Recently a new mother, whose baby was only 7 weeks old, confided in me after a CoreMama™ class, “I have to admit, I felt much sexier at 8 ½ months than I do now.” She was almost ashamed of how she felt, doubting in her body’s ability to bounce back after that awesome feat of growing and birthing a baby. I gently reminded her that her body had been through the wringer in the past year, and that she was probably putting undue pressure and stress on herself to expect it to be back to “normal” less than two months after having given birth. “But I feel normal,” she replied, “I just want to look normal too.” “You are on the right track,” I told her, “and it is perfectly normal to still have a ‘squishy’ midsection a month and a half after giving birth.”
I remembered quite well feeling exactly as this woman felt. I was, after all, a physical therapist, very fit, and was doing all the right things to get my body back. Why, then, was it so difficult to get back the firm tummy I vaguely remembered from yesteryear? There is good reason…
So, let’s review exactly what your body has experienced over the past year if you have recently given birth. We’ll not go into the myriad of systemic changes your body undergoes during pregnancy and focus instead on the musculoskeletal changes that ultimately affect most drastically the physical recovery of the body’s form after childbirth.
Your uterus expands in the abdomen to more than 10 times it original size and supports a whopping 10 to 12 pounds of weight, thereby stretching the abdominal wall and musculature to accommodate the expansion and weight of the load. Your intestines and other internal organs are pushed upward underneath the ribs. The rectus abdominus muscle, which runs along the midline of the abdomen, normally splits in half to some degree under the stress, and loses its mechanical advantage, as do all the abdominal muscles. All the core muscles become overstretched and weakened. The lumbar muscles get accustomed to the swayback position that pregnant women adopt and tighten in the shortened position. The thoracic (midback) muscles also become overstretched as the shoulders roll forward under the increasing weight of the breasts, and the chest muscles tighten. The head tends to settle into a position forward of its norm due to the repositioning of the spine. All these changes take place very gradually over the nine months of pregnancy.
If you had proper instruction in exercise during pregnancy, you likely lessened these effects on your body, but they happen nonetheless. This is normal. And it is normal that they persist for quite some time after you have the baby. If you are still with me, picturing all that has gradually happened to your body over nine long months, you can probably see how unrealistic it is to expect the body’s tissues to rebound immediately after the load of the baby is removed.
The Reality of Normal
If you did specific exercises throughout your pregnancy to counteract the normal musculoskeletal changes of pregnancy, you will be starting with greater muscle tone and strength after giving birth and will certainly have a leg up on the recovery front. If you didn’t, you have a little longer road, but no reason to despair. The single most important thing you can do to get further down that road is to perform exercises that effectively isolate the muscles that were overstretched and weakened. If you don’t isolate the correct muscles, your body will take the path of least resistance and end up compensating with already-stronger muscle groups and will advance much more slowly toward your goals of getting stronger and regaining your pre-partum shape.
“So”, you might ask, “how long will it be before I feel firm and sexy again?” That depends a lot on your personal efforts and a little on your genetics. There are a very few women who do little or nothing at all by way of exercise and six months after giving birth look exactly as they did six months before they were pregnant, even in a bikini. In my experience, those women are one or two in a hundred. Most women take about six months to get back to something close to their norm and keep improving for another few months afterward to reach their full potential around nine months after giving birth, while performing regular core-focused exercise. Many of those women, in my experience, report feeling much more fit and trim a year after giving birth than they did before they became pregnant because of adopting healthier eating habits and regularly performing a core-focused exercise routine during and after pregnancy. So, if you are among the vast majority who don’t bounce back immediately with little or no effort, you should kindly allow your body as long to recover as it took to become stretched out of proportion. Beware, however, that if you don’t do what is necessary after baby comes to specifically counteract the drastic changes your body underwent during pregnancy, you will likely carry with you a few extra inches and pounds as a reminder of what your body endured.