Are you months (or even years) past having your most recent baby, but you still look pregnant?
You’ve tried dieting, you’ve tried ab workouts, or maybe you’ve just given up. Even if the rest of your body looks fairly fit, your belly just hasn’t budged.
You might be living with diastasis recti. Read on to learn more about this condition!
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. You can read my full policy here.
Also, I am not a medical doctor. I’m simply sharing my experience. Please discuss your condition with your own health care provider or find a physical therapist for help if you suspect you have diastasis recti.
Looking for safe, effective exercises designed by a physical therapist to heal an abdominal separation/diastasis recti? Sign up for exclusive access to my gentle ab workout video!
My experience with diastasis recti
About two and a half years ago, I was at an obligatory social function, but having a nice enough time. I sat down with some people, made pleasant small talk, and sat through a presentation. You know, the usual.
Afterwards, the man beside me turned and said, “Now, I know you’re never supposed to ask this of a woman…”
I turned and brightly said, “Yes?” I had no clue what was coming.
“…But how far along are you?”
You could see the other people at the table, who already knew me, stop like they were witnessing a train wreck. I plastered a smile on my face and said, “Actually, I’m twelve weeks postpartum after my third child.”
Now, if this were me who had mistakenly called a woman pregnant, I’d think the appropriate response would be to apologize profusely. But not this, erm, gentleman.
He laughed and said, “I would have guessed five months! I was an EMT,” as if that training somehow made him an expert in women’s size during pregnancy.
I ended up laughing it off because that reaction seemed preferable to curling into a ball and crying in public (Besides, despite what you see on the internet, it’s totally normal and healthy to not have sprung back to pre-baby shape within twelve weeks).
Over the next several months, I kept getting these comments (what’s with people, anyways?). I wanted to know why my shape wasn’t getting better, so I started looking for answers.
What is diastasis recti?
I started doing some research and found that women who have gone through pregnancy can end up with a condition called diastasis recti, in which the connective tissue (the linea alba) between the “six pack muscles” of your abdomen (or the rectus abdominis) become separated down the middle.
This condition can cause your tummy to look, um, not particularly tight. Even if everything else is in shape, you’ll still have a “mom pooch” (I’m not personally a fan of the term, but you know what I mean).
Diastasis recti can affect more than just your appearance. This problem can be related to pelvic floor issues, bladder control, and even affect your day-to-day functioning if it’s severe enough.
Unfortunately, day-to-day activities with a new baby can delay healing of diastasis recti. Twisting at your midsection, sitting with poor posture while feeding your baby, even getting up from lying down incorrectly can all further damage your core.
RELATED: How to comfortably breastfeed your baby – advice from a physical therapist
The next time I went to my doctor I asked him about the possibility of me having an abdominal separation. He felt my belly and said he didn’t think there was anything wrong.
Despite what he said, I wasn’t convinced, so I kept searching.
As I googled, I saw that everyone had a product or program to fix the diastasis. I asked the nurse at my gyno’s office, and she said to just do some crunches and I’d be fine (bad idea, by the way, based on what you need to heal an abdominal separation).
(Spoiler alert: your PCP or even your OB/midwife may not have training in identifying diastasis recti. Check with someone trained in recognizing this condition, such as a PT with expertise in women’s health.)
I tried some alternative abdominal exercises that helped some (at least I think), but I couldn’t really measure my progress, so it was hard to tell. After a while I sort of gave up and decided this was my lot in life.
Why traditional abdominal exercises don’t help with abdominal separation
Just like the nurse told me when I asked about diastasis recti, less informed people will just tell you, “Oh, do some pilates or crunches! That’ll fix it.”
Or perhaps they’ll suggest you do planks until you can hold them for a minute at a time.
These are all terrible suggestions for fixing diastasis recti. In fact, they’re likely to make your ab separation worse.
Think about an abdominal separation like the one shown below.
What’s going to happen when you do crunches with that separation? This GIF I made with a zip-top bag (aren’t I fancy?) illustrates.
Crunches, planks, and even exercises in table pose can cause the rectus abdominis to gape open, making the separation even worse. So you need to choose abdominal and pelvic exercises that don’t allow this gaping.
