Abdominal separation: The pregnancy side effect we don’t hear enough about

November 14, 2014

Jackie Steele from Body Beyond Birth shares her experience with abdominal separation after giving birth to her twins and how, with help, she was able to retighten her belly.

Abdominal separation… argh.

Earlier this year, Becky Dyer wrote an article here on The Glow about how to avoid an abdominal separation, which caused a lot of intrigue – so I thought I’d give you my personal account of what happens if you do actually get one.

(Ed’s note: For those who are just catching up – abdominal separation occurs when the stomach muscles separate during pregnancy or during labour and delivery. It’s quite common and can occur in 2/3 of pregnancies.)

Let me go back a little… When I was pregnant with my first son, I had never even heard of an abdominal separation. It wasn’t until after I’d given birth that the physio running my Pilates class asked if I’d been checked for one. She explained to me what it was and my eyes nearly popped out of my head.

I kept everything crossed that I didn’t have a separation, as it sounded absolutely awful and painful as all hell. I had images of a tummy being busted open and just remaining flabby and lose forever. How could a person function with that?

So I lay on the floor with my eyes shut, praying that I wouldn’t have a separation. The physio felt around my tummy and checked me. There was a long pause, and… yay! I didn’t have any separation. I was so relieved. I felt confident I’d get myself back into shape, no problems at all.

Fast forward 3 years when I was pregnant with twins. I was very aware of what an abdominal separation was. The thing was, my twins were healthy – very healthy. I knew when I was about 20 weeks that my tummy was going to get bigger than I could have ever imagined. By around 30 weeks it was feeling huge, very tight and I started to feel a pain down the middle of my tummy. It was an unusual feeling – tight and just uncomfortable.

As my pregnancy progressed, that tightness and pain seemed to occur more frequently, particularly if any pressure was placed on my abdominals – like when I was standing up from a low seat or getting up out of the car and needed to use my abdominals to help me stand up. By the end of my pregnancy, I looked like a Swiss ball on legs. From behind you couldn’t really tell I was pregnant (apparently), but if I turned around quickly, I could knock you over with my tummy from the other side of the room.

At that stage, the tight pain I’d felt down the centre of my tummy really didn’t go away. I knew for sure that my abdominal muscles had separated – it was just a matter of how far. At the time I didn’t really care too much – I really loved being pregnant.

The twins were born at 3kg each and my obstetrician estimated my muscles had to stretch one metre to accommodate them. One metre – can you believe that?

I felt very different after having the twins than when I had my first son. It just felt like my tummy muscles were asleep and weren’t responding to anything I’d ask them to do. It seemed like when I lay on my back, my abdominals would just flop and lay on either side of the bed next to me. Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, but it truly felt weird.

The moment of truth finally arrived when Becky said she’d check my separation. She confirmed that I had one… but then paused. Becky had one hand as she would normally do, on my stomach to measure my separation. She felt around for a little while, paused, felt a little more and then leaned across to put her other hand on my tummy. I knew this wasn’t good – she had to use both of her hands to measure my separation.

I’d totally prepared myself for the fact that I had separation but I had not prepared myself for how big it would actually be. After what seemed like an eternity, I was told my separation was eight centimetres. Yes – eight centimetres! Nothing could prepare me for that.

I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever recover from this without surgery. There were so many things that I couldn’t do for safety reasons and at the risk of hurting my abdominal muscles even further, so I just couldn’t imagine how I was going to work out effectively to restore my body. Luckily, Becky helped me by talking me through my whole body mechanics and what was going on.

It was so important to know how to lift things properly, to get out of bed safely, to breastfeed with good posture, how to get off the lounge – so many methods to help prevent my separation from worsening and give me a chance to recover. Any movement that caused my tummy to “dome” was a big no no. Becky said it was my body telling me to “stop” or “don’t forget to activate your core”.

The other key thing for me was doing safe exercises, which were prescribed by Becky to specifically improve my core strength and zip up my abdominals and draw them back together. By sticking to the plan, I gradually started to feel better, and like I could function as a normal person again. Eventually I could even lift my twin stroller in and out of the car, which was kind of important if I ever wanted to get out of the house.

Finally, after a number of months, Becky measured my separation again – it was almost non-existent. I asked her to repeat that as I thought I’d been hearing things. I really couldn’t believe it.

I’ve had a lot of people ask if I did 20 minutes of exercise every single day to achieve these results. My answer to that is “hell no”. Of course, I have the best of intentions and plan to work out on most days, but some days it just doesn’t happen. I made a commitment to myself though – even if I couldn’t do a 20 minute workout or fit my cardio in, I would always do five or 10 minutes of something most days. Five minutes of something is better than five minutes of nothing. Even if it’s just a few core exercises or some stretches, it’s important just to keep the habit up of doing a little of something each day.

If you’re reading this and you’re pregnant, or thinking of having a baby, I hope I haven’t frightened you. The purpose of sharing my story is to let you know there is help out there to help heal and re-strengthen your post pregnancy body – improving not just how you look, but how your body feels and functions.

The main thing is to get solid advice from the experts and ensure you exercise safely. Don’t be hard on yourself or wonder why you haven’t bounced back into shape like some of the celebrities we see in magazines. We are all different, and we all have different stories and challenges. Listen to your body and take small steps to achieving your long-term goals.