Messing and Roman, 5 months

On the advice of her doctors, Messing didn't start working out—doing some Pilates, yoga and walking—until July.

For the first 2½ months after Roman was born on April 7, "I did nothing but breast-feed and spend day and night gazing into my son's eyes." Messing, 36, says. Holed up at home in L.A. with her guys—Roman and her actor-writer husband, Daniel Zelman, 37—she "just thoroughly enjoyed being a full-time mom." Still, she was not entirely unhappy when Will & Grace began shooting on Aug. 4. (Last season she missed several episodes because of bed rest.) She likes, as she put it, "the consistency of...working every week." So, it seems, does Roman. Messing is having the dressing room next to hers turned into a nursery, and while she's on-camera, he stays backstage and gets "lots of attention," says Janet Jackson, who guest stars on the Sept. 23 episode. "He is adorable and has these great big eyes." No need to tell Mom. "I'm madly in love," she says, "and the adventure has just begun."

Body After Baby: "I'm trying not to stress about [losing weight]," said Messing, who credits her slim figure to breast-feeding.

Heidi Klum and Leni, 4 months

The only thing the German model misses about life before Leni is the food her mother made her during her pregnancy. As Klum, 31, wistfully recalls, "Sauerkraut soup. Schnitzel. Things I grew up with." What she doesn't miss? Traveling from New York to London to Miami on a typical week. Says a friend of Klum's new nesting at home in Manhattan; "She doesn't want to disrupt the baby's schedule." Still breast-feeding, Klum rarely leaves Leni's side for more than a few hours—enough time to fit in her near-daily 60-minute workouts (which, along with a high-protein, low-fat diet, helped her lose 30 lbs.) as well as down-time with her beau, singer-songwriter-diaper-changer Seal. (She split from Leni's father, racing tycoon Flavio Briatore, in January.) "People say, 'Oh, [with a newborn] you're in pain and you're tired and you can't have sex and everything is miserable," she says. "For me...it's the opposite. I guess I am lucky."

Back to Work: Klum is a producer and host of the Bravo reality TV show Project Runway, which airs in November.

Courteney Cox Arquette and Coco, 3 months

Caring for a newborn may knock the wind out of some new moms, but probably not Cox. Worst case scenario: The usual demands of feedings and diaper changes may have slowed the pace with which she rearranges the furniture in the $4.5 million. Hollywood Hills home she and husband David Arquette, 32, share with Coco. "She's got tons of nieces and nephews, and David has tons of nieces and nephews," says Friends executive producer David Crane. "They've been sort of surrogate parents for years now. I don't think there are any surprises," Little wonder that since Coco was born on June 13 (a week early), Cox, 40, has found time not just to continue coproducing the cable TV show Mix It Up with Arquette but to begin work on an as yet unnamed HBO show with Nick Cassavetes that she will both produce and star in. The ever-energetic star "is enjoying motherhood and her new production company," says a source close to her. Notes Crane: "She is an amazing trouper."

Daddy Duty: Make the gals laugh. "He's a kid himself in a lot of really good ways," says Crane.

Cheryl Hines and Catherine Rose, 6 months

"People say, 'Everything you know is going to change,' so we were bracing for the worst," says Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines, 38, taking a cue from überpessimist costar Larry David. After Catherine's easy birth on March 8 ("totally had the epidural...pushed for 15 minutes"), Hines got a pleasant shock: "It's much less of a sacrifice than I thought it would be." She and husband Paul Young, a manager-producer, did give up regular movie and cocktail outings, but that was "stuff we were done doing anyway." It also helped that Hines's mom, Rosemary Harbolt, spent the first month living with the new parents ("Paul almost cried when she left!") and that her personal assistant is now her nanny. There is one hitch: "Curb is no place for babies," says Hines, who returns to the show in January. "We share a trailer. There's barely room for the chairs Larry and I fight over—much less a crib."

Balancing Act: "It makes me happy to work," says Hines, who has shot three films postpartum and has two more lined up. "And it makes me a better mother to be a happy person."

Charlotte Ross and Maxwell, 5 months

"I can't tell you how many days I used to spend looking out of the window of my trailers waiting for the day I had a family," says Ross, 36. The NYPD Blue star worked until her eighth month (until she left the series), then spent 15 hours in labor before undergoing a C-section on March 23. "I'm a driven person, used to scheduling my life to the minute," says Ross. "Having a baby shakes that up." At home in Los Angeles with her manager husband, Michael Goldman, 37, she has no project lined up for the first time in her career—and feels "really happy," she says. "I've discovered there is nothing wrong with living a little slower."

Body After Baby: To help lose about 45 lbs., Ross does Pilates and Tae Bo every day.

Kate Hudson and Ryder Russell, 9 months

Ryder used to wiggle in utero to Dad's song "Ride." The name is a tribute to that tune and the Grateful Dead's "I Know You, Rider."

"It's the most incredible thing," says Hudson of parenthood. "But nobody ever tells you how hard it's gonna be." Recently, Hudson, 25, husband Chris Robinson, 37, and son Ryder enjoyed a well-deserved vacation. Not only had she just finished her first postbaby film shoot, a New Orleans thriller called Skeleton Key, she had been working diligently since Ryder's Jan. 7 arrival to drop the 60 (yes, 60) lbs. she put on while carrying him. "I did lose the weight pretty fast," says Hudson, who relied on a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet and three-hour daily workouts. It helped that she was nursing Ryder in her trailer, but dieting in the Big Easy wasn't easy. Hudson and Robinson enjoyed crawfish, stuffed crab and cold beers. But Key's physically demanding role provided its own exercise. "[I was] climbing up two-story trellises and running in the mud and knocking myself on crashing cars," she says.

Marriage Monitor: "We're sharing something so gigantic now," says Hudson of parenthood. "I think it's the best we've ever felt being together."

Jill Hennessy and Marco, 1 year

"Becoming a parent was always very intimidating to me," says Hennessy, 35. "I had this idea that it was such a daunting task." Since Marco was born Sept. 17, 2003, she has learned she was right. After three exhausting and "really very difficult" months, she says, she returned to 12-hour days on the L.A. set of Crossing Jordan—with Marco. "It worked out better than I thought," she says. "He loves coming to work." And spending time with his pop, actor Paolo Mastropietro, 40. "He is instinctively a great dad," says Hennessy. "He has no inhibitions with a baby." Hers lessen all the time, evidenced, in part, by the sight of her chasing toy cars with her kid. "I'm finding that I'm laughing more than I ever have," she says. "Having a child unifies everything for me."

Body After Baby: No trainer needed. "I run and bike and do sit-ups and push-ups at home."

Written by Allison Adato and Karen Schneider. Reported by Rachel Biermann, Amy Bonawitz, Maureen Harrington, Julie Jordan, Marisa Laudadio, Kwala Mandel and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles and KC Baker, Sharon Cotliar and Amy Longsdorf in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Rachel Biermann,
  • Amy Bonawitz,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Marisa Laudadio,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Kwala Mandel,
  • Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
  • KC Baker,
  • Sharon Cotliar,
  • Amy Longsdorf.