In addition, you need to strengthen the transverse abdominis, the muscles that wrap all the way around from the back to the front of your core horizontally.
These muscles help support your weakened core. Once they are strengthened, you can continue to work (carefully!) towards healing the separation at the linea alba.
Who can help with diastasis recti?
Almost a year after I’d initially given up on getting core back in shape, I went to my yoga class and asked my terrific instructor her opinion.
She palpated my abdomen a little and told me that, although she wasn’t an expert, she thought that I may indeed have diastasis recti. She then recommended a local physical therapist.
I didn’t even realize physical therapy was an option! I was excited to go.
Physical therapy for diastasis recti
I went for an intake at the physical therapy office, and I was told that I had a 15 cm (6 in) diastasis that was at least 2 fingers wide. While I was disappointed to find out, it was also a relief to have someone confirm what I had suspected for almost a year and a half.
To treat the problem, I started with simple abdominal exercises (Repeat after me:Not crunches or planks) and went weekly, building up what I could as I practiced from home.
Each week, my PT used kinesio tape on my abdomen. K Tape is basically a tape that stretches longways but not horizontally. It lasts for a few days, even with showering, and it’s really helpful!
K tape helped gently hold my skin and muscles together so they could heal. If the kinesio tape came loose during the week, I would retape myself with tape I bought myself.
I did physical therapy for about four months. In that time, my separation narrowed considerably to only about 2.5 cm now (pretty much only right under my belly button)!
My abdominal region wasn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better than it was before. Actually, I told my husband this was the strongest my ab muscles have been in about a decade! (Note: I’m now pregnant with my fourth. While I’m more aware of how to move to prevent ab muscle separation in the future, I suspect I’ll be going back to physical therapy soon after this baby comes).
Healing stretch marks and tightening skin after diastasis recti
I asked my PT if my skin over my belly would ever tighten up too. Actually, what I asked was, “Will I have a belly button again?” I’m not gonna lie, I miss my pre-pregnancy belly button.
Her answer was not to get my hopes up too much about the belly button, but I could definitely tighten my skin.
She recommended liquid Vitamin E to apply directly to my belly, as well as collagen supplements to help rebuild my skin.
While things aren’t exactly the same as before children, and I have no expectation that they will ever be, the two supplements have definitely improved the skin tone of my belly!
Do you have diastasis recti?
Why did it take so long for me to find out that physical therapy was an option? After all, I Googled all about diastasis recti! Lots of people were excited to sell their splints and their exercise programs, but no one mentioned that PT could help.
And while I’m glad I finally found someone who could get me the treatment I needed, it’s crazy that it took going to my yoga instructor instead of my doctor or gynecologist to get some answers. This is a women’s health issue, people.
If you haven’t found someone to help you yet, you can do a self check for diastasic recti. Here’s a video of how to check (also from my PT).
How to get physical therapy for diastasis recti
Generally speaking (at least here in the States), insurance will cover PT for a month without a script from your doctor. Once I had a script sent in to my doctor (the same one who told me I was fine), he signed off, no problem, and I was able to continue to go to PT.
It was really encouraging to be able to go in weekly and actually track my progress. There were some weeks where the length of the separation didn’t change, but it still narrowed over that time.
Atlas physical therapy in Central PA
If you happen to be in Central PA, may I strongly suggest the physical therapists who helped me? I went to Atlas Physical Therapy in Altoona, and they have a fantastic staff! Holly Strobel, my PT, focuses specifically on women’s health issues, so she knew exactly what exercises would work for me, and what I should avoid, such as crunches, deep twists, and anything up on all fours.
In addition, Atlas can treat all sorts of women’s health issues related to maternal health! Anything from mastitis and clogged milk ducts to C-section scars; they’re on it.
Plus, Atlas has another location in State College, so if you’re over near Penn State, check them out over there instead! (Btw, I don’t get anything by linking to Atlas or if find them through me; I’m just that excited about how they’ve helped me!).
I hope this post is helpful to you. Regardless of your postpartum issues, I hope you’re cherishing your time with the little one who changed not just the shape of your body, but your whole life. And SIGN UP if you want a link to my video of safe exercises designed to heal, not further damage, your core. Happy parenting!