Over 3.8 million Australians have some kind of bladder or bowel control problem. Pregnant women or women who have recently given birth are among those most at risk of developing such issues. This is because the pelvic floor – the muscles that support the bladder, bowel and uterus – is under enormous pressure during pregnancy and childbirth.
Having a strong pelvic floor during pregnancy is crucial for many reasons. Firstly, strong pelvic floor muscles support the growing weight of a baby more effectively than weak pelvic floor muscles. Secondly, there is evidence to suggest that a strong pelvic floor may assist in the birthing process itself.
In 2004, a study undertaken by Salvesen, a Norwegian Professor of Obstetrics suggested that intensive pelvic floor training during pregnancy can prevent a prolonged second stage of labour in some women.
Similarly, there is some suggestion that a strong pelvic floor allows the body to heal more effectively after childbirth. Mary O’Dwyer, a pelvic floor physiotherapist with over 30 years experience, agrees. “Strong pelvic floor muscles have an increased blood supply and muscles with good blood supply will heal much faster “, she says.
The most effective way to build and maintain pelvic floor strength is to undertake regular pelvic floor exercises. Studies have shown that pelvic floor training can significantly improve the strength and functionality of these muscles in all women.
In 2009, research from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences suggested that pelvic floor exercises can often improve or relieve stress urinary incontinence (loss of urine whilst exercising, laughing, sneezing or coughing).
According to Mary O’Dwyer, pelvic floor exercises should be done every day. “If you are trying to strengthen a weak pelvic floor, then 3 times a day is optimal. If you are trying to maintain strength, once a day is fine”, she says.
O’Dwyer’s tips for pregnancy bladder health include:
There are also a number of other things to you can do to encourage pelvic floor health:
A strong pelvic floor is the key to ensuring lasting bowel and bladder function. As women get older it becomes increasingly important to have strong pelvic floor muscles, as menopause and the shift in hormone levels can also affect bladder control. The later you start exercising your pelvic floor, the harder it will be to build and maintain strength. So, if you haven’t been disciplined with your pelvic floor training, don’t put it off any longer!
This article was written by Jo Harris for Kidspot, Australia's best family health resource. Sources include The Royal Women’s Hospital, Victoria Bladder & Bowel website, Department of Health and Aging and Mary O’Dwyer (Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist), Queensland.