Having your first baby changes a lot of things - namely your sleep pattern, the cleanliness of your home and the opportunity to engage in normal, adult conversations. However, it goes without saying that it’s your body that goes through the biggest change.
Abdominal separation is one of the most common problems facing new mums.
To safely and comfortably carry your baby through pregnancy, it’s undoubtedly your stomach that does the most work, as the muscles in the abdomen lengthen. This is when the tissue between that set of muscles, called the linea alba, thins, allowing for a wider gap between the left and right sides. This can cause a post-pregnancy bulge of the abdomen, which is common in a high percentage of UK mums.
Tamsin Brewis, baby specialist and owner of baby swim school, Water Babies Bucks and Beds, has collaborated with two post-natal fitness experts – Camilla Hollweck, Level 3 Pilates instructor and co-owner of post-natal Pilates programme, Mamma Method and Jo Dyson, a Women’s Health Physiotherapist and owner of Mother Nurture Pilates – to get the answers to your questions about abdominal separation.
Tamsin: My first question is, how can a new mum check for abdominal separation?
Camilla: A really simple way to check is to lay on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees bent. Curl your head off the floor slightly, so your stomach muscles tense, and feel for the indent down the middle of your tummy. Start at your belly button and feel just above and below in a vertical line. If your fingers can press down further than a fingernail and the gap is as wide as 2cm, then that’s abdominal separation. You should always seek the support of a professional, like a physiotherapist, to officially diagnose your diastasis recti but this is a great way to initially recognise it.
Tamsin: How can abdominal separation be managed?
Jo: There are a whole host of exercises and measures you can practise to help rebuild your core and generate better tension of the linea alba. Pregnancy causes massive changes to your postural alignment and centre of gravity so I always recommend practises that will restore the natural curve of the spine. Aligning properly means muscles are able to work optimally and generate the tension they need to work efficiently.
Tamsin: That all sounds very complicated and a little daunting! Is this something that mums can do at home?
Jo: A tip I often give new mums is to stand in the mirror with just underwear on and observe your side profile. Are you standing tall, or slouching? Is your belly protruding or are you guilty of sucking in your mummy tummy? Try tipping the pelvis back and forth, then shifting body weight side to side and forwards and backwards over again every day until you feel you’ve ‘re-learnt’ how to stand well and are happier with the side profile alignment. Another top tip? The midline of our tummies is made of a fibrous connective tissue called collagen, which is 70% water. It’s not rocket science - if you want to build collagen, drink lots of water!
Tamsin: There’s an awful lot of pressure on mums today to get back to the gym and ‘lose the baby weight’ and all sorts of other ways we’re supposed to conform. Is exercise safe if you have abdominal separation and does it make it better, or worse?!
Camilla: A major cause of abdominal separation might surprise you – exercise! Although I’d definitely recommend low-intensity workouts, like the baby-wearing Pilates classes we host at Mamma Method, or your Water Babies classes, some routine fitness moves, including crunches, sit-ups, push-ups, press-ups or front planks, can make abdominal separation worse. Therefore, little things like sitting up to get out of bed or lifting a baby carrier out of the car can emulate the exercises we recommend avoiding altogether. Making minor adjustments to your routine, like rolling onto your side before getting up out of bed, will make all the difference in the long-run.
Tamsin: Okay, so some exercises are clearly a no-no. But how soon after having their little one should new mums think about exercising again?
Camilla: For some new mums, tackling any sort of fitness regime is the last thing on their mind, whereas others find comfort in rediscovering their love of exercise. The key thing is to take things at your own pace and listen to what your body is telling you.
Tamsin: Is there anything that new mums can be doing at home?
Camilla: We often recommend a few different activities mums can do at home, including Kegel exercises, but I’m a real advocate for starting off slowly before jumping in with a structured programme. Start off by taking a long walk, once a day, or going for a light swim and incorporate usual activities - like walking up the stairs - as a low impact workout, by controlling your breathing and recognising the muscles you’re using. We believe that building strength is more than just getting your body back to where it was, pre-pregnancy - it’s about a healthy mindset before finding something that works for you. Taking half an hour out of your day, whether that’s at home, attending a Water Babies class with your little one, or a Pilates class with other mums, is a great way to get back to you and incorporate exercise at the same time!
Tamsin: Thanks for the fantastic advice! It’s crucial that new mums understand that all bodies - and pregnancies! - are different so avoid comparing your post-birth recovery to other mums. Once you start the healing process, it can take anything from as little as six weeks to more than a year to see results. The most important thing to remember about tacking abdominal separation is healing in a way that works for you and your body. And if you’re planning baby number two, it’s important that you take steps towards healing before getting pregnant again. For activities and programmes that are personal to you and your needs, I recommend seeking the guidance of specialists before tackling any post-natal exercises.
For more information about Water Babies Bucks and Beds, visit www.waterbabies.co.uk/lp/baby-swimming/bucks-and-beds