WHEN I HAD MY OLDEST SON, I had never heard of diastasis recti (DR). It took a while before I really came to understand what it is and how it affects my mama clients.
But lately, DR has become an epidemic.
The new scary way for your new mom bod to fail you! You only have to pull up a mommy Facebook forum to see the stir that DR has caused.
“My midwife suggested using some kind of belly support in case it’s diastasis recti to keep my muscles from separating further”
“Has anyone had diastasis recti and gotten pregnant again?”
“So how do I know if I have diastasis recti, and if so, how do I not make it worse by working out???”
“I’m 32w second pregnancy and I just realised I have a good 4 finger diastasis recti which freaked me out! Anyone knows if that’s normal?”
Diastasis recti has become a familiar term for pregnant women, but many still don’t really understand it, most fear it, and very few know what to do about it.
Let’s address some of these concerns now.
What is Diastasis Recti?
Diastasis recti (DR) is a separation of the abdominal muscles and connective tissues, or fascia. More specifically, DR is an excessive separation of the left and right sides of the abdominal muscles and fascia.
The core is the only part of our body in which many of the muscles don’t have a bone or joint to connect to in order to generate force. Instead, the muscles join in the middle of our abdomen to connective tissue called the linea alba.
During pregnancy the linea alba stretches and thins in order to make room for the growing baby. This is a normal, natural part of pregnancy. However, once that baby is out, many women still have a separation. Thin linea alba prevents women from generating sufficient pressure in the core. And pressure is very important!
Pelvic floor physical therapist Julie Wiebe describes DR like this:
Pretend your core is a straw. If you dip a straw in a glass of water, plug the top with your finger and lift the straw out of the water some of the water from the glass will be trapped in the straw. This is because you have generated a closed system of pressure. This is how your core should work.
When you have DR, you’ve got a hole poked in your straw. When you lift the straw out of the water, there is a leak in the pressure and the water will start to spill out.
When does DR become a problem?
Thinning in the linea alba and abdominal separation is a normal part of pregnancy. However, many women fear getting DR during pregnancy because they’ve heard that it can cause them to look boxy, have a pooch in their tummy and also cause back and knee pain postpartum. But DR does not need to be a problem to be feared as long as we respect our bodies and their healing processes.
In our society women are expected to get their bodies back fast.
Many new moms have seen the “mommy bootcamps”.
They only have to flip through a fashion magazine to see a feature on how Jennifer Lopez lost all her baby weight in 3 seconds after having twins.
Maybe their best friend only had to breastfeed her baby to drop back down to her pre-baby weight.
But not all women have that experience. In fact, most women hold onto weight while breastfeeding. New moms not only have the challenge of new motherhood, which entails lack of sleep, cravings, postural challenges due to breastfeeding and holding baby, but there can also be pressure to push themselves to make it look like the pregnancy never happened!
This leads to women often doing too much too soon right out of the postpartum gate. Many go right back to the things that they did before baby (because that is what they are often told by their doctor or midwife at their 6 week check up) and end up making DR worse.
Any exercise that puts pressure on the linea alba is a no-no when you are healing DR:
- heavy lifting
What can you do about it?
Much like stretch marks, there is little that you can do about whether or not you get DR. But there is a hellava lot that you can do to heal it! Here are 4 things you can start right away:
1. Give “society” and other people’s expectations of your body the middle finger.
Women in our society are often preoccupied with how they look because they are encouraged by every magazine, billboard, TV show and nosy family member to obsess over the chase for unattainable beauty standards.
Many big industries have found clever ways to strip women of their self-esteem and sell it back to them in the form of products and services.
Beauty in America is a constant cat and mouse game highlighted by airbrushing and shame. Be thin, be curvy, be muscular, be perfect. It is a constant changing game of chase and anytime we, women, choose to play, we lose.
