Postpartum “Jelly Bellies”
By Sandy Willoughby PT, CSCS, CAPP-OB
“Jelly Belly” is not a medical term found in the literature but any woman who has had a baby knows what “Jelly Belly” means. During pregnancy, we understand that the uterus enlarges with the growing baby and, along with that, the abdominal muscles stretch. Once the baby is delivered, the uterus gradually shrinks down to its pre– pregnancy size (breast feeding assists with this) but the abdominal muscles need some help to return to their pre-pregnancy tone and length. Abdominal muscles are skeletal muscles – they need to be contracted and used to restore tone and function. It is for this reason that abdominal exercises become necessary; but don’t start with crunches just yet! Yes…..you read that correctly. Let’s talk about why.
First and foremost, do you know if you have Diastasis Recti? Diastasis Recti is common during pregnancy, normally occurring in the last trimester. It tends to be more common in subsequent pregnancies. Diastasis Recti is when the Rectus Abdominis muscle bellies move apart from each other because the linea alba stretches as the belly grows larger. The linea alba is the line of fascia that connects the rectus abdominis in the middle – think of the middle of “6 pack abs”.
In 50-60% of cases with diastasis recti, the rectus abdominis recovers back to midline on its own, but what about the other 40-50% of women? It’s important to know if you have a diastasis so you know how to protect it and how to correct it. This is why you don’t start with crunches or higher level abdominal exercises.
To protect your abs when you have a diastasis, use good body mechanics getting in and out of bed, avoid excessive twisting, carrying weight on one side of the body and “stretching” the abs. To get in bed with good body mechanics, sit on the edge of the bed, come down to your side treating your back like a log, then roll over onto your back. Reverse this order to get out of bed.
To correct a diastasis with exercise, you should begin with abdominal isometric exercises and specific exercises where you use your hands to approximate the rectus abdominis muscle bellies while contracting the muscle. This is where skilled help from a knowledgeable Physical Therapist comes into play because abdominal isometrics can be performed incorrectly just like any exercise.
Consider coming in for a free consultation or asking for a physical therapy referral from your physician to get the proper guidance specific to your needs and get on the safe path to getting your pre-pregnancy body back.