No, I didn’t get a puppy. I’m talking about my belly pooch.
After giving birth to my first daughter, my belly returned to its normal flat self almost immediately, so I was a little disappointed to find that a bump remained after the recent delivery of my second daughter. The bump was present despite my having done everything you’re supposed to do to avoid it, including staying active during pregnancy with a focus on strengthening the inner core.
I’m quite thin, and excess belly fat was not the explanation. Diastasis recti, or the separation of the rectus abdominis (i.e. your “six pack”) into left and right halves, was the explanation.
We’re going to talk more about that, along with other changes that take place in the few weeks after delivery that help explain why you might still look six months pregnant after having your baby. I’m also going to show you a series of belly pictures taken over my first four weeks postpartum to help illustrate these changes.
Before we look at those pictures, I feel compelled to note that I did everything to make them look as bad as possible: I took profile pictures; I wore a tight, white camisole; I completely relaxed my belly. I also took all the pictures in the evening, a time of the day when I’ve noticed that my belly is particularly distended. I say this because it bugs me when I see other women post misleading pictures. They will provide views of their bellies with their abdominals tightly drawn in, and they will look pretty darn good. They will look something like this:
Looks pretty good, right? That’s me at three and four weeks postpartum, drawing in my belly. It’s even more impressive with a frontal view and some skin exposed. Here’s me again at four weeks postpartum:
Unfortunately these pictures are dishonest. Here’s what I look like at those same points in time with my belly relaxed:
If you ask me, I still don’t look too shabby, but the pooch remains.
So the moral of the story is this: if you see a fitness mom trying to sell you a flat belly after baby by providing a view with her abs drawn in, be skeptical. It’s probably false advertising.
Ok, so now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s look at an entire series of unflattering (but honest!) photos over the first four weeks after delivery:
Belly Shrinkage during First Four Weeks after Delivery (Abdominals Relaxed)
Woah! Pretty cool, huh? One thing that you should immediately notice is that my belly shrinks significantly at first but then more gradually. That’s because of uterine involution. At delivery, your uterus is at least 500 times larger than it was before you conceived, and it takes a while to shrink back down. The rate of involution is greatest in the days immediately postpartum and then begins to slow, with the uterus returning to its normal size in about six weeks.
But uterine involution is only half the story. By the second week postpartum, the uterus is considerably smaller and has returned to its original location in the pelvis. Yet as you can see, I still have my pooch at week two. That takes us back to the diastasis. Let’s talk a little more about that.
When the two sides of the rectus abdominis split, there’s nothing to hold the contents of your abdomen in, so they pop out. Most of what protrudes are your intestines, so if you have a diastasis, you may notice that your pooch is larger if you’re constipated or experience gas.
To correct the diastasis we must strengthen the transversus abdominis, or TVA. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the TVA lies beneath the rectus abdominis. While the muscles of the latter run vertically, the muscles of the former run horizontally, acting like a corset to pull all four side of the body together. If we tighten the corset by strengthening the TVA, we pull together the two sides of the rectus abdominis.
As noted above, I HAD been diligently doing my TVA exercises while pregnant, so what gives? Why did I still have the diastasis? Was there something else I failed to do to avoid this fate? Did I do something I shouldn’t have done?
Unless you consider having a second baby a mistake (I sure don’t!), there was nothing I did wrong. Diastasis recti is simply more common in subsequent pregnancies than the first one. Everything had been stretched out before, so things stretched more easily the second time around. It’s kind of like how you tend to feel pregnant faster with your second pregnancy than you did with your first. As a friend of mine once said, it’s like your body saying, “I know what to do!”
Having multiple pregnancies is just one risk factor. Others include having a c-section, having a large baby, and carrying in the front. I had a vaginal delivery, and although I had a 7 lb 5 oz peanut, I carried her WAY in the front, leading my husband to refer to my belly as the “torpedo” (Thanks, babe. I love you too). So make that two risk factors for me: second baby and torpedo.
Although I can’t prove it, it stands to reason that my diastasis would have been worse had I not done the TVA exercises while pregnant. And these exercises remain the key for correcting the separation now. Every day I collectively spend 25-30 minutes strengthening the TVA. Depending on my schedule, I’ll either spend ten minutes on the exercises three times/day or 15 minutes twice/day. I can’t precisely tell you how much of my progress is due to time and how much to the exercises, but I can say with certainty that my TVA is much stronger now than it was when I started doing them one week postpartum.
So what exactly are these exercises? Pelvic tilts (both with and without heel slides) are definitely one of them. If you don’t know what those are, check out my earlier blog post that provides instruction. If you’re looking for other ideas, I’m currently taking new clients, both in-home and distance-based. I’d love to work with you!