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Why do I still look pregnant?
You may be very surprised by the way your tummy looks after birth. Even though your baby is out, you may still have a round, squishy midsection that makes you look like you're six months pregnant.
Many women also have a dark line down their abdomen (called a linea nigra and a web of stretch marks, which are actually little scars caused by the extensive stretching of skin. Those who had a c-section have surgical scars to contend with as well.
It takes time for your body – especially your belly – to fully recover from pregnancy. Imagine your abdomen as a balloon, slowly inflating as your baby grows. Childbirth doesn't pop the balloon; it just starts a slow leak. But don't worry – it's a steady one.
From the moment your baby is born, hormonal changes cause your uterus to contract, shrinking it back to its pre-pregnancy state. It takes six to eight weeks for your uterus to return to its normal size.
All the cells in your body that swelled during pregnancy begin to release the extra fluid, which is eliminated from your body through urine, vaginal secretions, and sweat.
And the extra fat you put on to nourish the baby starts burning off (especially if you're nursing and exercising). But it takes at least a few weeks to notice results.
Stretch marks and the linea nigra, however, endure longer. The good news is that stretch marks usually become considerably less noticeable six to 12 months after you have your baby. Their pigmentation fades and they typically become lighter than the surrounding skin (the color will vary depending on your skin color), but their texture will remain the same. The dark color of the linea nigra will gradually fade over a year, but that too may not completely disappear.
How long will it take for my belly to shrink back to normal?
We've all heard stories of new moms whose tummies are tight and flat immediately after giving birth. Although this does happen, it's rare. For most women it takes months to get rid of the "pregnancy pouch" – and sometimes it never goes away entirely.
Patience is key. It took nine months for your abdomen to stretch to accommodate a full-term baby, so it makes sense that it would take at least that long to tighten back up.
The speed and degree of this transition depends largely on your normal body size, how much weight you gained during pregnancy, how active you are, and your genes. Women who gained less than 30 pounds and exercised regularly during pregnancy, who breastfeed, and who have had only one child are more likely to slim down quickly.
If you're not breastfeeding, you'll need to watch how much you're eating in order to lose pregnancy weight. You need fewer calories now that you're not pregnant. (See our Diet for Healthy Post-Baby Weight Loss and Diet for a Healthy Breastfeeding Mom.)
What can I do to make my belly look better?
Breastfeeding helps, especially in the early months after childbirth. Women who breastfeed burn extra calories to make milk, so they usually lose pregnancy weight more quickly than women who don't nurse.
Nursing also triggers contractions that help shrink the uterus, making it a workout for the whole body. But many breastfeeding moms say they have trouble losing the last 5 to 10 pounds.
Some experts speculate that the body retains these extra fat stores to aid in milk production. Science hasn't yet answered this question definitively. See our poll on whether breastfeeding helps you lose weight to learn what other nursing moms experienced.
Exercise also helps. Whether it's a stroll around the block or a postpartum yoga class, physical activity tones stomach muscles and burns calories. A rigorous exercise regimen that includes an aerobic workout and movements that focus on the abdomen can work wonders. (But before starting an exercise routine, make sure your body is ready.)
Some baby bulges require more effort. In some women, the left and right side of the muscle that covers the front surface of the belly can separate, a condition called diastasis recti. This is more likely to happen if you've been pregnant more than once.
It isn't painful, and often the only signs of the condition early in pregnancy are extra skin and soft tissue in front of the stomach wall. In later months, the top of the pregnant uterus can sometimes be seen bulging out of the stomach wall. Your doctor can tell you whether you have this condition and suggest exercises to fix it after your baby is born.
Is it okay to go on a diet?
If you gained a lot of weight during pregnancy, losing some of those pounds can help reduce your belly. A low-calorie diet can help you lose weight, but give nature and exercise time to work first. Wait at least six weeks – and preferably a few months – before cutting back on calories, especially if you're nursing.
Women need 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight. To lose about a pound a week, cut out 500 calories a day either by decreasing your food intake or increasing your activity level. Losing more than a pound a week may make you feel fatigued and negatively affect your mood.
Don't go on a severe diet – rapid weight loss affects your ability to breastfeed. Extreme dieting puts your body in starvation mode, and the stress and fatigue reduces the amount of milk you produce. Also, when you diet too much, you may not eat enough nutrient-rich foods, which means your baby may not get all the fat and vitamins she needs from your breast milk.