A word of advice to all women, childbearing and otherwise: you aren’t doing your core any favors by sucking in your belly. Sound counter-intuitive? After birth, you may be eager to reconnect with your core, and you may wish you could hide the baby weight around your middle, which can feel like a bowl of jelly after pregnancy. The reality, however, is that your core needs you to engage it in small, conscious steps more than ever.

Here’s why sucking in your belly literally sucks.

Though when I say “core” you may think “abs,” there’s a lot more to it. There are actually multiple layers of muscles that help you get through your day: the rectus abdominis (the abs), the linea alba (the dense band of midline tissue that connects the abs), the internal and external obliques, and the transversus abdominis, which is the deepest core muscle layer.

This last one is crucial. Imagine it as a corset that provides foundational support for your trunk – and the rest of your body. Even when you aren’t pregnant or postpartum, the transversus abdominis is a crucial postural muscle that doesn’t get enough press compared to the “six pack.” But it also takes a bit of a vacation during pregnancy, so it has trouble communicating with the other core muscles after birth.

Here’s what happens when you suck in your stomach all day: the transversus abdominis doesn’t get the chance to move; and without the ability to both contract and relax, it can’t effectively work with your diaphragm, your pelvic floor, and your back muscles. Keeping the transversus rigid displaces its responsibility to those other muscles, which may already be weakened from childbirth.

So what should you do instead? Easy does it. Here are 4 things you can do to help get your tummy back in shape.

  1. Re-learn to breathe. We all breathe without really thinking about it, but believe it or not, many of us spend our lives taking breaths that are too shallow, which can have serious effects on our health (mental and physical). Why does it matter for your core and pelvic floor? Because every time you take a deep breath, your pelvic floor and core muscles are also working properly. So place your right hand on your left side ribcage, and the left hand on your right shoulder and take a deep breath. When you inhale, you should feel your ribs and belly expand out, and shoulders should move minimally. If not, you’ll likely need to retrain yourself to breathe.
  2. Sit properly. Good posture when sitting can do wonders to your core. The key here is to sit straight. So take your back off of the backrest, and sit on your sitz bones instead of your coccyx, also known as your tailbone. This will move your pelvis forward and will allow your core muscles to keep your body upright.
  3. Avoid planks and crunches, as your transversus abdominis isn’t yet strong enough to handle such exercises and will therefore cause you to rely on other muscles that also aren’t ready. This is how we run into problems such as diastisis recti, hip and back pain, prolapse, and pesky pee leaks.
  4. Small, intentional movements are often healthier than big, visual ones. Consider taking a class with a physical therapist who specializes in pre- and postpartum core work, or work with a pelvic floor therapist in your area. And remember: it’s never too late to rehabilitate your core from the inside out.