When you have a baby life changes for ever — and so does your body. We can’t expect everything to snap back: stretch marks, wider hips or even bigger feet due to relaxed ligaments often remain a lasting legacy of having babies.
But by far the most common complaint I hear is ‘mummy tummy’. You might think a stubborn roll of belly fat is down to one too many pies and not enough exercise, but diastasis recti (DR), or postnatal abdominal muscle separation, might actually be to blame.
During pregnancy the abdominal muscles are pushed out and pull apart to make room for your growing baby. The size of the gap varies but it should close within three months of giving birth.
However, for one in three women — including myself — this doesn’t happen. Instead a gap between the right and left abdominal wall muscles remains that can result in a post-baby pooch. It might look unsightly, but DR can cause back pain, pelvic floor issues and even a hernia.
The condition is more common if you have babies close together or multiple pregnancies, had poor abdominal tone before pregnancy or really strong abs — it’s common among athletes, so you’re in good company!
Is this the reason you don’t have washboard abs? It’s easy to check for DR. Lay on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your fingers at the centre of your abdominal muscles below your navel. Contract your muscles by doing a mini sit-up, lifting your head and shoulders off the ground. Feel around the midline of your ‘six pack’. If you can fit one finger or more in the gap here, you probably do have a bit of DR going on.
Before you resolve to do 100 crunches a day in a desperate bid for a flat tum, be warned — traditional abdominal exercises can actually make DR worse, so avoid sit-ups, oblique curls, planks and leg lifts, which can put strain on the midline and cause the belly to bulge. Backbends are out because they might overstretch and weaken abdominal muscles, and so is heavy lifting, so take care carrying babies.
If you have DR, I highly recommend a visit to a women’s health physiotherapist (see iscp.ie) for a full assessment and personalised exercise programme. Six months after having my third baby I saw Aoibhin McGreal (mcgrealphysio.ie) who helped me understand my DR and made me realise I had to soften my yoga practice… just for a while.
In the meantime, try pelvic tilts (pictured). These strengthen your core muscles — and your back and pelvic floor, too. Lay on your back on a mat or rug. Bend your knees and take the feet hip-width apart and parallel. Let your spine settle on the ground and tuck the chin in slightly. Keep your arms at the sides of the body, palms facing down.
Start to become aware of your breath. Don’t take the breath deep into the belly — it can strain core muscles. Instead, as you inhale and exhale, feel the ribs soften and expand out to the sides.
On your next exhale slowly lift the pelvis off the ground a couple of inches. Engage and lift your pelvic floor muscles at the same time. As you inhale, lower back down and release the pelvic floor muscles.
As you lift, make sure you press into both feet equally and keep the hips level to promote stability. Repeat as many times as you like. As you become stronger, do 20 pelvic tilts here and then lift a little higher to do 20 more. Finally lift the spine off the ground up to your bra strap — no higher — and stay here for several breaths.
I still have just over a finger-width gap separating my abdominal muscles. I don’t do double leg lifts and I’m conscious to avoid exercises that make my tummy dome. But I’ve strengthened my body sufficiently and in the right way, so the only real giveaway is a wonky belly button!
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Published in the Irish Daily Mail, June 12, 2018