What is the pelvic floor?
The pelvic floor is the group of muscles, ligaments and extremely solid membranes that form a floor supporting the vagina, bladder and rectum. The pelvic floor muscles give you control over when you empty your bladder or move your bowels. They also allow you to contract your vagina and increase satisfaction during sex... hence the importance of strengthening them!
Around six weeks after giving birth you will have a post-natal exam when your doctor will determine whether you need pelvic floor treatment. Even if you don't need any specialist treatment, you'll be reminded about the importance of doing pelvic floor exercises regularly.
You should have been shown how to do pelvic floor exercises during antenatal classes; if not, ask your doctor or midwife about them.
Who needs to perform pelvic floor exercises?
During labour, the pelvic floor muscles are significantly stretched by the baby’s passage. It’s therefore strongly recommended that all new mums do pelvic floor exercises to restore strength and elasticity.
If you’re still hesitant about pelvic floor exercises, just take a look at your body’s reactions. If you’re leaking urine when you lift, bend, sneeze, cough or laugh, it’s because your pelvic floor is weak!
You need to take action because if you don’t, things won’t improve on their own. Almost 20% of women suffer from this embarrassing condition just after giving birth or a few weeks after the birth. It’s very common, and there are instances when pelvic floor exercises are essential, particularly if:
> it’s not your first pregnancy;
> your baby weighs more than 3.7kg at birth;
> the circumference of your baby’s head is greater than 35cm;
> forceps were used during labour;
> you had an episiotomy.
Even if you’re not suffering from any particular problems, don’t forget that prevention is better than cure...
What about women who have a Caesarean?
Pelvic floor exercises are also recommended for women who have had a Caesarean because even though baby hasn’t passed through the vagina, he or she will still have weighed heavily on the pelvic floor throughout the nine months of pregnancy. What’s more, a lot of women who have had Caesarian sections don’t do pelvic floor exercises because they don’t think they’re necessary, but around the age of 50, they then find themselves suffering from urinary incontinence!
Guide to pelvic floor exercises
First of all, you need to identify the muscles. Place a couple of fingers inside your vagina the first few times that you do the exercises. If you feel a slight squeeze, then you know you're doing it right. Contract the muscles in an inward, upward movement. It's important not to hold your breath, tighten your stomach or squeeze your buttocks and thighs: these are the wrong muscles.
Once you're comfortable with the technique, alternate slow and fast contractions. For the slow contractions, gradually tighten the muscles and hold for 10 seconds, and for the fast contractions, tighten and relax the muscles quickly. Aim to do 10 fast and 10 slow 4 times a day.
Alongside pelvic floor exercises, there are other methods which your doctor might advise you to try to tone your pelvic floor muscles:
> Electric stimulation
This technique is very efficient as it stimulates the pelvic floor muscles deep down. A small electronic probe is placed in the vagina and painless, low frequency electrical currents cause the vaginal muscles to contract.
This method involves placing a sensor in the vagina. The sensor, connected to a visual and/or sound system, lets you 'see' and 'hear' the contraction so you know by the colour of the light or the intensity of the sound whether the muscular contraction is right or not. This allows you to correct the contraction when you do the exercises on your own, as well as enabling you to gradually intensify the effort and duration.
> Vaginal cones
These small, plastic cones are placed in the vagina twice a day for 15 minutes. They come in different weights and you start with the lightest cone first. You use your pelvic floor muscles to keep the cone in place, exercising the muscles. Once you're comfortable holding the lightest one, you move on to a heavier cone, and so on.