In case you didn't already admire Kelly Rowland (award-winning singer, actress, and mother), she just added "author" to her résumé. Rowland's new book, Whoa, Baby! A Guide for New Moms Who Feel Overwhelmed and Freaked Out (and Wonder What the #*@& Just Happened) is a #realtalk tell-all about the surprising, scary, and wonderful things that happen to your mind and body post-pregnancy. Her mission: Dispell the mystery around the gross physical stuff, the hormonal and emotional stuff, and the just plain weird stuff that goes down after you pop a baby out, using the expertise of Tristan Emily Bickman, M.D., Rowland's ob-gyn.
And just because she's a celeb doesn't mean she's not going there: "We had the best, most naked conversations," she says. "You've never heard the word vagina so much as you do in this book."
One of the biggest post-baby surprises that Rowland encountered: a condition called diastasis recti. It happens when the right and left sides of your rectus abdominous muscle (your abs) separate, says Evelyn Hecht, P.T., president of EMH Physical Therapy in New York City and creator of the Pelvic Track app. The two sides are connected by fascia (connective tissue). During pregnancy, as your uterus begins to grow, ligaments and joints—including fascia—become super mobile, and the gap between your right and left abdominals widens to make room for the baby, says Hecht. (Rowland isn't the only one—even elite runners like this woman can develop DR.)
"I wanted to tell women about my challenge with diastasis recti and the fact that I still have it," says Rowland, whose son Titan Jewell Witherspoon is 2 years old now. "Every day I work hard to try to pull my abs together, and I actually have some back problems now because I didn't know my core wasn't as tight as it was before I had the baby."
For the record, her abs look damn good—so whatever she's doing must be working. But the reality is, DR affects tons of women; as many as 60 percent of women report DR six weeks after giving birth to their first child, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Almost one-third of the women studied still reported DR an entire year after giving birth. And this isn't about vanity or having selfie-worthy abs; the wider the gap between the two sides of your abs, the less stable your core is, says Hecht. These muscles and connective tissue also help protect all your internal organs, says Patricia Friberg, certified pilates instructor and creator of the Belly Beautiful Workout pre- and post-natal exercise program.
Try this test: Lie faceup on the floor with feet flat and knees pointing toward the ceiling. Using your pointer and middle finger, press the two fingertips into your abs one inch below your belly button. Roll your head and shoulders up into a mini crunch, and feel for the two sides of your abs. There should only be one to two finger-widths between them. A gap of more than two finger-widths could be a sign of DR, says Hecht.
You can prevent diastasis recti during pregnancy by maintaining the strength of your pelvic floor and transverse abdominis (the deepest muscles in your core) because they work in tandem, says Hecht. Try standing with a tall, neutral spine, then inhaling and engaging your pelvic floor muscles. Exhale for five seconds, drawing your core in as if you're zipping up a tight pair of jeans. (More kegel tips here.)
When it comes to dealing with DR post-pregnancy, there are a few things you can try to get your core back to tip-top shape. The easiest—and something that Rowland is super into—is eerily similar to the Kardashian-endorsed waist trainer. "A girlfriend of mine, La La Anthony, she's Puerto Rican and her mom put this belly band on her as soon as she has a baby and she's like, 'Oh no, in the Latin community, all the women do this to keep their weight,'" says Rowland. "I'm like, this is freaking genius."
But unlike the waist trainer, this isn't just hype. Belly bands or compressive undergarments can help pull the pelvic floor up and the abdominals together, especially in the early stages of healing, says Hecht.
"Using a belly band of some sort splint postnatal can also be helpful in bringing that area back together, but it also provides support for the abdomen and back," says Friberg.
You can also strengthen your transverse abdominis, core, and pelvic floor—but not with your usual go-to abs moves. "I found out that certain exercises I was doing were actually making it worse," says Rowland. Steer clear of planks, oblique twists, and reverse crunches (lying on the floor, your lowering legs), says Hecht. Progressive exercises like bent-knee fall-outs, heel slides, and good old-fashioned squats are great for stabilizing your core, says Hecht.
If you think you have DR, though, you should hit up your ob-gyn; and consider seeing a pelvic physical therapist, so you can get your core safely back to kickass status (and maybe six-pack status, if you're Rowland).