The goal of this blog is to demystify the changes in your post baby body. There is a lot of pressure in today’s society to lose weight after your baby’s born. And maybe that’s the right answer for you. But maybe it’s not, too. Every woman is different, and so is every woman’s story.
The general consensus is that 5-9 lbs (or 11-16 kg) of fat gained during pregnancy is necessary for delivery and breastfeeding. This is not an amount of fat that generally shows itself in a woman’s face, arms, or legs. If you feel like any of these parts of you are larger than you prefer, then losing weight might be your ticket.
But what if the issue is your belly? A pregnant woman’s belly goes through so many changes. How do you tell what’s behind the shape of your post baby belly? Belly shape can reflect changes to the skin, fascia, fat, or muscle. Let’s take a closer look at these. Then, we’ll find a way to know what’s behind the shape of YOUR belly.
The skin of your post baby body
When you look at your belly, the first thing you see is skin. Most likely, it’s different after growing those little loves of your life. The skin of pregnant ladies gets mega stretched out. Sometimes, it goes back to its previous self, and sometimes, it doesn’t. A lot of this has to do with genetics. Having multiple babies at once, having multiple consecutive babies, or gaining a substantial amount of weight can all influence this. In these cases, the skin just goes through more mechanical stress.
(There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that their magic potion for pregnant bellies or their unique diet are the answer for their beautiful belly skin, but there just isn’t research currently to back this up. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t eat well or keep yourself moisturized. It’s just to say that none of the magic tricks are backed by science.)
When skin gets stretched too far, it loses some of its elasticity. This will cause it to look wrinkly, like a balloon that’s been inflated for a while and then deflated. In a similar way, when growth happens especially fast, the skin can’t keep up. This is when stretch marks occur. With stretch marks, the middle layer of skin literally tears to allow for the rapid growth. Initially, stretch marks appear like pink stripes, but over time, they fade to a white or silver color.
Fascia and the belly of your post baby body
Under your skin is a layer of tissue that is less familiar to most people. You can think of fascia like the stringy, shiny, white stuff when you’re cutting up raw chicken. In the simplest terms, fascia is what connects skin to muscle.
If you see signs that your body experienced growth at a pace that your skin couldn’t keep up with, then it’s likely there was a certain amount of trauma to your fascia as well. This means that the skin isn’t as closely tied to the underlying layers anymore, and this translates into the fact that you probably won’t be able to see as much definition in your abs, no matter what you do.
This does NOT mean your abs can’t have amazing FUNCTION or that you won’t see any tone in your abs at all. It just means you might not see as much as you deserve for the effort that you put in.
Like skin, unfortunately, you can’t entirely reverse damage to fascia through conservative methods. Although you CAN see substantial improvements by learning to load your fascia well. (For more information, this article addresses how muscles influence belly shape and fascia. And this one covers the effects of abdominal separation on fascia.)
Belly fat after babies
Our bodies are genetically predisposed to distribute fat in certain places. You can’t change this. The first places to gain are generally the last to lose. Unlike skin or fascia, fat can change the shape of your belly. Fat can make your belly protrude. It can make you look like you’re still pregnant.
The solution to this is usually nutrition. (But hormones can play a factor too. If nutrition doesn’t seem to do it for you, be sure to get a professional to check for other factors.) There are a lot of different nutrition plans out there, and different ones work for different people. As with most things, consistency matters. A lot.
If you need help, go to an expert. Find a qualified dietician who understands your problems and can help you find the right solutions for your body.
The muscles of your post baby bod
Let’s take a minute to think about muscles that are familiar, like the ones in an arm or leg. When these muscles see little use, they tend to have a softer appearance with less definition and more squishiness. On the other hand, when arm or leg muscles are used often, they tend to be firmer with more definition.
The same thing is true of all of your muscles, including your abdominals. During pregnancy, there are a lot of muscles that end up underused or weakened for a variety of reasons. As an example, because of the stretching that abdominals endure, they consequently lose strength throughout a pregnancy. But a similar thing can also happen with muscles we are less likely to consider. These might include the diaphragm, pelvic floor, or hips to name a few.
Consequently, a postpartum belly has a very different appearance and softness than either a pregnant or pre-baby belly. The loss in abdominal strength is part of the reason for this (as are changes in skin, fascia, and body fat). But changes in other muscle groups and their influence on the abdominals should not be overlooked. Belly shape is not reflective of abdominal function alone.
You can find more details here about which muscles need to work together for a flatter belly and how they do it.
In the meantime, let’s wrap things up with 3 simple tests to help you understand what’s going on with your belly and how it affects your post baby body.
