Recovering from Childbirth
What to Expect Physically
After your baby arrives, you'll notice some changes — both physical and emotional.
Physically, you might experience:
- Sore breasts. Your breasts may be painfully engorged for several days when your milk comes in and your nipples may be sore.
- Constipation. The first postpartum bowel movement may be a few days after delivery, and sensitive hemorrhoids, healing episiotomies, and sore muscles can make it painful.
- Episiotomy. If your perineum (the area of skin between the vagina and the anus) was cut by your doctor or if it was torn during the birth, the stitches may make it painful to sit or walk for a little while during healing. It also can be painful when you cough or sneeze during the healing time.
- Hemorrhoids. Although common, hemorrhoids (swollen blood vessels in the rectum) are frequently unexpected.
- Hot and cold flashes. Your body's adjustment to new hormone and blood flow levels can wreak havoc on your internal thermostat.
- Urinary or fecal incontinence. The stretching of your muscles during delivery can cause you to accidentally pass urine (pee) when you cough, laugh, or strain or may make it difficult to control your bowel movements, especially if you had a lengthy labor before a vaginal delivery.
- "After pains." After giving birth, your uterus will continue to have contractions for a few days. These are most noticeable when your baby nurses or when you are given medication to reduce bleeding.
- Vaginal discharge (lochia). Initially heavier than your period and often containing clots, vaginal discharge gradually fades to white or yellow and then stops within several weeks.
- Weight. Your postpartum weight will probably be about 12 or 13 pounds (the weight of the baby, placenta, and amniotic fluid) below your full-term weight, before additional water weight drops off within the first week as your body regains its balance.
What to Expect Emotionally
Emotionally, you may be feeling:
- "Baby blues." Many new moms have irritability, sadness, crying, or anxiety, beginning within the first several days after delivery. These baby blues are very common and may be related to physical changes (including hormonal changes, exhaustion, and unexpected birth experiences) and the emotional transition as you adjust to changing roles and your new baby. Baby blues usually go away within 1 to 2 weeks.
- Postpartum depression (PPD). More serious and longer lasting than the baby blues, this condition is present in 10%-15% of new moms and may cause mood swings, anxiety, guilt, and persistent sadness. PPD can be diagnosed up to a year after giving birth, and it's more common in women with a history of depression, multiple life stressors, and a family history of depression.
Also, when it comes to intimacy, you and your partner may be on completely different pages. Your partner may be ready to pick up where you left off before baby's arrival, whereas you may not feel comfortable enough — physically or emotionally — and might crave nothing more than a good night's sleep. Doctors often ask women to wait a few weeks before having sex to allow them to heal.
The Healing Process
It took your body months to prepare to give birth, and it takes time to recover. If you've had a cesarean section (C-section), it can take even longer because surgery requires a longer healing time. If unexpected, it may have also raised emotional issues.
Pain is greatest the first few days after the surgery and should gradually subside. Your doctor will advise you on precautions to take after surgery, and give you directions for bathing and how to begin gentle exercises to speed recovery and help avoid constipation.
Things to know:
- Drink 8-10 glasses of water daily.
- Expect vaginal discharge.
- Avoid stairs and lifting until your doctor says these activities are OK.
- Don't take a bath or go swimming until the doctor says it's OK.
- Don't drive until your doctor says it's OK. Also wait until you can make sudden movements and wear a safety belt properly without discomfort.
- If the incision becomes red or swollen, call your doctor.
You can become pregnant again before your first postpartum period. Even though this is less likely if you are exclusively breastfeeding (day and night, no solids, no bottles, at least 8 times a day, never going more than 4 hours during the day or 6 hours at night without feeding), have not had a period, and your baby is younger than 6 months old, it is still possible.
If you want to protect against pregnancy, discuss your options with your doctor. This may include barrier methods (like condoms or diaphragms), an IUD, pills, a patch, an implantable device, or shots.
You need plenty of sleep, lots of fluids, and good nutrition, especially if you're breastfeeding. An easy way to stay on top of drinking enough fluids is to have a glass of water whenever your baby nurses. At least until your milk supply is well established, try to avoid caffeine, which causes loss of fluid through urine and sometimes makes babies wakeful and fussy.
If you have any breastfeeding problems, talk to your doctor, midwife, or a lactation specialist. Your clinic or hospital lactation specialist can advise you on how to deal with any breastfeeding problems. Relieve clogged milk ducts with breast massage, frequent nursing, feeding after a warm shower, and warm moist compresses applied throughout the day.
If you develop a fever or chills or your breast becomes tender or red, you may have an infection (mastitis) and need antibiotics. Call your doctor if this happens. Continue nursing or pumping from both breasts, though, and drink plenty of fluids.
