Note: This page contains free excerpts from my upcoming book on postpartum recovery! Enjoy!
What’s so great about Belly Binding?
Belly Binding is the best first step you can take for yourself postpartum. It’s one of those things that seems gimmicky and ridiculous — “what, I’m just going to wrap my abs and they’ll go flat? SURRrrre…” — but it really does work.
Or, to put it more accurately, belly binding is the best first step you can take to get back to having flat abdominals.
Anthropological record shows that mothers across time have ritually bound the abdominal area after childbirth to provide external support to the posture and to compress the abdominals to heal the muscles and help involute (shrink) the uterus back to its pre-pregnant size.
Outside of the English-speaking world, belly-binding occurs with regular frequency. See the “history” section below.
Whether you have had a C-section or a vaginal birth with or without complications, belly binding makes all kinds of sense.
After childbirth, the muscles of the abdomen are extremely lax. They’ve been trained to hold something about the size of a watermelon, and now suddenly that watermelon is gone.
The danger here is that the spine relies on the coordination of the core musculature to hold a person up. So when half of those muscles suddenly don’t function well (or at all!), back pain and dysfunction generally result.
Worse, when the abdominals are left to their own devices right after birth, they start repairing themselves right into that permanent mommy tummy position.
If you don’t teach a wild muscle how to be civilized, it will do whatever it finds easiest and most convenient. So when you breastfeed or bottle feed your newborn for all of those long hours, well beyond the current capacity of your core to support you, you will in effect be further training your abdominals to persist in that dysfunctional and unattractive dome shape.
(Keep an eye on that word “training”; my goal is to get you to think about it a lot!)
So the idea of belly binding is to provide the external structure that the abdominals currently aren’t capable of providing.
In addition, the core needs encouragement knitting back together correctly, particularly if the mother delivered via C-section. There’s no better way to train muscles to sit properly than to pair mechanical placement of the muscles (i.e. gentle constriction) with consistent targeted exercise, which will be covered in later chapters.
Doesn’t not using a muscle make it weaker?
That’s a great question, one I get often from fit moms with great intentions.
It may help to think of it in terms of a temporary support, much like you would wear after a sprained ankle. The wrap helps those ligaments and muscles that have been very stretched have some support while they heal and contract.
Binding doesn’t weaken the muscles. Rather, belly-binding supports the muscles while they move back into place.
Without the support, the muscles are constantly trying to contract against gravity in a weakened state. The wrap allows them to regain their strength within the protection of the binding.
One night of spasming muscles that have been left to drop in the now empty space after delivery will be enough to convince any doubter that there are good reasons for providing external support to the body during recovery.
Which Belly Binder?
The theory is sound! Now, which one should you buy?
There are so many options out there. Many women swear by the Belly Bandit (especially since Kourtney Kardashian reportedly wore one after her delivery), while some others prefer the smoother construction of the Squeem.
You can also go with the “medical grade” abdominal binders that run upwards of $150. They probably work pretty well, but I didn’t use one like that and I don’t know anybody who has — particularly when there are cheaper models that work perfectly well.
My experience: I bought a cheap one at a local, just to have SOMETHING holding me together, but the binding-ness of what I bought left much to be desired. I wasn’t trying to have a celebrity body right out of the gate, I was just trying to FEEL more put-together, and the cheap-o option wasn’t cutting it.
I wound up using the Squeem, just like this feisty mother of twins:
Can you believe that’s 5 months postpartum?! (Wait until the end of the video when she does the big reveal.) I’m not sure I can believe it. But don’t let that stop you from giving belly-binding a try. Her results may not be typical, but there’s no way she’d have those results without using this tool.
What I like is what Twinpossible here likes — that the Spanx fits seamlessly under clothing and it spans the entire abdomen.
I mean, seriously, what’s with the belly binders that only get you from the belly button down? You’re going to want a belly binder that covers you “from stem to stern”.
And by the way, it is absolutely better to have SOMETHING than nothing at all. Go get the cheap-o from Target if that’s all you have, but for goodness sakes’, get that tummy bound right away. You’ll astound your OB with how much more quickly you’re recovering than your fellow mamas.
What about after a C-Section?
If you had a Caesarian, you’re going to need and possibly even desire the support of a belly binding garment right after delivery. Your incision will heal more quickly and you may also find that the pain and instability around the surgery will be alleviated while you are belly binding:
I had an emergency c section a few days before my planned c-section and wore the Belly Bandit afterwards. The pain in that area was simply unreal and the compression of the band relieved it. I could stand up straight without pain which was the most important thing to me. I hated walking around the house bowled over in constant pain. –Sarah, mother of twins
Make Your OWN Belly Binder
If you want to go the DIY route, find a light but sturdy piece of fabric — something that breathes — whose width is approximately more than the distance between the top of your pubic bone and the bottom of your sternum. You want it to cover your two lower ribs with the top of the wrap, and you probably want to have some extra material to fold over, so that the edges don’t cut into your skin.
Place one end of the wrap on the small of your back. Then wrap the fabric snugly around your abdomen as you gently contract your abdominals to pull them close to your spine. (If you are just out of delivery, don’t worry about contracting the abs yet.) Do NOT “suck in”.
Complete two full encirclements of the torso, and then, holding the wrap firmly, check what happens when you relax the abs.
- Does the abdomen bulge to where it was before you started wrapping? If so, start fresh, wrapping a little tighter.
