Over the past few years, “pelvic floor” has become a common part of pre and postnatal discussions. And thank goodness it has! Our pelvic floor is hugely important and significantly impacted by pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. To put it simply – it deserves attention and support. Below are some helpful pelvic floor exercises and ways to support its health.
While most of us may have heard the term, many may not know the ins and outs of how our pelvic floor functions.
So what is our pelvic floor? And how can we support it?
The pelvic floor is a number of muscles that create a “hammock” at the base of our pelvis. They help to hold the pelvis together and connect the pelvis to the femur (thigh bone). They work against gravity to hold up the contents of the abdomen and control what comes out – and when!
Along with the transversus abdominis, multifidi, and diaphragm, the pelvic floor is considered part of the “Inner Core” or “True Core”. These muscle systems work together to stabilize the pelvis, lumbar spine, and rib cage when stress is placed on them… ummm, like during pregnancy or when carrying a newborn baby around.
During pregnancy, the weight of a growing uterus and baby puts a great deal of extra load on these pelvic floor muscles. The muscles often respond by working too hard or giving up and not working hard enough – typically a combination of both. Two of the most obvious and uncomfortable issues with a compromised pelvic floor are incontinence and hemorrhoids. A healthy pelvic floor can both contract and release well and is needed for a more comfortable pregnancy and possibly a better birth.
Important note: ALL pregnancies and all types of birth have an effect on your pelvic floor and how it functions! We believe that pelvic floor awareness lends itself to a better pregnancy, better birth, and better recovery.
Here are 5 ways to support your pelvic floor and pelvic floor exercises
1. Find your pelvic floor
It can be quite tricky to become aware of your pelvic floor and what it’s doing! Here are a few tricks to help you become more aware of what’s going on:
This might seem like TMI (although, once you’ve given birth and taken care of a baby, what really is TMI?!), but what happens when you go to the bathroom? Notice that when you sit/squat there is a sense of release and there’s not usually much extra effort required to urinate or have a bowel movement. That’s your pelvic floor releasing! Notice what happens when you finish – that tightening, closing, slight lift? That’s your pelvic floor contracting.
You can also garner awareness by using feedback from a rolled towel. Roll up a towel and put it lengthwise between your legs. Use diaphragmatic breathing (see point #2 below) and see if you can feel your pelvic floor muscles moving down and toward the towel on the inhale, and lifting up and away on the exhale. Take the towel away after a few minutes and see if this gives you more awareness too.
2. Find your breath
But don’t hold it! Think of your torso like a large water balloon. Uneven pressure put on your torso from “bracing” the abdominals in or holding one’s breath means that there is no longer even support for the balloon and the pressure needs to go somewhere. Often, it goes down onto your pelvic floor!
Knowing how to breathe properly and effectively, especially during exertion (such as moving a baby through a pelvis, and carrying around a growing baby) is exceptionally important (See point #4 for some exercise guidelines).
3. Learn to Strengthen AND Release your pelvis
There are approximately 50 muscles that connect to the pelvis, including our hip and leg muscles! We can use leg movement (coordinated with breathing) to our advantage during birth by changing positions for pelvic floor exercises. Leaning or all fours, squatting and lunging all have an effect on the muscles of the pelvic floor. These positions, combined with a focus on your inhale can help stretch and release the pelvic floor muscles for birth and also allow for more even cervical dilation during labour. Use a countertop, birthing ball, partner or support person to help you stay mobile and supported, during labour.
Squats and lunges during pregnancy can help build your leg endurance for labour. Be sure to focus on both working and releasing your pelvic floor in each exercise and spend a little extra time after a workout to do some of the above-mentioned releases.
4. Keep Mindful of your Body’s Limits
While there will be some “pushing” during labour, we want to be mindful of our edges during pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. It is very easy to overexert oneself and not even know it until it’s an issue. Remember that our bodies go through a tremendous amount of change in a relatively short period of time. It’s hard to predict how your body will respond physically to the pregnancy to the parenthood journey! Here are 5 tips to prep your mind & body for pregnancy and birth.
While many people are eager to get back into exercise after birth, it’s important to remember that for long term stability and strength, taking it slowly and recovering fully is the name of the game. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything at all. In fact, there are many mindful and fun ways to build exercise back into your life with a tiny human.
5. See a Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist
This is actually our number one recommendation, but we saved the best for last so you’ll take extra notice!
A pelvic floor physiotherapist is a certified practitioner that specializes in the muscle of the pelvic floor. Not only can they help you become more aware of your pelvic floor, but they can also teach you to breathe effectively, give you exercises to help you with the specific needs of your own body, and even coach you on how to push during birth. Studies have shown that there is a huge benefit to seeing a pelvic floor physiotherapist during pregnancy to prepare for birth, and about six weeks after birth to begin your postpartum recovery.
This blog was written in conjunction with Ruth Ruttan, a doula and pilates expert, with a specialty in pelvic floor health. Ruth lives in Toronto and spends her time mothering three humans and supporting all things pregnancy, birth, and baby. Find out more about her at www.ruthruttan.ca.
Kate is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, Childbirth Educator, Infant Sleep Educator, and Yoga Instructor, currently living in Toronto, ON. When she’s not supporting new families on their parenting journey, she is running after her wonderfully active 2-year-old twins. She loves exploring the ravines of the city, drinking green tea and green smoothies (in large mugs), and the colour purple.