It takes time for your body, and especially your tummy, to fully recover from pregnancy. You’ve had your baby but you may look as if you’re still six months pregnant, with a tummy that’s squishier and rounder than you expected.
Imagine your tummy as a balloon, slowly inflating as your baby grows. Giving birth doesn’t pop the balloon, it just starts a slow leak. The decrease in your tummy size may be slow, but it will be steady.
From the moment your baby is born, hormonal changes cause your tummy to decrease in size. It takes about four weeks for your womb (uterus) to contract to its pre-pregnancy size.
All the cells in your body that swelled during pregnancy will begin releasing their fluids in the form of urine, vaginal secretions, and sweat. And any extra fat you put on to nourish your baby will start to burn off, especially if you’re breastfeeding and exercising. But it takes at least a few weeks to see noticeable results.
After giving birth you may still have a dark line down your tummy called a linea nigra, as well as a web of stretch marks.
The linea nigra is caused by pigmentation in the skin where your tummy muscles have stretched and slightly separated, to accommodate your baby as she grew. This line of pigmentation usually fades within a few months of giving birth.
Stretch marks are caused by your skin stretching over your fast-growing body during pregnancy. You may have them on your tummy, buttocks, thighs and breasts.
You can’t get rid of stretch marks completely, but they will fade over time. Eventually, the lines will look like fine streaks that are closer to your skin colour. Try to be patient. You may not like your stretch marks now, but they will look a lot better in six months’ time.
How long will it take for my belly to shrink back to normal?
We’ve all heard stories of new mums who regain their pre-pregnancy bodies within weeks of giving birth. Although this is possible, it doesn’t happen that way for most mums. Bear in mind that your body may change shape after pregnancy. You may find it difficult to return to your exact pre-pregnancy weight or shape.
Patience is the key. It took nine months for your tummy muscles to stretch to accommodate a full-term baby. So it makes sense that it can take that long, or longer, to tighten up again.
The speed and degree of this tightening up depends on a few factors, including:
- What shape and size you were before you conceived your baby.
- How much weight you gained during pregnancy.
- How active you are.
- Something you can’t do anything about: your genes.
You may find it easier to shed the weight if:
- You gained less than 13.6kg (2st 2lb) and exercised regularly during pregnancy.
- You breastfeed.
- This is your first baby.
As a guide, you shouldn’t aim to be back to your pre-pregnancy weight until about six months after your baby’s birth.
How can I safely lose weight to help my belly look better?
Breastfeeding may help, especially in the early months after giving birth. If you breastfeed, you’ll burn extra calories to make milk – about 500 calories a day. You may lose your pregnancy weight more quickly than mums who bottle-feed their babies.
Breastfeeding also triggers contractions that help to shrink your womb, making it a workout for your whole body. However, if you eat more than you burn off, you will put on weight, even if you breastfeed.
It’s fine to lose weight while you are breastfeeding. Your body is very efficient at making milk, and losing up to 1kg (about 2lb) a week shouldn’t affect the amount of milk you make.
However, if you have a newborn to look after, you’ll need plenty of energy. Trying to lose weight too soon after giving birth may delay your recovery and make you feel even more tired. It’s especially important not to attempt a very low-calorie diet. So try to wait until you’ve had your postnatal checkbefore start trying to lose weight.
Eating healthily, combined with gentle exercise, will help you to get in shape. The following general guidelines will help you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight:
- Make time for breakfast.
- Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Include plenty of fibre-rich foods, such as oats, beans, lentils, grains and seeds, in your diet.
- Include a starchy food such as bread, rice, pasta (preferably wholegrain varieties for added fibre) or potatoes in each meal.
- Go easy on high-fat and high-sugar foods, such as biscuits and cakes.
- Watch your portions at mealtimes and the number and type of snacks you eat between meals.
There’s no right answer about how many calories a day you should have. The amount you need to eat depends on your weight and how active you are. For more tips on healthy weight loss after birth, see our diet for a healthy breastfeeding mum and parents’ tips for managing your weight after having a baby.
What else can I do to help regain my pre-pregnancy belly?
Exercise can help to tone stomach muscles and burn calories. If you exercised right up until the end of your pregnancy, you can do some light exercise and stretching from the start.
If you stopped exercising during your pregnancy or are a newcomer to fitness, it is better to start exercising more slowly.
Fitness aside, all new mums can begin pelvic floor exercises and work on gently toning up lower tummy muscles as soon as they feel ready. This may help you to get back to your pre-pregnancy shape and help to flatten your tummy.
When you feel up to it, take your baby out for walks in his pushchair. Getting out and about will help to lift your mood and exercise your body gently. You may find there are pushchair workouts with other new mums in your local park.
My tummy muscles feel slack. Is this normal?
If your tummy muscles feel very slack, it could be because pregnancy has over-stretched them. If this is the case, you may also notice a bulge developing on the front of your tummy, above and below your belly button.
The medical term for this over-stretching is rectus abdominis diastasis (RAD). RAD is sometimes also described as divarication of abdominal muscles.
There are four layers of muscle across your tummy. The top layer of muscle is the rectus abdominis – it’s the one that’s commonly known as the six-pack. It runs from the bottom of your ribs down to your pubic bone. This muscle is in two vertical halves, and RAD happens when the two halves pull away from each other. Diastasis simply means separation.
RAD is more likely to happen if you:
- had a large baby
- had twins or more
- have weak stomach muscles
- have a narrow pelvis
- have poor posture
- have had previous pregnancies
- carried your baby “all at the front”
To find out if you have RAD, and not just normal pregnancy stretching, your midwife should check your tummy.
If you’re unsure whether you have RAD, or want to keep a check on your muscles yourself, you can use the following method:
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor or bed. Have a pillow under your head.
- Place two fingers widthways (fingertips pointing down onto your tummy) just below or above your belly button.
- Gently press downwards into your tummy, then raise your head slowly off the pillow.
- You should be able to feel the two sides of your abdominal muscles clamping around either side of your fingers.
- If you can’t feel anything, start again, this time using three fingers. Repeat the technique until you can feel your muscles clamp around your fingers.
- Make a note of how many finger-widths it has taken. This figure is the width of your diastasis. You can repeat the test weekly – as your muscles get stronger, the gap should reduce.
If the gap you feel is bigger that two fingers widthways, you may have RAD.
The separation gap often returns to normal within the first eight weeks after giving birth. If the size of the gap hasn’t decreased, or you’re worried about it, see your GP. Your GP may refer you to a women’s health physiotherapist who can give you specific exercises to help you.
Leaving RAD untreated isn’t harmful, but it may increase your chances of getting a bad back and will make it harder for you to regain a flat tummy.