Bringing a new life into the world is a miraculous and transformative experience, but the journey doesn’t end with childbirth.
The postpartum period is a critical phase where both physical and emotional changes occur. It’s essential for new mothers to understand what to expect during this time and how to navigate the challenges that may arise.
Pregnancy causes your body to undergo drastic changes, and so does recovering from childbirth. Your body changes over the course of months as your child grows, so it’s only logical to expect that it will take time for it to adjust after birth.
Labor is not the only time you may experience contractions. After giving birth, the uterus undergoes contractions to return to its pre-pregnancy size. These contractions, often referred to as afterpains, can be uncomfortable but are a natural part of the recovery process. Many women say these feel more like menstrual cramps than labor pain, however.
Discharge and bleeding
New mothers can expect to experience postpartum bleeding, known as lochia, which is the shedding of the uterine lining. Understanding the stages of lochia and the importance of maintaining proper hygiene during this time is crucial for preventing infections.
For those who have had a vaginal delivery, caring for the perineal area is essential. Sitz baths, proper cleansing and the use of ice packs can help manage swelling and discomfort.
“Bleeding commonly increases after you go home with more activity,” says Lindsay Mentrek, a labor and delivery nurse in our Cincinnati market. “This is a sign you are doing too much and should take a few days to rest.”
Your breasts will likely feel full, firm and tender a few days after giving birth. This is when your breasts begin producing milk. Hand expression before breastfeeding can help relieve this engorgement, while warm washcloths or a warm shower beforehand may make breastfeeding easier.
“If you notice any redness, warmth or begin having flu-like symptoms in one or both breasts, you should reach out to your OB to make sure you do not have mastitis, which is an infection of your milk ducts,” Mentrek adds.
However, if you are not breastfeeding, don’t pump or express the milk – you’ll only continue to make more milk. Wear a supportive sports bra, put cold washcloths on your breasts and avoid letting warm water run over your breasts.
Hair loss and skin changes
Increased hormones during pregnancy cause you to grow more hair while simultaneously shedding less. However, after you have your baby, this imbalance shifts as your hormones change, and that “extra” hair seems like it’s falling out in clumps. This is usually normal – however, if you start losing an abnormal amount of hair daily, bring it up with your OB-GYN or primary care provider.
Your skin will change as well as your hormones balance out following childbirth. Dark spots or patches should fade gradually, and while stretch marks often don’t go away entirely, they should fade from red to silver as your skin adjusts.
Mothers who undergo a Cesarean section, also called a C-section, should be aware of specific recovery guidelines, including caring for the incision site, managing pain and gradually returning to regular activities. You will likely need to see your OB-GYN sooner to have your incision checked for any signs of infection. If you have stitches that aren’t dissolvable, you will also go back to have them removed.
If you decide to breastfeed, this can also be impacted. You may have to change the position in which you hold your baby as they nurse to avoid your incision.
The physical recovery is only one part of postpartum period you’ll navigate after delivering a baby. Whether you have a vaginal delivery or a C-section, hormones play a major part in childbirth and your recovery.
- The “baby blues”: It’s not uncommon for new mothers to experience mood swings, irritability or weepiness within the first two weeks after childbirth. This is often referred to as the “baby blues” and is attributed to hormonal fluctuations.
- Mood changes: Once the baby blues subside, you may still feel feelings of sadness, crying and difficulty sleeping. This could be due to hormone changes or a lack of sleep.
- Postpartum depression (PPD): Beyond the baby blues, some women may experience more prolonged and severe symptoms of depression, known as postpartum depression. Understanding the signs, seeking support and communicating openly with health care providers are essential steps in managing PPD, which may include therapy or medication.
- Bonding and attachment: Building a strong emotional connection with the newborn is a gradual process. Some new moms don’t immediately connect with their newborn – that’s normal. New mothers should be patient with themselves and embrace the support of partners, family and friends to foster a healthy bonding experience.
“It’s common to feel tearful, emotional and overwhelmed in the first two weeks, but if you feel like you cannot get out of this feeling, or that your sadness or anxiety is all-encompassing, be sure you reach out to your OB provider,” Mentrek says. “If at any point you are having thoughts that you want to hurt yourself or anyone around you, call your OB provider and seek emergency treatment.”
Breastfeeding and infant care
While breastfeeding is a natural process, it can present challenges for some mothers. Seeking guidance from lactation consultants and health care professionals can help address issues such as latching problems, engorgement and nipple pain. Talk with your provider if you are struggling with nursing, or if you are showing signs of mastitis, which is swelling in the breast from a likely infection, or a clogged milk duct.
If you exclusively pump, a lactation consultant can provide tips on pumping schedules, maintaining or increasing your supply, proper equipment and sizing and more. Additionally, if breastfeeding doesn’t work out or isn’t right for you, your child’s pediatrician can help you choose a formula.
While feeding your child and how you do so can take a toll on your mental health as a new mom, learning the fundamentals of infant care, including diapering, bathing and recognizing signs of illness, is a major adjustment as well for parents of newborns. Accessing reliable resources and attending parenting classes can provide valuable knowledge and boost confidence.
Rest and self-care
No one has ever associated the days and weeks after giving birth as a restful time. Newborns wake up a lot, eat often and require plenty of care and attention, all while you are recovering from a major medical event. However, there are a few small steps you can take to make sure you are taking care of yourself as well.
Newborns aren’t known for sleeping long stretches at night, especially in their first few weeks of life. Coincidentally, this is when you need the most rest during your recovery. Establishing a sleep routine, even if it is creating a schedule with your partner to get longer stretches of sleep, and taking short naps when possible, can contribute to overall well-being.
Nutrition and hydration
Proper nutrition is vital for recovering from childbirth and supporting breastfeeding. Maintaining a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated are key components of postpartum self-care. Additionally, if you choose to breastfeed – whether that is through nursing, pumping or a combination of both – drinking plenty of water is vital to maintaining your milk supply.
Take help where you can get it
Also, while this is not feasible for everyone who may not have family or a support system nearby, accepting help from loved ones can make a notable difference in your recovery. Taking others up on offers to babysit, make meals, do laundry, clean up the house or run errands can give you just enough time to catch a quick nap or take a shower.
“If the people around you offer to help in any way, accept the help – it takes a village,” Mentrek says. “Let them bring you a meal, hold your baby while you nap or shower or clean your dishes so you can feed your little one without thinking about what else you have to do.”
How your provider can help you
The postpartum period is a time of immense change and adaptation for new mothers. By being informed about the physical and emotional aspects of recovery, seeking support from your health care provider and practicing some level of self-care, women can navigate this transformative journey with confidence.
Each postpartum experience is unique, and it’s essential to communicate openly with health care providers to address individual needs and concerns. Embracing the challenges and joys of this period will ultimately contribute to a healthier and more fulfilling postpartum experience.