Photo: Ashley Jennett/offset.com
On a sunny spring afternoon, Coralie Metcalfe was out for ice cream with a friend, when the clerk behind the counter asked her, “When are you due?” An embarrassed Metcalfe replied, “I’m not pregnant; I just have a belly from having two kids.” After giving birth to her children 20 months apart, the Toronto mom was left with sagging skin and a postpartum belly. She was also diagnosed with diastasis recti, a common post-pregnancy condition that involves separation of the muscles in the abdominal wall.
All women (even the Duchess of Cambridge!) have a bit of a belly for the first four to eight weeks after giving birth, as the uterus shrinks back to size. But for some of us, that “five months pregnant” look can last months or even years. Genetics, your health and fitness level, and the degree of stretching and other physical changes your body went through during pregnancy and birth are all factors in how quickly your body “bounces back.”
First, a disclaimer: Amid a sea of headlines telling us how celebrity moms “got their bodies back,” it’s important to remember that the ability to grow and birth babies is pretty amazing, and that feeling strong and healthy is way more important than having a flat stomach. But even the most body positive of us have googled, “How long does it take for a baby belly to go away?” Those cute time-lapse pregnancy videos make the bump magically vanish, and we all have that friend who seemed to slip right back into her pre-pregnancy jeans before her six-week checkup.
“Breastfeeding didn’t make the weight just drop off like everyone said it would,” says Metcalfe. “I wasn’t prepared for the physical changes of becoming a mom. I still feel like I’m living in someone else’s body.”
Jenn Green, a postnatal fitness instructor and Toronto mom, says the number one question she is asked by her clients—even the ones who are otherwise in great shape—is, “How do I fix my mummy tummy?” There are a few things you can do to help strengthen your core and stop hating your postpartum belly.
“I have to remind women that it takes nine months to grow a human, and in that time, your body goes through some major physical shifts,” says Green. Before starting an exercise program, she recommends getting assessed by a pelvic-floor physiotherapist to check for diastasis recti and make sure your pelvic-floor and other core muscles are functioning properly.
Through targeted exercises, you can retrain your core muscles to function together properly, says Anniken Chadwick, a Vancouver physiotherapist who specializes in pelvic-floor and postpartum health. “It’s about learning to control the core and regain some tension, which can lead to the appearance of a flatter belly.”
Chadwick advises women who have had Caesarian sections to consider massage or even acupuncture (after the incision is fully healed) to try to loosen up scar tissue. Some women may like the feeling of a supportive postpartum “belly band” in the weeks immediately following birth, to keep pressure up and off the pelvic floor. However, she says there’s no evidence that belly wrapping flattens the stomach in the long term.
Pregnancy, followed by babywearing and carrying an infant everywhere, can often result, says Chadwick, in a “sway-back, banana-shape” posture: tummy and pelvis forward and what she calls a flat “mum bum.”
“When you’re standing with your belly pushed out like that and then slumping forward to breastfeed, it’s hard for the abs to rehabilitate.” Focus on standing and sitting tall and strong. Strengthen your glutes through squats (if your pelvic floor can take it) and bridges while also trying to keep the upper back and shoulders stretched out and loose.
“I often refer women to counselling to help them get to a more positive place,” says Chadwick. Green says she also struggles to reconcile her current post-baby body with the more toned trainer physique she used to have, but she encourages moms to think about what they’re really trying to achieve. “Feeling strong and pain-free is one thing. But if the entire goal is about looking a certain way, it’s sometimes worth delving deeper into what’s going on inside.”
Metcalfe has been working with a physiotherapist to correct her diastasis recti and finding ways to fit exercise into her week. Inspired by moms she’s seen sharing postpartum selfies (flabby skin and all), she’s also trying to change the way she thinks about her body. “As much as I want to believe in self-love, I haven’t fully accepted this new me yet. I’m working on it.”
Did you know? A 2014 study found that at 35 weeks pregnant, all women have some separation along the linea alba, the line of connective tissue that runs vertically down the centre of the belly. By six months postpartum, in more than one in three women that tissue hasn’t been able to knit back together, which can lead to a rounded belly.