We all know what a mum tum, the protruding stomach that women often experience after the birth of their child, looks like. And, unfortunately, much to the frustration of many new mothers, this belly usually sticks around even after she has lost her pregnancy weight.
If you're struggling to imagine what it looks like, think of a beautiful Victorian painting of a half-clothed woman. These lovely ladies are generally depicted with a rounded lower belly, a good depiction of a "mum-tum."
However, in a world that congratulates women on returning to their pre-baby figure and flat tummies, having a mum tum can feel like a defeat or a compromise, rather than a part of life.
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This "falling short" from the social media ideal encourages new moms to join boot camps or exercise programs that promise them flat stomachs - and it makes me cringe. If you spent twenty minutes on Instagram, I'm sure you'd find plenty of fitness enthusiasts and influencers showing you mountain climbers, planks, and crunches as part of their "flat belly" program. Combined with your doctor's permission to resume exercise, these messages create a false sense of confidence when retraining your body, which can lead you to do exercises that your body isn't quite prepared for.
There is hope, however. You can not only regain your strength with the proper program, but you can also minimize the look of “the pooch”.
What's really happening?
After having your baby, the very structure of your body has changed, and therefore, how we train our core must also change. Unfortunately, typical core exercises, such as crunches (squeezing the abdominals together) or planks and mountain climbers (forcing weakened abs to work against gravity), are short-sighted solutions that don't achieve the results you're looking for. In fact, by doing them without first building up your deep inner-core strength, you could be doing more harm than good.
What's the core for?
To begin, we have to understand the core's purpose. It's not just the six-pack abs that you see rippling on fitness models. It also includes your diaphragm, pelvic floor muscles, obliques, back muscles, and, some would argue, your hip muscles as well. If you were to see your core sketched out on paper, it would look a lot like a can of soup - with a bottom, top, and wrap-around sides, all of which are important to train. To have the best physique and better chances of being pain-free, you must balance all of these muscles in your core program, not just the ones you see in the mirror.
The first place to assess a new mother's core is her rectus abdominis, the "6-pack" muscles. You'll notice that connecting the two sides of the rectus abdominis is a slight dip or line connecting her sternum to her pubic symphysis, called the linea alba. The linea alba is designed to be flexible and adaptive, and it will stretch to accommodate the growth of a pregnant belly.
Immediately after giving birth, a woman's abdominals act like a popped balloon. Imagine the linea alba, once stretched out like an elastic band to accommodate the belly, is now lax. As a result, it can't generate tension or power to help support her body and prevent her from aches and pains in her back and pelvis. This condition is called diastasis recti, where her relaxed linea alba creates a gap of over 2cm (2 finger widths) between the sides of her six-pack muscles. This can be found anywhere along the linea alba; above the belly button, at the belly button, or below. Diastasis recti can also create a “belly pooch, " leaving them still looking pregnant.
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Nature is beautiful, and this gap will heal for some women within weeks after delivering their babies. However, the research found by physiotherapy resource Physiopedia indicates there is a healing plateau approximately eight weeks post-delivery, and as a result, some women need guidance to rehabilitate their core. The good news is that anyone, at any time, can retrain their abdominals and close that gap - saving them from potential future pain!
What do I do if I have it?
If you do have diastasis recti, it can feel a little freaky at first. Don't be surprised if palpating your stomach for the gap makes you feel a little vulnerable. That's a normal feeling. However, please be assured that anyone can have this, including men and newborn babies, not just new moms. So if you notice it, it's not to be feared. You can start healing it with the help of a pelvic floor physiotherapist at any point.
If you do have this condition, you may be wondering what your body is allowed to do. You can reconnect your core muscles with some simple breath work which will allow you to use your diaphragm and pelvic floor to help reconnect your core muscles.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, one of the key ingredients to a stable core is realigning your posture post-delivery. As our bodies have become accustomed to bigger bellies, our posture tends to suffer, creating tight, short muscles in some places and weakened muscles in others. By strengthening your "posture position," you'll notice you'll have a better connection to your deep inner core muscles.
Another thing you can do is adopt a walking program; this will help you sync your breath, your core, to movement itself. Once your diastasis recti has healed, you can slowly increase the demands your place on your core with a well-thought-out core strengthening program. Your body will thank you!