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What is Diastasis Recti? (and What You Can Do To Avoid It)

Diastasis recti is just a fancy term for an abdominal separation after pregnancy. It’s fairly common, but it isn’t inevitable. There are things you can do to prevent diastasis recti during pregnancy and there are ways to heal it postpartum, if you need to. This is your guide on how to do just that.

a pregnant woman and a woman with diastasis recti

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Isn’t it incredible that a woman’s body can stretch to accommodate a growing baby, sometimes even two or more? It’s pretty neat. But have you ever thought about what that growing and stretching does to your abs?

It’s beautifully designed, so rest assured that pregnancy doesn’t inherently cause damage. That said, knowing what’s going on in your abdomen and how that affects your day-to-day is important in avoiding injury. It will help you know what you can continue doing and what you’ll need to modify. 

Come with me and we’ll discover what happens to that six-pack of yours (trust me, I can’t see mine either) as your uterus grows.

What is Diastasis Recti?

When you’re not pregnant, your abdomen is a six-pack of muscles. In between the left and right sides of your abdominal muscles is a connective tissue called the linea alba.

During pregnancy, your abdomen – and your linea alba – gets stretched out.

It’s designed to be able to expand and adapt to a growing uterus, but that doesn’t mean issues can’t arise. If the linea alba gets stretched too far, it can stay that way and not return to its original state, at least not without some help. 

That’s what is called “diastasis recti” (die-uh-STAY-sis REC-tie) or, more simply, an ab separation. 

graphic showing diastasis recti

Every pregnancy will result in a small abdominal gap for a little while. The goal is to minimize it and not let it turn into an injury.

Symptoms of Diastasis Recti

The most obvious symptom and result of diastasis recti is a belly pooch that just won’t go away. For some women, it may look like they’re still pregnant months after giving birth.

But that’s not the only reason one might want to avoid diastasis recti. It’s more than a cosmetic thing.

Beyond looks, diastasis recti can lead to more problematic things, including the following:

  • Making it more difficult to lift heavy objects
  • General lack of core strength
  • Lower back pain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Incontinence (e.g. peeing when sneezing)
  • Discomfort during sex
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Poor posture

Suffice it to say you want to do what you can to minimize or avoid diastasis recti.

How to Minimize Diastasis Recti in Pregnancy

People used to think that factors such as age, height, weight before pregnancy, weight gain during pregnancy, and baby’s birth weight were risk factors for developing diastasis recti but studies have shown those beliefs to be false.

No matter your starting point or how your pregnancy goes, the key to minimizing diastasis recti during pregnancy is minimizing the pressure your linea alba and abdomen receive. With so much pressure (especially during the third trimester) already pushing on your abs, even simple movements can be the last straw in stretching that tissue too far.

That said, no habit or practice is going to ensure you avoid diastasis recti, so don’t be upset with yourself if you end up with an ab gap despite your best efforts to avoid it. If you have a big gap after giving birth, you didn’t fail and nothing is wrong with you.

And hope isn’t lost! You can heal diastasis recti, and we’ll cover that briefly in this article, too.

First, let’s look at a few habits you can practice that will help you minimize your risk of diastasis recti while doing day-to-day things.

Getting Up From Reclining or Lying Down

One of the biggest things to avoid during pregnancy is getting up directly from a reclined or lying-down position. Crunching your abs to pull yourself up puts a lot of pressure on your core and your linea alba.

Especially once you start to show, you might notice that sitting up directly causes your belly to stick out in a funny way, which is usually called “coning” or “doming.”

Instead of getting up by pulling yourself forward and up (for example when sitting up in bed), roll onto one side first then use your arm to push yourself up sideways to a sitting position. If someone is around to help, ask them for a hand so they can do most of the work instead of your core.

Picking Up Heavy Things and Standing Up

Another big one is to brace your core before lifting heavy things, including older kids. Engage your core muscles (including your glutes) and use your legs to lift.

It’s also helpful to avoid bending over to pick things up. Instead, crouch down into a lunge shape or squat to avoid too much pressure on your core. 

The same thing applies to standing up from a chair, especially a low one. Flex your entire core before standing to ensure that your abs aren’t taking the brunt of the force needed to get yourself upright.

Avoiding Twists, Incorrect Breathing, and Letting Your Belly Flop

Other movements, like leveraged twisting, belly breathing, and letting your belly hang out while on all fours, can exacerbate diastasis recti. To learn more, check out this video from Jessica Pumple, Certified Pregnancy and Postpartum Exercise Specialist.

