The reason I still look pregnant four months postpartum

Concerned that she still looked pregnant after giving birth, Annie Ridout sought professional advice. It turns out she had a common – and treatable – condition called diastasis recti. Here, she reveals her midriff for surprising before and after shots (and shares some advice)…

I was at the supermarket a few weeks ago, buying breastfeeding supplements from the pharmacy section. Having also picked up a couple of iced coffees, I asked the cashier if I could pay for them here, too. “Of course you can”, she said, “I’m not going to make a pregnant woman walk all the way around the shop.”

I’m not pregnant.

My husband and I had a good laugh about her error – she’d also been really keen to sell me pregnancy rather than breastfeeding supplements, which didn’t make sense initially. But then I thought: why do I look pregnant still, four months after giving birth?

A friend had told me that three years after giving birth to her daughter, she still looked pregnant when undressed. I couldn’t see it, but she said she has to dress very carefully to ensure the bump is hidden. She explained that it’s a condition called diastasis recti; when the stomach muscles separate during pregnancy (sometimes due to the baby’s position or size) and don’t return after the birth. When the abdominal walls split, the fat behind is pushed through the gap, creating a bulge.

I hadn’t had this issue after giving birth the first time, so assumed I was fine this time too. So much so, that when at my six-week postpartum check the doctor asked if I was ok, physically, I said yes. I didn’t question him not checking me and my stomach. If he had, he’d have noticed that my stomach muscles hadn’t drawn back in towards each other, and might have been able to advise me to see a physio, or personal trainer.

If left untreated, diastasis recti can worsen and cause longterm damage

In France, women are given 20 sessions of physiotherapy on the national health service after giving birth. They acknowledge that the trauma of pregnancy and childbirth on a woman’s body is huge and shouldn’t be brushed aside as soon as she’s home. Whereas in the UK, you have a few quick checks in the immediate weeks preceding the birth then you’re on your own. It’s no surprise, then, that one in three women go on to suffer with incontinence issues.

With no idea that my body wasn’t in a good way – after all, I felt physically fine – I got back into running. And not just that: I re-started my daily Pilates workout, including numerous stomach crunches and plank – both terrible when you have diastasis recti. Over the following weeks, my runs increased in intensity and so did the size of my stomach. It didn’t make sense; if I was exercising so much, why was I getting fatter? 

That’s when I remembered a postnatal Pilates teacher lying me on the floor at the start of a session, asking me to lift just my head off the floor, and pressing the centre of my stomach to check my muscles. This was after my first birth. They were back together already, within eight weeks. I repeated this exercise now, and discovered a three-finger gap.

I knew waiting for a doctor’s appointment and NHS physio would take weeks so decided to go privately, asking on Facebook if anyone could recommend an expert to help with this issue. This is how I found out about Melissa Gaul, a personal trainer who specialises in women and the postnatal period. Heavily pregnant herself, she was only able to offer me three sessions (she usually offers new mums eight – a combination of stretching, workouts, massage and nutrition) but we agreed to meet.

Focusing on breath is meditative, so helps you to relax without having to take time out specifically to meditate (hard, when you have young kids)

Melissa checked my separation and agreed it was three fingers. She said that while that was a big gap, there was tension in the muscles, which was a good sign. Apparently poor diet is a contributing factor and eating the wrong foods can lead to softer muscles, which won’t come back together easily.

In our first session, she explained the connection between the pelvic floor, upper back, posture and stomach. Put simply, if one of those areas is unaligned or compromised – so are the others. I’d been doing daily Kegels to keep my pelvic floor in action (you can start right after giving birth – it may take a few days to feel anything working, but it will be) so wasn’t leaking but apparently that alone means little. My posture was definitely being affected by breastfeeding and stooping down to pick up babies/toddlers/toys.

We talked about diet and Melissa said I should be drinking loads of water and eating lots of protein and an array of veg every day (at least one portion of greens, but a colourful plate of veg is important). Also, berries and no (or less) sugar, booze and caffeine. That would be harder for me – I have a massively sweet tooth and caffeine is currently my saviour, as a sleep deprived new mum. But I decided to at least be more conscious of what I was – and wasn’t – putting into my body.

Something else I found interesting was Melissa checking my ribs, which expand during pregnancy and take some time to return to normal. Again, this wasn’t something I knew about or had had checked. It now made sense that my bra side had changed around the chest as well as the cup. I told a friend about this and she said that she had also been worrying about her ‘fat back’ wondering why it was all being stored there. It’s not fat – it’s a wider ribcage.

The amazing Swedish massage from Melissa worked to unstick the muscles and relax me. It’s important to avoid stress, where possible, and find ways to relax in order to help your body recover after childbirth. Cortisol – the stress hormone – is an enemy to recovery. (On a side note, if you’re breastfeeding I’d avoid lying on your front during a massage as pressure on your chest can block ducts and cause mastitis. I know, because it recently happened to me).

Lastly, breath is important. When doing our stretches and lunges, Melissa emphasised the out breath – you need to breath out for as long as possible, draining your lungs, before breathing in again. Also, focusing on breath is meditative, so helps you to relax without having to take time out specifically to meditate (hard, when you have young kids).

Our three sessions spanned a two-week period – and I practised the exercises every day between sessions; lunging while the baby slept or stretching when the kids were playing on the rug. A week in, I noticed the gap had closed to two fingers. Another week later, it was down to one. I definitely don’t have a six-pack – the loose skin and extra pudge remain – but that wasn’t my aim; I just didn’t want to continue looking pregnant.

This is a ‘before and after’ of my belly. There were two weeks between the photos being taken:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If left untreated, diastasis recti can worsen and cause longterm damage to the back, headaches, pelvic floor (leaking) issues and bad posture. So any other mums wondering why you’re still looking pregnant, four months postpartum, head to your doctor and ask to be checked, then request treatment from a physio. It’s worth it. Soon I’ll pop back to the supermarket and ask, again, if I can pay at the pharmacy. Let’s see what the cashier says this time…

Read more about diastasis recti

And check out personal trainer Melissa Gaul’s website and Facebook page.