Most new moms are often very concerned about getting their bodies back into shape as soon after giving birth as possible. If you eat the right foods and do the right exercises, like the ones in my book Baby Bod, you may be able to flatten your tummy in just a few short months after childbirth. But what can you do about those unsightly stretch marks that so many women develop on their belly and breasts? We often assume these are permanent and something you just have to learn to live with.
In this post I am going to discuss some of the options available for the prevention and treatment of stretch marks and how to deal with them after childbirth. We will look at the efficacy of various creams on the market both over the counter and with a doctor’s prescription, cocoa butter, laser treatments and surgery. I will also include details of a conversation I had with a dermatologist who specializes in laser treatment for stretch marks. Some of the information here may surprise you!
Creams: Do they work?
Applying certain creams to your breasts and belly during pregnancy may help prevent developing stretch marks, or at least decrease their severity.
“Thick creams that keep the skin well hydrated can be effective in increasing the skins ability to resist tension when it is stretched,” says Dr. Dendy Engelman of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. That means the skin maintains its elasticity and its ability to “snap back into place” after being stretched by your growing baby bump. Some of the brand names she suggests are Bio-Oil, Aquaphor, and Eucerin. Make sure to apply the cream right after you get out of the shower in the morning and use it again in the evening.
It might surprise you to learn that cocoa butter has been show not to be effective in preventing stretch marks. A very large study performed by dermatologists and obstetricians published in 2008 followed 175 pregnant women and found that after months of slathering gobs of cocoa butter all over their bellies and breasts, they still developed stretch marks. Some of them even developed acne from using too much1. So even though you may see a lot of advertisements encouraging pregnant women to use cocoa butter to prevent stretch marks, it is a waste of time and money.
However, a separate study found that creams containing vitamin E are more effective in the war against developing stretch marks and can be used by pregnant and nursing mothers. So if you want to prevent stretch marks, try using a cream containing ALPHA TOCOPHEROL (a form of vitamin E) instead of cocoa butter based creams2.
All of these products can be purchased ‘over-the-counter’.
There are also other creams available that may require a prescription from your doctor depending on whether you are pregnant or nursing, and where you live. However, even if you are able to buy them over the counter, it is still always best to check with your doctor prior to using either of the following products:
Glycolic Acid (alpha-hydroxy acid - AHA) can be used to prevent stretch marks. It works on a cellular level and increases collagen production, making the skin more elastic. It is usually made from the same compound that is used in chemical peels, alpha-hydroxy acid, so you will need to make sure you keep the skin you are treating out of the sun. The nice thing about glycolic acid cream is, as long as your doctor gives you the thumbs up, you can use it during pregnancy and nursing to prevent developing stretch marks3.
Another cream many dermatologists prescribe is Retin-A (Tretinoin) which decreases the appearance of stretch marks. However, it cannot be use by pregnant or nursing mothers. One study reported that people who use Retin-A on new stretch marks for six months had fabulous results4.
One of my newer patients, Karen, came to see me because she had diastasis recti (AKA, mommy tummy) after giving birth to twins. Karen loved being a new mom, but was very upset by the sight of her sagging belly and all the stretch marks she developed during pregnancy. Since she was in such great shape prior to her pregnancy she was determined to get her body back into shape as quickly as possible. To tackle her stretch marks, Karen did her research and found a dermatologist, Dr. Dendy Engelman (http://mdcsnyc.com) who specializes in using laser to remove stretch marks and started treatment only one month after she delivered her twins.
To address the separation of her abdominal muscles (diastasis recti) which made her tummy bulge outwards, Karen started physical therapy treatment with me when she was about two months postpartum. On her first visit I noticed some dark marks on her belly and Karen told me to ignore them because she had just had laser treatment earlier that week and the discoloration would go away in a few days. I was very intrigued because it was the first time I had worked with a patient who was using laser treatment for stretch marks. Her busy schedule only allowed her to sneak in a few physical therapy treatments over the next four months but she made sure to do her exercises on a regular basis. By the time she was six months postpartum I was shocked at how most of her stretch marks had disappeared and how well she was responding to the Baby Bod® exercise program. Not only did her tummy look flatter but the skin on her belly looked firmer and most of the stretch marks were gone. I immediately called Dr. Engelman to find out more about laser treatment for stretch marks and I would now like to share with you what she told me.
