And the majority of these complaints/queries come from women who blame pregnancy and childbearing for their midsections. So for all the moms and moms-to-be out there, this post is for you! (If your belly frustrations aren’t from pregnancy, and for the fellas reading, that post is coming later.)
Truthfully, the main reason I’ve never addressed this topic is because there is frustratingly little one can do to target body fat on a specific site of the body. You know we can’t spot reduce, right? But it’s not just a fat-loss issue. In addition to fat, the post-baby belly pooch is caused by changes in muscle tone and shape, connective tissue, and skin laxity. With a multifactorial cause, there must be something one can do to improve the area, if not return it to Victoria’s-Secret-model tautness.
I don’t have any kids of my own. So to learn more about this question, I scoured the scientific literature, read a ton of popular internet content, and talked with many mothers and moms-to-be about their feelings on their post-baby belly. While a fair percentage of women felt there was “nothing to do but get a tummy tuck”, or “you never lose it, so get comfortable with it”, I learned a lot of tips which certainly can’t hurt to try.
Personally, I admit that having a flat stomach is important to me, and my self-confidence regarding my appearance. I’d never accept that there was nothing I could do about it — so my take is, if it won’t hurt, why not try? I recommend a four-part attack on the post-pregnancy pooch: to take your best shot at all the contributing factors.
A lot of the moms I asked said they used creams or oils on their belly skin during and after pregnancy to help moisturize and condition the skin, reduce stretch marks, and keep the skin elastic (to hopefully aid its return to non-pregnant tummy shape.) I consulted a skincare expert at a large cosmetic company on this topic, to see if it’s actually helpful. Her expert advice:
Use a good skin cream to keep your belly skin in a well-hydrated, healthy state. Hydration is a huge factor for skin health. You’d be surprised the simple visual effects you can get just by using a quality hydrating cream, which is any cream that effectively reduces water loss w/out clogging pores or giving you other ill effects. You don’t need to spend $150 on an antiaging cream, but you’re also not going to get as good of results from a $5 bottle. Retinol or retinyl palmitate may be used in cosmetics, but they are not nearly as effective as retinoic acid (which is only available by prescription). Retinoic acid has measureable wrinkle reducing and firming effects…however it’s mostly used for the face.
Other women I spoke to said they used cocoa butter. No one really could say whether it helped or not (and you’d have to have multiple pregnancies and try it both ways to know, wouldn’t you?) But it certainly can’t hurt, and as one woman pointed out “Having my husband rub lotion on my belly was very sweet bonding for all three of us.” Whether is helps with skin appearance or not, using moisturizer is a good idea to decrease the itchiness commonly reported late in pregnancy, when stretched skin is very susceptible to dryness.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy cause increased laxity in connective and muscle tissue. After all, there’s a lot of stretching that needs to go on, and increased laxity in pelvic joints and ligaments help with delivery. You can’t do too much other than let your body’s hormones do what they will during and after pregnancy. But following delivery, levels will return to normal, and so will your connective tissue.
Belly binding is a popular trend in other cultures that is becoming popular in the U.S. Essentially, the idea is that wearing a supportive garment (something like a girdle) for a month or more after delivery helps reshape the abdomen. There are a million anecdotes from the companies selling these thingees that women “got back in their pre-pregnancy jeans in 2 weeks!” but actual research on these is nowhere to be found. However, I haven’t found any reports of them being risky in any way, so the biggest risk you run is wasted money and discomfort. I say: Can’t hurt, might help, I’d try it.
All the moisturizer and belly binding in the world won’t help as much as some hard work to rebuild strength in your core. Firming up muscles can do a lot, not only for the appearance of your tummy, but to lessen back pain, improve your posture, and decrease skin sagging. Not to mention a strong core helps in all sorts of everyday ways like carrying groceries and toddlers. Some of the best activities for improving core strength include pilates and using several different exercises to work all the muscles in the core, not just the rectus abdominis (6 pack muscle). Make sure to get clearance from you doctor for when it’s okay to exercise, but as soon as you get the green light, get moving!
This site has a list of well-described exercises to target the transverse abdominals.
This site will help you figure out if you’ve experienced diastasis recti, which is a separation of the abdominal muscles that can occur during pregnancy. Don’t panic if you think you have. Most cases can be fixed with corrective exercises and avoiding regular crunches, which can actually worsen the separation.
