Having babies can cause the ‘six-pack’ muscles to separate, resulting in a lingering belly pooch and other physical problems for new mums.
Being a new mother can be an incredible yet challenging experience, emotionally and physically. Women’s bodies undergo drastic physical and hormonal changes during pregnancy to accommodate the growth of the foetus.
While some new mums can take just a few weeks to physically recover from pregnancy and childbirth, some effects may continue to linger on for much longer than anticipated – or wanted. Many new mums struggle with diastasis recti, known as the stubborn post-partum ‘belly pooch’.
What is diastasis recti and what causes it?
Diastasis recti is a common condition that affects approximately 60% of women six weeks after birth and 30% of women a year after giving birth.
According to Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist from the Wendy Women’s Clinic, Dr Wendy Teo, diastasis recti is often associated with pregnancy because growing babies within the womb partially or completely stretch the rectus abdominis, commonly referred to as ‘six-pack’ muscles, which meet at the midline of your stomach – causing the belly to appear distended.
She explains, “The linea alba, the connective tissue that holds the left and right sides of the rectus abdominis muscle, is about 1cm in width, which runs from the bottom of the sternum to the top of the pubic bone. A woman’s pregnancy hormones can cause the the linea alba to weaken and stretch to make space for the growing baby.”
“It can also be caused by excessive pressure on the abdominals. Weightlifting, frequent or rapid changes in weight, advanced age, genetics, and long or short-term swelling of the abdomen due to fluid inside the abdominal cavity from conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver or cancer within the abdomen, can also cause this condition,” says Dr Teo.
How to check if you have diastasis recti?
Women can self-check for the problem at home by doing the following instructions:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place one hand behind your head, and the other hand on your navel, with your fingertips across your midline, parallel with your waistline,at the level of your belly button.
- With your abdominal wall relaxed, gently press your fingertips into your abdomen.
- Roll your upper body off the floor into a crunch-like position, making sure that your ribcage moves closer to your pelvis.
- Feel the right and left sides of your rectus abdominis muscle. Test for separation at, above, and below your belly button. Separation for diastasis recti is commonly discussed in terms of finger widths – for example, two or three (or more) fingers’ separation.
- Speak to your doctor to confirm your diagnosis so that he or she can recommend the most suitable treatments according to your condition and needs.
Is it permanent?
The good news is, diastasis recti will not last forever. The condition corrects itself as hormonal signals normalise, the collagen builds up in the linea alba, and the tissue regains its tensile strength.
However, for women who have children later in life or weak core muscles to start with, the condition may take longer to resolve.
“As women age, their bodies continue to lose more collagen and elastin than it produces, resulting in abdominis muscles that remain separated and a permanent post-partum belly pooch,” Dr Teo says.
“Unfortunately, if left untreated, diastis recti can get worse after multiple pregnancies, especially if the patient is carrying twins for example, or if she has an underlying abdominal issue.”
What are the risks associated with diastasis recti?
Dr Teo says diastasis recti can also cause various uncomfortable problems and complications such as:
- Constipation as bearing down while passing motion creates pressure in the pelvic floor and abdominal wall, forcing the abdominis muscles further apart.
- Poor posture and stability problems which can cause back pain, pelvic complaints and the need for caesarean deliveries for subsequent births
- A hernia (tear in the connective tissues that keep the abdominal organs in place), which is very painful and difficult to treat, even with surgery.
How can new mums get rid of the ‘belly pooch’?
Strengthening the weakened abdominis muscles can be effective in reducing the post-partum pooch. New mums can strengthen their core by practicing various exercises such as planks, leg-raises, sit-ups, side-planks, flutter kicks, dead bugs and more.
“There are also non-invasive or minimally-invasive technologies such as high intensity focused electromagnetic technology (HIFEM), that can help mothers to regain their muscle definition without having to spend hours slogging away at the gym,” shares Dr Teo.
“HIFEM works by inducing muscle contractions wherever it’s applied on the body, and can induce approximately 20,000 at much higher rates and are far greater intensity than are possible to achieve voluntarily, so that each 30 minute session of HIFEM is equivalent to 20 thousand sit-ups.”
Featured photo by Dreamstime.
Dr Wendy Teo’s photo courtesy of Wendy Women’s Clinic.