3 simple tests to understand your post baby body
1. The Pinch Test
Pinch your belly. Seriously. Pinch it all over.
Start by pinching the tiniest bit of skin and pulling it away from your body. If it feels like it’s tethered to something underneath of it and it doesn’t go very far, this is a pretty good indication that the fascia is still intact. If you pinch it and you can pull it away from the rest of your body for quite a ways, this is generally indicative of damage to your fascia. The degree that your skin pulls away is generally correlated with the amount of damage to your fascia. More pulling = more damage.
Try different places on your belly. If you’re not sure if you’re pulling a lot or a little, compare it to a different part of your body—like your forearm. Just make sure that you pinch the tiniest bit of skin that you can.
Now, pinch as deep as you can. As much as you can pinch. Is it an inch? A handful? This is your fat. If you can grab a big ol’ handful of belly fat in the front—or wherever your belly protrudes—that’s likely at least part of your issue. But if there isn’t much to pinch, then fat is not likely to blame.
You should now have a decent understanding of your skin, your fascia, and your fat. The last two tests will help you understand how your muscles affect your post baby body.
2. The Picture Test
Strip down to a level at which you feel comfortable. Think sports bra and shorts or a fitted shirt, if you’re just not feeling it. Balance your camera somewhere so that it gets a good lens-full of your torso—shoulders to hips or head to toe, either will do. Then, set the timer and go stand in front of it. Be sure to stand sideways, feet 90 degrees to the camera, and let it take your picture in profile.
In this picture you have just taken, you want to pay attention to 2 key points.
- Is there an excessive curve at the small of your back? In the picture above, the two women on the ends of the picture have relatively flat backs. On the other hand, the woman in the middle has a greater curve in her lower back. There are a lot of varieties of normal, but the woman in the middle stands in a similar way to a pregnant woman. Is this how you stand?
- Is your rib cage balanced on top of your pelvis? This discussion can go into a lot more depth, but let’s look at the woman above on the right. Her rib cage is actually shifted behind her pelvis. This is also an issue.
Basically, the two points above address your posture. Although you may have heard otherwise, posture is not really good or bad. Instead, it is a matter of more of less effective. When the spine curves excessively or the rib cage has shifted relative to the pelvis, it changes the ability of muscles to contract.
As an example, if you stand with your belly protruded in front of you, then you keeps your abs on a stretch all the time. Muscles cannot get a good contraction when they are too stretched out. Just like a pregnant woman can’t get a great contraction of her abs, neither can any other woman standing with her belly poked out in front of her.
The answer to this situation is to address your posture.
3. The Load Test
This last test looks at how you a manage load, or what happens when the need for stability increases.
First, find something relatively heavy—a kettlebell, a jug of milk or laundry detergent—but preferably something you can pick up with one-hand. Next, stand with a hand on your belly. Take a moment to notice what it feels like. Now, pick up your heavy item.
What do you feel with the hand on your belly? When you add a load, does your belly draw inward away from your hand? Or does it press outward into your hand? Maybe, nothing at all?
Now, move that load out in front of you, away from your body. What does your belly do?
For every task that we perform, our brain coordinates which muscles are recruited. It determines which ones need to help with the task and what order they should contract. This coordination can be thrown off for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, previous injury, lifestyle, even genetic factors.
You are still able to perform the task, but you may have lost some of your efficiency. In some cases, this never matters. In others, it is a compensation that can result in injury or other unwanted issues over time.
So, if you had beautiful posture in test #2, but your belly moves outward under a load, you have an issue with this coordination in your brain. It might not be a problem with your strength at all. Instead, it is the way your brain orchestrates a particular movement. To change it, you have to rewire the pattern in your brain.
Is weight loss right for you?
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what your post baby body has endured. There is so much pressure on women to bounce back postpartum. But the process of becoming a mother would be better described as a transition. You will not have the same body as before babies because it has a new experience. But neither will you always have the body that exists in the first weeks or months after delivery.
It is entirely possible to be in love with your new baby, to be proud of what your body accomplished, and to still want something more for yourself. You don’t have to aspire to anyone else’s ideal, but hopefully, if you’re coming from a place of self-improvement, you now have a better understanding of what you want to improve.
If weight loss is the right answer for you, focus your attention on nutrition. This is 70-80% of the battle. Exercise matters far less. But if weight loss isn’t your issue, know that your skin, fascia, and muscles have also been through a lot of changes. If you need to address your posture or the coordination of your muscles, you can find all of this information and more in my Mama Made Strong program. You can even try it out for free.