Diastasis Recti: What New Moms Should Know
“Around 70 percent of expectant women will develop some degree of separation,” says Nicole Scott, M.D., gynecologist at Indiana University Health. Often the gap closes by six to twelve months after the baby’s born.
If you’ve recently had a baby, your little bundle may have gifted you with physical changes you weren’t prepared for. One of these may be a condition called diastasis recti, a separation of the left and right sides of the rectus abdominus, the outermost layer of muscle that covers the front of the belly (also known as your “six pack”). It happens when the growing uterus causes the linea alba, a narrow strip of fibrous tissue that connects the two sides of the abs, thins and weakens enough to pull apart.
While that may sound scary, diastasis recti is common during pregnancy. “Around 70 percent of expectant women will develop some degree of separation,” says Nicole Scott, M.D., gynecologist at Indiana University Health. Often the gap closes by six to twelve months after the baby’s born.
For some new moms, however, the condition persists. “It’s not a serious medical problem,” Dr. Scott explains, “but because the abs become weak as a result, some women experience some mild low back pain when the back muscles have to overcompensate.”
Diastasis recti is more likely to be cosmetically bothersome: It’s often the reason that post-partum belly bulge won’t budge, even once a new mom gets back to her normal weight. “One job of the rectus abdominus is to hold in the organs and other muscles in the belly region. It the muscle becomes “unzipped,” the abdominal contents can push through.
It’s also possible to feel the separation by lying on your back and pushing your index finger straight down into the middle of your belly, just below your navel. If you can sink your finger (or more than one finger) into the area between your rectus abdominus muscles, you’ve got a diastasis.
Dr. Scott can’t say how many women will wind up with a persistent diastasis. In a 2014 study, researchers found 39 percent of new moms still had diastasis rectus six months after their babies were born. “It depends largely on how much weight a woman gains, how strong her abdominals are to begin with, and how much natural elasticity her muscles have,” she says. Other risk factors include being over 35, having twins or other multiples, delivering a high birth weight baby, and having repeated pregnancies.
The best way to avoid a separated-at-birth situation is to strengthen your abdominals before you get pregnant. “I recommend women get into the best shape possible overall before they conceive,” says Dr. Scott. “Pregnancy is tough on the body all the way around.” If you’re already pregnant, get your doctor’s okay to exercise before you hit the mat or jump in the pool. It also helps to try to avoid constipation and to not lift anything heavy. “Any muscle straining can exacerbate the weakening of the linea alba,” explains Dr. Scott.
Diastasis recti can be corrected with surgery, but it’s rarely recommended. It’s usually done for cosmetic reasons, but says Dr. Scott, it would be very invasive. So if you’re battling the bulge well after you have your baby, exercise can tighten up the muscles and move them closer together. Stick to isometric exercises, such as planks, and activities that focus on strengthening the core, like yoga and swimming. “Don’t include crunches. Rather than help iron out the abdominals, they’ll cause them to bulk up, which can make diastasis recti look worse,” warns Dr. Scott.
Most important, be patient. “It took nine months for your body to go through the changes of pregnancy,” says Dr. Scott. “so it will take at least that long to get it back to the way it was — or close.”