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24th February, 20216 min read

Postpartum belly – why it happens and what you can do about it

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Helen Prentice
Last reviewed: 23/02/2021
Medically reviewed

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When you have a baby, your body goes through all sorts of changes and it can take some time for you to feel comfortable in yourself again.

After giving birth (postpartum), it’s completely normal for your tummy to feel a bit ‘baggy’. After all, it’s where your growing baby lived for 9 months. During this time, your muscles stretched, and your belly will probably be bigger than it was before pregnancy.

So read on to learn more about ‘postpartum belly’, including why it happens, what you can do about it, possible complications and when to see a doctor.

What is a postpartum belly?

No matter how much you ate during pregnancy, your tummy will have grown to hold your baby. And you might still look pregnant for a while after you’ve had your baby.

Once your baby is born, changes in your hormones mean your post-birth (postpartum) belly will start to get smaller. But the process is slow and steady, rather than instant – a bit like a balloon with a tiny hole, gradually deflating.

It takes about 6 to 8 weeks for your womb (uterus) to go back to its pre-pregnancy size. Breastfeeding can help, because it makes your womb contract – in fact, it’s quite common to feel period-like cramps when you feed your baby.

You’ll also lose the extra fluid that builds up in your body during pregnancy, so any bloating will gradually disappear. And if you put on some extra weight during pregnancy, breastfeeding can also help you lose this, as it burns calories.

Your belly might still have a ‘linea nigra’ – a dark line of pigmentation where your tummy muscles have stretched – which should fade within a few months. Any stretch marks, caused by your skin stretching over your growing body, will also be less noticeable in time.

If you had a caesarean section to deliver your baby, it’s common to feel discomfort in your tummy for the first few days or weeks. You’ll need to take it easy and you may have to avoid certain activities, such as driving and exercising, for 6 weeks or so.

What is diastasis recti?

During pregnancy, the 2 muscles that run down the middle of your tummy may separate. This is known as ‘diastasis recti’ or ‘divarication’.

It happens because your growing womb pushes the muscles apart, lengthening and weakening them. How much they separate varies from person to person, but they’ll generally be back to normal before your baby is 8 weeks old.

To check the space between your tummy muscles after the birth, you can do this:

  • lie on your back, bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor
  • slightly raise your shoulders off the floor
  • look down at your tummy
  • feel between the edges of the muscles above and below your bellybutton using your fingertips
  • see how many fingers you can fit into the gap

It’s a good idea to check the gap regularly, to make sure it’s getting smaller.

If it’s still fairly obvious after 8 weeks, it’s worth speaking to your doctor. They may recommend some diastasis recti exercises, or refer you to a physiotherapist. This is to help you avoid any back problems caused by weakened muscles.

What can I do about my postpartum belly?

You may have seen photos of celebrity mums who are back to their pre-pregnancy shape within weeks of giving birth – but this isn’t what happens for most people.

Pregnancy and birth are big events and it can take time for your body to recover. There are some things that can help, though, including:

  • breastfeeding – it makes your womb contract and you burn calories making breast milk, so it can help you get in shape and lose weight
  • a healthy, balanced diet – you should eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day and plenty of fibre-rich foods such as oats, beans and grains, and avoid too many fatty or sugary foods such as biscuits, cakes or fast food
  • regular gentle exercise – such as a walking, an exercise class for new mums and special postnatal tummy and pelvic floor exercises

How long does it take to lose baby weight?

If you’re feeling impatient about the speed at which you’re losing baby weight, you’re not alone – many new mums feel the same.

But it’s worth reminding yourself that you’re looking after a newborn baby. This takes a lot of energy, and trying to lose weight too soon could actually slow down your recovery and make you feel even more tired.

So it’s a good idea to wait until after you’ve had your 6-week postnatal check (see below) before attempting to lose weight, if you’re keen to do so.

Generally, you should expect it to take about 6 months to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight.

When to see a doctor

You’ll usually have a postnatal check with your doctor at 6 to 8 weeks after giving birth. This will give you the chance to talk about your post-birth body, as well as to ask any other questions about your recovery or your baby.

If you notice any of these symptoms, however, you should contact your doctor, midwife or health visitor straight away:

  • fever and a sore or tender tummy
  • pain, swelling or redness in your legs
  • pain in your chest
  • sudden or very heavy blood loss from your vagina
  • headache, sickness and changes to your sight

These may be signs of an infection or condition that needs urgent treatment.

Key points

  • after having a baby, it’s normal for your tummy to take a while to get back to its pre-pregnancy size
  • it’s also common to have ‘diastasis recti’, where your 2 stomach muscles separate, but they usually close up within 8 weeks of the birth
  • breastfeeding makes your womb contract and burns calories
  • eating a healthy diet and doing gentle exercise (once you’re able to) are also important
  • it can take about 6 months to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight
  • if you’re concerned about your post-birth body, talk to your doctor at your postnatal check-up
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