Okay, this is one we don’t want to think about – but some of the leftover belly squish is likely to be stored fat. Reducing your body’s fat stores comes down to healthy eating, creating a calorie deficit, and exercise. Breastfeeding is also great to help you expend some calories (and stimulate hormones which help return your uterus to its normal size.) Don’t go on a crash diet, but think about the less-nutritious foods you eat and try to consume fewer of them. It’s a great time to start practicing setting an example for your new family member by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and less chips, soda and candy. Don’t put a harsh expectation on yourself to drop weight like a Hollywood actress, just aim to lose weight gradually and healthfully until you are close to your non-pregnant weight. If it’s been years since you delivered and you still have some belly fat to lose, it’s never to late to try eating better!
One safe and effective strategy is to try and cut 250 calories a day from food, and expend 250 calories more in physical activity. This net deficit of 500 calories a day is enough to shed one pound of fat a week. If you choose high volume, filling foods (think air-popped popcorn, broth-based soups, raw veggies and fresh fruit) you may not even notice that you’re eating less calories. You can use this handy calculator to find out how much exercise you need to do to burn 250 calories. Consider consulting a Registered Dietitian if you’d like help determining how to best meet your nutritional needs with a personalized diet.
So there you have it. In summary, pregnant women can take several steps which may help (and can’t hurt) such moisturizing and belly binding after delivery to help prevent postbaby pooch. All women (moms or not) can help firm their midsections through strengthening exercises and shedding excess fat with smart diet modifications.
Real Women Chime In
“I did a variety of things. First of all I was probably a little obessive about weight gain and only put on 30lbs. I worked out 6/7days a week and worked until I delivered. My workouts included cardio, strength training, and core work. I did Kiegels at every traffic light every time I was driving. I felt great after I delivered and was ready to go home the next morning. After delivery: I did use a belly binder, I think that it helps because you definitely have abdominal latency after delivery. I also nursed which helpes the uterus contract down and decrease the amount of bleeding you have. Right after I delivered, in the hospital bed I started Keigels, pelvic tilts, and gentle bridges. Abdominal and perineum muscles are like any other, atrophy sets in fast!!!! Again I felt really good so when he was two weeks old I started walked 2-3 miles a day and gentle swiss ball exercises. At 4 weeks theraband and bike. At my postpardum check up (6weeks) the doctor cleared my and I started running. I got back to my prepreg weight in less than 6 months. HOwever… things are definitley relocated. The belly has no stretch marks, but not the same tonal appearance. I am not sure if that makes sense.”
“I had Christopher when I was 20 and snapped back pretty quickly with minimal stretch marks and such. Dylan came along when I was 24 and I gained over 60 lbs with him as I was in Alaska and I honeslty believe the cold weather and the water retention had something to do with it. Also the lack of fresh veggies and fruits that were available to me at that time. After Dylan was born (9 lbs 23 oz) ouch… My stomach looked like a deflated balloon. It took me months to get it back into shape. I used Vit E oil which worked great for lightening of the scarring. I still have scars 20 years later but I dont really worry about them much. My boys call them their personal tattos they gave me and I have no plan to ever have them removed. The one thing that I have a problem with is that I had my appendix taken out when I was in 8th grade back with they made a horizontal incision. That scar never recovered from my baby making days. It holds some fat and skin around it from the babies. Again, I dont stress over it.”
“Great topic! Yes my stomach looked different after having kids and it still does. No amount of sit-ups or other core exercises have given me 6-pack abs.”
“In my prenatal yoga class last night we did exercises to work on the transverse ab muscles to prevent diastasis or the spreading of the stomach muscles. I’ll let you know in a few months if these exercises paid off…I must say, we also do tons of pelvic floor exercises so that we get back in shape quicker, too. I know that Brook Burke (the model/spokeswoman) designed a belly band to help with this too. Apparently in other cultures, they tie the stomach in or wrap it in cloth post partum, and in America we’re just now catching on….”
“I found that after my first child, my stomach returned to its previous flat status very quickly – 2 -3 months. After my next three deliveries, my stomach returned to its flat status within 4-5 months. I have always been physically active and blessed with a flat stomach. However when menopause arrived and I had a hysterectomy at age 55, I developed a pouch. At 61, I still have very strong stomach muscles, but my skin has become less elastic and there is a bit of excess adipose tissue. I am still very active and at my ideal weight, but the small pouch is there.”
“I definitely worry about what my stomach and what my body will look like after having a baby… I feel like I have worked hard over the years and was getting to a place where I was comfortable with how I look and it can be stressful at times thinking about how much the muscles and tissues will be stretched over the next few months and the thought, will my stomach ever look the same definitely is a concern!! We see all these celebrities who have six pack abs 6 weeks after delivery and I wonder if that is truly possible?!”
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