Taking Care of Nutrition

The health of your skin and muscles is linked closely to what you eat. Hopefully that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. That means that, to some degree, you are what you eat.

My midwife and Bradley Childbirth class instructor said often that our tissues are only as good as what we eat.

Many Americans eat diets high in refined flours and sugars and low in protein and other nutrients. The problem here (among other things) is that the skin and muscles of an abdomen fed on that diet won’t be able to handle the pressure of a growing uterus nearly as well as one supported by a nutrient-dense diet.

So if you want to minimize your chances of severe diastasis recti, eat more protein and vegetables and eat less junk food. Your linea alba will thank you.

Wearing a Belly Band

Though not the recommended first line of defense, wearing a belly band can be helpful in supporting your growing belly. Wearing a belly band can reduce pain, encourage good posture, and make it easier to exercise or perform other tasks that pregnancy could otherwise make difficult.

Belly bands come with a caution though. Wearing one for too long or too often can create overdependence and lead to weakened abdominal muscles, which is definitely not ideal.

To avoid problems, wear a belly band for only a short amount of time, regularly do exercises to strengthen your core muscles, and be sure to address any underlying conditions.

Exercising and Diastasis Recti

Hopefully by now you’ve been told that, for most women and most pregnancies, exercising is not only safe but also provides lots of benefits for you and your baby. What may be more of a surprise is that that includes core work!

Yes, you can still work out your core while pregnant without making diastasis recti worse. You just have to do things a little differently. 

First, it’s important to know that your core muscles are more than that six-pack there in front. Really, “core” refers to all the muscles in your midsection. That means it includes the front, the back, and the sides. Even your glutes are part of your core!

With that larger view of what your core is, it’s easier to see that you still have options during pregnancy.

Generally, you’ll want to avoid any exercises that require crunching or twisting, like sit-ups and russian twists. Both types of movements can worsen the separation of your abs. But that leaves lots of exercises you can do.

Check out this article for some expert-approved ab exercises you can do during pregnancy, including modified planks, bird-dogs, and supported side angles.

How to Know if an Exercise is Safe

Obviously, that article is incomplete. There are lots of other exercises you can do. Loads of people on YouTube have free pregnancy workouts, for example, and many are really good.

Feel free to look for other pregnancy ab workouts to do, just be sure to check out a person’s credentials and background before trusting them with your safety and health. 

You might look for certifications such as a Certified Pregnancy and Postpartum Exercise Specialist or a Certified Personal Trainer. Ask yourself if the person who made the workout has the experience and education needed to be able to provide accurate information.

Trust your gut, too. If something seems off, find a different source. 

READ MORE >> The Best At-Home Pregnancy Workouts

How to Know if You Have Diastasis Recti

The question in your mind now, especially if you’ve just had your baby, is probably, “So how do I know if I have diastasis recti?”

Like I said earlier, sometimes diastasis recti causes a very obvious pooch. Whether or not that’s the case for you, you can check if you have diastasis recti on your own at home. 

I have an article all about testing for diastasis recti coming soon. Until then, here’s a video showing how to check.

How to Heal Diastasis Recti

Most women end up with a little ab gap after pregnancy. That’s normal. What’s not normal is a very large gap which causes the issues listed earlier and which doesn’t improve with time. 

Though it’s not normal, it is relatively common. The good news is if you find yourself with an ab separation after pregnancy, you aren’t doomed to have that little pooch forever.

There are three ways you can work to heal diastasis recti: 

  • Wear a postpartum belly band
  • Do healing exercises
  • Eat well

Belly bands are relatively cheap and you can get one online. 

Exercises for diastasis recti include core breathing, heel slides, alternating marches (lying down), and more.

And the principle of eating well is the same as it always is. Focus on whole, nutrient dense foods and a well-balanced plate.

I have a blog post coming soon that’s all about these three ways to heal diastasis recti, so stay tuned!

Diastasis Recti: Summed Up

Though nothing is guaranteed to keep you from developing diastasis recti during pregnancy, you aren’t helpless or hopeless. Now you know what you can do.

Develop habits of engaging your core safely and eating well. Be smart when you exercise and avoid putting too much pressure on your abs.

And then if you end up with diastasis recti anyways, be kind to yourself and be patient. Exercise in the ways you can and give your body the nutrients it needs.

Your body was designed to work and it was designed to heal itself when it doesn’t. All you have to do is give it the tools it needs to do its job and trust the process.

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE:

9 Exercises to Prevent Tearing During Birth

6 Exercises to Prepare Your Body for Labor

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