“There are several different types of laser treatments,” says Dr. Engelman, “and the type of laser used to get rid of stretch marks depends on the type of stretch marks you have and when you get it done.” Engelman told me she often uses a mix of different laser treatments depending on what she finds when she evaluates her patients. The number of treatments or how long it takes to get rid of the stretch marks depends on the individual. Here are a few we discussed:
Pulsed Dye Laser (AKA, vascular laser) is used on fresh red scars before they turn silver. This type of laser can reduce the red color in stretch marks and can be started as early as one month after childbirth. It does not work as well on people with darker skin.
nd:YAG Laser is used to get rid of the darker blue color in stretch marks. It is the same laser used to remove spider veins and for hair removal.
Fractional Laser is used on older stretch marks that are no longer discolored but have left the skin looking wrinkly. This type of laser has the effect of smoothing out indentations in the skin.
Intense Pulsed Light (IPL) decreases the red color in stretch marks and unlike the other laser treatments above, does not require administration by a doctor.
Tummy Tuck (Abdominoplasty)
If all else fails some women decide to have surgery to improve the appearance of their mommy tummies. Dr. Engleman recommends that women wait until at least one full calendar year after childbirth before having surgery.
Can you exercise Stretch Marks away?
The short answer is, unfortunately no, exercise will not get rid of stretch marks.
However, you can learn to flatten your tummy by following the right diet and exercise program. In my book, Baby Bod®, I include an exercise program that is safe enough for most women to follow throughout their entire pregnancy and can be started as early as the day after giving birth. Learning the Baby Bod® program prior to childbirth will help put your body in the best shape possible for labor and delivery, and will give you a jump on your recovery once your baby has arrived.
To get a free download of the best exercises to flatten your mommy tummy, please click here.
If you would like to make an appointment for physical therapy treatment or get one-to-one advice on the most effective way for your body to recover from childbirth please fill out the contact us form. The therapists at Marianne Ryan Physical Therapy are trained to provide you with safe and effective exercises, and can offer hands-on treatment for pain relief.
I love to read your stories, thoughts and questions so please share them in the comments box below. And, if you’d like to receive future posts direct to your inbox then you can subscribe by using the subscription box on this page.
Note: Before using any creams during pregnancy or when nursing please discuss it with your midwife or doctor.
Marianne Ryan PT
1. BJOG. 2008 Aug;115(9):1138-42.,Cocoa butter lotion for prevention of striae gravidarum: a double-blind, randomised and placebo-controlled trial., Osman H, Usta IM, Rubeiz N, Abu-Rustum R, Charara I, Nassar AH., Department of Health Behaviour and Education, American University of Beirut Medical Center, Beirut, Lebanon.
2. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000066., Creams for preventing stretch marks in pregnancy., Young GL, Jewell D., Barn Croft Surgery, Temple Sowerby, Penrith, Cumbria, CA10 1RZ.
3. Dermatol Surg. 1998 Aug;24(8):849-56., Comparison of topical therapy for striae alba (20% glycolic acid/0.05% tretinoin versus 20% glycolic acid/10% L-ascorbic acid)., Ash K., Lord J., Zukowski M., McDaniel DH
4. Arch Dermatol. 1996 May;132(5):519-26., Topical tretinoin (retinoic acid) improves early stretch marks., Kang S1, Kim KJ, Griffiths CE, Wong TY, Talwar HS, Fisher GJ, Gordon D, Hamilton TA, Ellis CN, Voorhees JJ.
MARIANNE RYAN PT, OCS is a physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She is the owner and Clinical Director of MRPT Physical Therapy, and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association Media Corps. With more than 30 years' experience, she specializes in the treatment of the spine, pelvis and jaw, with particular emphasis on the treatment of prenatal and postpartum patients. She has taught physical therapy treatment and exercises for prenatal and postpartum women on the nurse midwifery program at Columbia University School of Nursing, and has also taught at the TMJ clinic at New York University Dental School. A much sought-after media guest, Marianne has appeared on dozens of national TV and radio shows, and has also been featured in Red Book, Fitness Magazine, USA Today, Shape Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. She was also featured in the film Drifting, a documentary about movement produced by the Tribeca Film Institute. Passionate about helping women to restore their stomachs after pregnancy and childbirth, Marianne is author of the book Baby Bod® - Turn Flab to Fab in 12 Weeks Flat.