Engorged breasts will fell better as your breastfeeding pattern becomes established or, if you're not breastfeeding, when your body stops producing milk — usually within a few days.
Continue sitz baths (sitting in just a few inches of water and covering the buttocks, up to the hips, in the water) using cool water for the first few days, then warm water after that. Squeeze the cheeks of your bottom together when you sit to avoid pulling painfully on the stitches. Sitting on a pillow may be more comfortable than sitting on a hard surface.
Use a squirt bottle with warm water to wash the area with water when you use the toilet; gently pat dry. After a bowel movement, wipe from front to back to avoid infection. Reduce swelling with ice packs or chilled witch hazel pads. Local anesthetic sprays also can be helpful.
Talk to your doctor about taking an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen to help with the pain and swelling.
Exercise as soon as you've been cleared by your doctor to help restore your strength and pre-pregnancy body, increase your energy and sense of well-being, and reduce constipation. Begin slowly and increase gradually. Walking and swimming are excellent choices.
Hemorrhoids and Constipation
Alternating warm sitz baths and cold packs can help with hemorrhoids. It also can help to sit on an inflatable donut cushion.
Ask your doctor about a stool softener. Don't use laxatives, suppositories, or enemas without your doctor's OK. Increase your intake of fluids and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. After your doctor has cleared it, exercise can be very helpful.
Your body needs time to heal. Doctors usually recommend waiting 4-6 weeks to have sex to reduce the risk of infection, increased bleeding, or re-opening healing tissue.
Begin slowly, with kissing, cuddling, and other intimate activities. You'll probably notice reduced vaginal lubrication (this is due to hormones and usually is temporary), so a water-based lubricant might be useful. Try to find positions that put less pressure on sore areas and are most comfortable for you. Tell your partner if you're sore or frightened about pain during sexual activity — talking it over can help both of you to feel less anxious and more secure about resuming your sex life.
Urinary or fecal incontinence often eases gradually as your body returns to its normal prepregnancy state. Encourage the process with Kegel exercises, which help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. To find the correct muscles, pretend you're trying to stop peeing. Squeeze those muscles for a few seconds, then relax (your doctor can check to be sure you're doing them correctly).
Wear a sanitary pad for protection, and let the doctor know about any incontinence you have.
What Else You Can Do to Help Yourself
You'll get greater enjoyment in your new role as mom — and it will be much easier — if you care for both yourself and your new baby. For example:
- When your baby sleeps, take a nap. Get some extra rest for yourself!
- Set aside time each day to relax with a book or listen to music.
- Shower daily.
- Get plenty of exercise and fresh air — either with or without your baby, if you have someone who can babysit.
- Schedule regular time — even just 15 minutes a day after the baby goes to sleep — for you and your partner to be alone and talk.
- Make time each day to enjoy your baby, and encourage your partner to do so, too.
- Lower your housekeeping and gourmet meal standards — there's time for that later. If visitors stress you, restrict them temporarily.
- Talk with other new moms (perhaps from your birthing class) and create your own informal support group.
Getting Help From Others
Remember, Wonder Woman is fiction. Ask your partner, friends, and family for help. Jot down small, helpful things people can do as they occur to you. When people offer to help, check the list. For example:
- Ask friends or relatives to pick things up for you at the market, stop by and hold your baby while you take a walk or a bath, or just give you an extra hand. Or ask loved ones to drop off a meal.
- Hire a neighborhood teen — or a cleaning service — to clean the house occasionally, if possible.
- Investigate hiring a doula, a supportive companion professionally trained to provide postpartum care.
When to Call the Doctor
You should call your doctor about your postpartum health if you:
- have a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or above
- soak more than one sanitary napkin an hour, pass large clots (larger than a quarter), or if the bleeding increases
- had a C-section or episiotomy and the incision becomes very red or swollen or drains pus
- have new pain, swelling, or tenderness in your legs
- have hot-to-the-touch, reddened, sore breasts or any cracking or bleeding from the nipple or areola (the dark-colored area of the breast)
- your vaginal discharge becomes foul-smelling
- have painful urination, a sudden urge to pee, or are unable to control urination
- have increasing pain in the vaginal area
- have new or worsening belly pain
- develop a cough or chest pain, nausea, or vomiting
- have bad headaches or vision changes
- become depressed or have hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, or any thoughts of harming your baby
While recovering from delivery can be a lot to handle, things will get easier. Before you know it, you will be able to fully focus on enjoying your new baby.
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2018 KidsHealth® All rights reserved. Images provided by Cook Children's, The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.