You may have been shocked after the birth of your baby by the look of your belly. Besides the loose skin, you are also looking at loose abdominal muscles. Your muscles had to stretch and loosen up in order to accommodate your baby. Many women during their pregnancy experience a separation of the rectus abdominus (your “six pack”) called diastasis recti. This is the separation of the abdominal muscle at the linea alba (which is a fibrous band of connective tissue down middle of abdomen between the muscles). This can occur as your baby grows or may occur from sudden exertion. The softening effect of pregnancy hormones also allow the fibrous tissue to loosen and stretch. Women with abdominal muscle separation may have a weakness of the deeper abdominal muscles. This may contribute to lower back pain if the separation does not close after the birth. In order to regain the look of your “prenatal abs”, you need to regain your muscle strength and tone.
Diastasis Recti. To check for separation, lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Lift your head and shoulder blades off the floor like you're doing a crunch. Holding that position (abdominals contracted), put your hand on your belly just above or below your belly button (with your fingers horizontally placed). Press down on your belly with your index and middle fingers. Now, move your fingers side to side - you should feel hard muscle on either side of a soft space in the middle. If you can move your fingers more than two fingers' width side to side, then you have a separation, and need to do special ab exercises such as the following:
1. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your abdomen like you are hugging your belly. Exhale as you slowly lift your head (and shoulders, if you can) while hugging your abdomen - that will urge the two sides rectus to contract closer to each other, helping with closing the separation.
2. Take a long towel and wrap it around your torso with the ends in front. As you perform a crunch, pull the ends of the towel towards each other in front of your belly button, which will also urge the muscle back together.
3. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. As you exhale, slowly extend one leg along the floor, feeling your abdomen contract below your belly button. Inhale as you return to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg.
If the degree of separation you test is greater than 3 finger widths, please seek your physician’s advice and avoid performing exercises which involve abdominal twisting (like oblique crunches).
There is no magic number of days, weeks or months before you will return to your "pre-pregnancy self." Everyone's body recovers differently from pregnancy and childbirth. A lot depends on your type of birth, mom's pregnancy exercise history, and her postnatal exercise regimen. It took nine months to grow your babies and your body may need at least that long to bounce back.
After a Cesarean. You can begin doing isometric abdominal contractions as soon as your baby is born. Combine those with Kegel exercises to get the maximum benefit. Hold in your stomach all the time - that's a great strengthener! When your baby is at least 4 weeks old, you can begin doing more traditional abdominal exercises, with your doctor’s permission.
1. Start with modified crunches: lie on back with knees bent and feet flat on floor; place one hand behind each ear with elbows pointing out to the sides and chin lifted toward the ceiling; tilt your pelvis slightly so that your lower back is pressing into the floor; take a deep breath in, and, as you exhale, lift your head off the floor, tightening the muscles in your abdomen and pulling your belly button in toward your backbone; inhale as you lower your head. As you feel stronger, make the exercise more challenging by lifting your head and your shoulder blades off the floor with each repetition. Visualize scooping out your abdomen as you tighten the muscles.
2. To target the lower part of the abdomen, lie on your back with knees bent and feet lifted off the floor so that your shins are parallel to the floor (this is your starting position); place one hand behind each ear with elbows pointing out to the sides and chin lifted toward the ceiling; tilt your pelvis slightly so that your lower back is pressing into the floor; take a deep breath in, and, as you exhale, lift your hips slightly off the floor, tightening the muscles in the lower part of your abdomen; inhale as you return to the starting position.