We lose our time. We lose our focus. We lose our passion. We lose countless hours pursuing impossible goals. We lose years of our lives loathing our bodies. We trash our health and metabolisms dieting and overexercising. We spend our energy worrying about the size of our thighs instead of making this world a better place.
But, the most impossible and infuriating standard in my mind is the glorification of the pre-baby body. The postpartum “snap back.”
Your body just did an amazing thing and it’s going to show. By giving yourself the grace and time to heal properly you can really OWN your postpartum body.
Women have the PRIVILEGE of pregnancy. Despite all the heartburn, swelling ankles, waddling and having to pee constantly I’m so glad that it was ME who got to be pregnant. I got to hold my son constantly as he grew inside me. It was my voice that he heard first. I was the one who got to feel his first movements. Before he was even born, I “knew” my son.
And the magnitude of that awesome thing that I did is not diminished by a separation between my abdominal muscles.
Take your time when getting back into exercise and go at your own pace. My clients usually wait two weeks after they give birth to start exercising. And when I say “exercise” I mean 5-10 minutes of core breathing, gentle stretching and pelvic floor restoration.
2. Work your core (and really your whole body) as a system.
Remember that straw? It is important. Spend the time scaling back your exercises and incorporating the core into your workouts.
When my clients “graduate” from core restoration at home to heavier lifting in the gym, it doesn’t mean they are done with pelvic floor-specific exercises.
In fact, I teach my clients how every movement they do while lifting weights (or their babies) is linked to the core and the breath. Because of this, each lift becomes a pelvic floor exercise. And restoring the pelvic floor restores the function of the core as a whole, which helps heal DR.
After my own pregnancies I was floored that I still needed to do corrective exercises long after I felt the desire to really get after it in the gym. I’m not alone. Many of my clients feel the same. But the fact is, it often takes us much longer to heal than we expect. Pushing things in the gym when you are still healing from pelvic floor dysfunction or diastasis recti can cause you to heal even more slowly or even make the problem worse.
The squat is the best way to start incorporating the core into your movements. Think about holding your posture in a way that closes the gap. So, you shouldn’t be arching your back, but your butt shouldn’t be tucked under either. It’s more of a “ready position” for your core.
As you squat down, inhale and relax your core completely. As you come up out of the squat, exhale and tighten your core.
3. Add some collagen to your diet.
I do this is by eating grass-fed gelatin and bone broth. The linea alba is made out of collagen, so we can strengthen it by “feeding it.”
They say that “abs are made in the kitchen,” and I suppose this is true. I suggest that my clients use bone broth in many of their sauces and soups. I’m also a fan of making grass-fed gelatin jigglers or panna cotta. These treats are easy to make and fun to eat.
4. Lower your stress.
Many aspects of our modern life create stress. Sitting too much and moving too little is actually very stressful on our bodies. Add to that the stress of having a newborn, being up all night, slumping forward while breastfeeding 8 times a day AND stressing about fitting back into our pre-baby jeans. This floods our bodies with stress hormones.
When we are chronically stressed our posture and breathing patterns are affected. The breath becomes more shallow and we start to breath up and down through our shoulders and neck instead of using our diaphragm. This type of breathing compromises our posture and pulls us into extension. When our backs are chronically rounded on the top and arched on the bottom that puts a lot of pressure on the front of the body, most certainly the linea alba. This can make it much harder for DR to heal and close.
This brings me back to my first point: stressing about our postpartum bodies isn’t going to help us heal so breathe deep and let it go. Listen to your body (or your trainer) and return to exercise at your own pace, in a way that that does not compromise your healing process.
When we can manage stress, go at our own pace and truly heal our DR something pretty cool happens, we reap the aesthetic goals that we might have been after all along!
A strong pelvic floor and core often means a flatter stomach. When our core is functioning properly we are less likely to get injured (low back and knee are most common) and we are able to sustain a workout routine in the long term, which helps with body composition and shape! But these benefits are in our own time and on our own terms because mama knows best!