- Is the abdomen pulled in so tight that you have skin folding over the edges of the fabric? If so, that’s a bit too tight, OR the placement of the wrap could stand some adjustment.
When you have found the ideal compression and placement for YOU, continue wrapping as evenly as possible for another one or two encirclements, using the last 6 inches of the wrap to tuck into the top of the back of the wrap.
For extra stay-put action, use an Ace bandage around the outside of your wrap. I do not recommend using an Ace bandage directly on the skin, as it tends to constrict unevenly and may prevent the skin from contracting nicely.
You’ll get better results if you have someone helping you wrap (say a partner, female relative, or midwife), because they’ll be able to pull it a little more snug from behind you.
If the wrap just doesn’t stay put or allows your abdomen to bulge a lot over time, consider buying a belly binder. They’re made for this!
(I wish I had a belly binder pattern for adept sewers, but I’m just not that handy. Maybe one of you handier ladies can help me out here?)
Too Proud to Bind?
I’ll admit it: I was almost too proud to wear a belly-binder. I think of myself as strong and athletic (side effect of a decade of martial arts training) and almost gave this practice a pass, thinking I could whip myself back in shape quickly.
But I gave it a second thought when I realized that weight lifters and construction workers wear wide support belts to support their back and core. When you look at the loads that powerlifters and other strength athletes can move, and then look at the associated strain on their midsections, you realize that for a postpartum woman to carry her 8-pound child around without injuring herself, in the face of having no functional strength there AT ALL, will require that same sort of external support.
The fact of the limitation of the transverse abdominus was thoroughly brought home for me by the wonderful Helene Byrne in her interview on the BioJacked podcast, in which she agrees that powerlifter loads and the pregnancy/postnatal cycle can be analogized.
(Link to podcast coming soon!)
History of Abdominal Binding
“Massage and binding is a traditional postpartum ritual practiced by the Maya women in the Yucatan. It is analogous to the American 6 week medical checkup and is the last duty of the midwife and symbolizes the mother’s return to normal life. If the massage and binding does not occur the postpartum woman is expected to have trouble breastfeeding her infant, lose weight, become pale, and suffer general debility… In the final stage of the massage process, another female relative (usually the mother-in-law) helps the midwife by laying the binder over the abdomen and passing the ends to each other under the small of her back. The binder is cinched around the pelvis as tightly as the woman can stand it.”
Fuller, Nancy and Brigitte Jordan. Maya Women and the End of the Birthing Period: Postpartum Massage-and-Binding in Yucatan, Mexico. Medical Anthropology, 5(1): 35-50, 1981
Hispanic Traditions & Pregnancy Post Partum
Immediately after the delivery of the placenta female relatives would rush to put on Faja, a band that is placed around the abdomen of the mother and baby. This band is thought to prevent herniation. For the first forty days post partum the mother and baby traditionally received total care from family. Diet changes included no green foods, cold foods, or beans because it was believed to cause colic and infection. Honey, rosemary tea, and chamomile tea were believed to help in the healing process. New mothers would often have other moms come and breastfeed their child. It was a common belief that colostrum was not sufficient and they w anted to ensure the baby had an adequate diet.
Moore, Julie. Transcultural Index. Hilo. 2006.
“During a confinement period, Hmong women also practice abdominal binding. This is an effort to bring the woman’s abdomen back to its normal shape. It also makes the woman feel more comfortable after eating because the abdomen does not become overly expanded. One woman explained:
‘You bind the tummy to help making the body feel tight… When you are pregnant the tummy gets bigger. You bind it so that the belly skin doesn’t fall down low…. If you don’t do that then with every meal that you eat and feel full your tummy will expand to the size that you were when you were pregnant…. When you eat and feel full your tummy will not be too big. You bind it to make you feel comfortable.’
Another woman explained:
‘You do it so that your tummy will not be big. If you don’t do it then with each child your tummy will be bigger and bigger and then you will not look good. If you want your tummy to be slim then you will tie your tummy up so that it will not look fat…. If you don’t do it then after one month your tummy will look big and not nice and you won’t like it.’
Rice, Pranee Liamputtong. Hmong Women and Reproduction. Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 2000.
“It is believed that during the hasi may heat gives back the strength and energy which is lost during delivery. Heat is believed to freshen the blood and to create new blood. Moreover, warmth relieves the pain suffered at the time of delivery. Warmth, too, is believed to be good for the ‘open stomach’ and to tighten the stomach again. For this, women also ‘bind the stomach’ with a cotton cloth tied around the underbelly ‘to get the stomach down and to close the open stomach again.’ Women explained that due to pregnancy their belly had expanded and by binding the stomach it would return to its normal shape. In addition, ‘the birth canal is open after delivery and should be closed again.’
The cotton cloth worn after delivery speeds up this process. Stomach binding is also believed to be good to get rid of waste blood.”
Makhlouf, Carla. Cultural Perspectives on Reproductive Health. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001.
“She must dress in a long-sleeved shirt, several lower garments, long socks if she can get some, a stomach binding cloth (to flatten the belly), and most importantly, a cloth turban or woolen hat to protect her head.”
Stott, Philip Anthony, ed. Nature and Man in South East Asia. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.
“Heated lime and lime juice was then applied to the abdomen, and the binding wrapped: Safiah, though, used alcohol spirit and wore a Western corset instead.”
Dundes, Lauren. The Manner Born: Birth Rites in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2003.