How can new mums get their taut tummy back after giving birth?
Cheryl (not her real name) worked her guts out at the gym six days a week, went on a strict diet and paid close to $40,000 for non-surgical abdomen shaping treatments.
But, the 35-year-old mum of two still couldn’t get rid of her flabby belly – the result of two pregnancies. So Cheryl, who gained 30kg during her first pregnancy, went under the knife to get her pre-baby waistline back.
During the procedure, plastic surgeon Chua Jun Jin from Mount Elizabeth Hospital tightened the loose tummy muscles to create a narrower, shapely midriff and removed over 1kg of excess skin from her belly.
“My babies were huge, each weighing around 4.5kg at birth. The pregnancies stretched out my skin so much that after delivery, my saggy belly would fold over my C-section scar. I went into depression for a while because of it,” Cheryl says.
Loose skin after pregnancy
As much as new mums love their babies, the same can’t be said about their post-baby pooches. Cue the desperate attempts at using exercise, diets, creams, massages and wraps to squash “mummy tummy”.
But plastic surgeons say these methods or other home remedies usually don’t work on loose skin. In Cheryl’s case, a nip and tuck is what’s needed.
“Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to tighten loose skin other than by surgery. Other skin tightening techniques can only minimally tighten the skin,” says Professor Walter Tan, a specialist in plastic surgery and consultant at Raffles Skin and Aesthetics.
During pregnancy, your skin stretches to accommodate your growing baby.
Skin sags when collagen fibres rupture as it overstretches, giving rise to stretch marks, Prof Tan explains.
“When this happens, the skin can no longer shrink back after delivery and mums will have much looser skin than before,” he says.
Most women will experience some degree of loose skin after pregnancy. A few unlucky ones are left with an extensive amount of loose skin and even an overhanging “skin apron” above underwear, Dr Chua says.
Whether your skin bounces back or succumbs to gravity after pregnancy depends a lot on genes.
Those who gain a lot of weight during pregnancy, have large babies or multiples, tend to suffer more damage to their skin, adds Prof Tan.
While exercise and sensible eating may help you lose weight and excess belly fat, they won’t fix saggy skin, the doctors say.
The bad news doesn’t end there.
Pregnancy usually stretches out and separates your six-pack abdominal muscles, too.
“No matter how many crunches you do, the solid six-pack will never form again. In some mums, the separation of the muscles is so bad that they have an abdominal hernia bulging outwards.
“One of my patients looked like she was still nine months pregnant several months after delivering her twin babies,” Dr Chua says.
A hernia is a medical condition whereby an organ pushes through the muscles that are supposed to hold it in place.
But fitness trainers beg to differ
Pre- and post-natal fitness trainer Gladys Leong, who has three kids, says maintaining a toned flab-free body after pregnancy has “everything to do with diet and exercise”.
For example, taking too much sugary food can speed up ageing due to a process called glycation. This is when the sugar damages proteins in the blood, making the person more vulnerable to skin damage and premature wrinkles, she explains.
Certified personal trainer Kareen Lai, founder of Mums In Sync, says: “I won’t deny that surgery will give mums a taut tummy, but the results probably won’t last if they don’t change their lifestyles or maintain their weight.”
On the other hand, she says studies show that regular exercise can help improve the skin’s elasticity and pliability.
“How good your skin is also depends on how hydrated the soft tissues are, but keeping them well-hydrated isn’t just about drinking water.
“In reality, the more you move, the more hydrated, elastic and healthier your skin will be,” Kareen shares.
But this works only with long-term, consistent effort. Weight loss after having a baby should be gradual so the skin has time to “catch up”, she adds.
“We’re talking about a two- to three-year weight-loss time frame, not a two- to three-month type of magic.
“With this type of slow and steady weight loss, I’ve seen extremely overweight people acquire an ultra marathon-type of physique, minus the saggy skin,” says Kareen, who has two kids.
(Also read: Why this Singapore mum ran a marathon while pregnant)
Going for tummy tuck
But that did not work for Cheryl.
“Everyone said it takes time for the skin to contract after pregnancy, so I waited.
“But even after I lost my pregnancy weight through exercise and dieting, and tried other non-invasive methods, my tummy remained terribly saggy,” says Cheryl, who is now confident enough to don a bikini and midriff-bearing tops after going under the knife.
“In hindsight, I shouldn’t have wasted so much time and money, and gone straight for a tummy tuck instead.”
While surgery might offer quick results, obstetrician and gynaecologist Christopher Ng of GynaeMD Women’s and Rejuvenation Clinic, says it should only be used when other non-invasive forms of treatments have failed, or in severe cases of loose skin.
(Also read: Liposuction after pregnancy: Should you do it?)
“Surgery is invasive and has its risks, such as wound infections and death, so this should certainly not be the first line of treatment,” he says.
“It should also be offered once a woman has completed her family, as all the ‘hard work’ would be undone by the next pregnancy.”
It is a myth that “lifting” creams can tighten loose skin after pregnancy, says Dr Chua.
“If you apply them after delivery, it is already too late. Creams can never penetrate the whole layer of skin and can only improve the superficial texture,” he shares.
What you should do to reduce skin damage is to frequently apply moisturiser to common stretch mark areas – tummy, breasts, thighs, buttocks and arms – as soon as you know you’re pregnant.
The first few weeks of pregnancy are the most important.
(Also read: 3 stretching exercises you should do after pregnancy)