What to Expect: Postpartum Recovery
Postpartum Recovery: Healing After Birth
Meeting your newborn is a time filled with love, promise and joy. When nurses place your baby in your arms, you may forget about your post-delivery discomfort. However, once you are ready to leave the hospital and return home, you will want to understand the postpartum recovery process—including how to handle the pain and exhaustion that comes with it.
Dr. Charles Ryan, obstetrics and gynecology specialist with Cornerstone Women’s Center, says that most postpartum complaints resolve within two to three months. If this sounds like a long time, don’t worry! Time takes on a new meaning with a newborn, and the minutes and hours seem to fly by. Your baby will be a beautiful bright spot during your postpartum recovery process.
Recovery starts right after childbirth. The body begins to heal, which can include a variety of symptoms. Most notably, you may feel after-pains, or contractions, that help reduce bleeding and shrink the uterus back down to its pre-pregnancy size and shape. While it took 40 weeks for your uterus to expand, the shrinking process occurs over just four to six weeks.
In addition to after-pains, you will likely feel extreme soreness after giving birth.
“Many people describe it as feeling like they just ran a marathon or completed a full-body workout,” said Ryan. “Musculoskeletal soreness typically lasts for several days after labor and delivery. If you delivered your baby vaginally, you would also feel soreness from vaginal lacerations.”
Common symptoms in the first week after childbirth include:
• Heavy bleeding
• Abdominal cramping
• Chills/night sweats
• Difficult bowel movements
• Engorged breasts
• Back pain
• Pain in the perineum (vaginal births)
• Incision pain (C-section births)
Recovery doesn’t happen instantly, and Ryan encourages new parents to set realistic expectations.
“Be patient and forgiving with yourself,” said Ryan. “It’s normal for it to take six weeks for your uterus and blood pressure to get back to normal. You may still notice some physical changes—such as pelvic relaxation or the width of your hips—that may never go back completely the way they were before.”
You may bleed for four to six weeks; some people bleed for a longer or shorter time period. Items like oversized pads and mesh underwear may not sound glamorous, but they are a practical way to stay comfortable as your body heals.
Postpartum depression affects one in seven women.
“We screen for depression at the hospital and in the doctor’s office,” said Ryan. “Depression is normal due to hormonal changes in the body. You might not feel happy about your new baby or your recent life changes. This should be temporary. However, if it affects how you care for your baby or yourself, your doctor can recommend ways to alleviate those feelings.”
Treatment options for postpartum depression include support groups, self-care and medications.
“We don’t want you struggling by yourself,” said Ryan. “Reach out to your doctor. Tell someone what you’re going through.”
In addition to support for your mental health, you can do certain things to support your physical healing.
“Be mindful of headaches or changes in vision, which can signal high blood pressure,” said Ryan. “If you lost a lot of blood while giving birth, take an iron supplement to ensure you don’t become anemic which can increase fatigue.”
People who had a C-section should refrain from exercise and sexual intercourse and should not lift anything heavier than their baby.
“It can be very helpful to have a supportive person at home with you while you’re recovering,” said Ryan. “That person can help you make meals, clean the home and care for your newborn to give you a chance to rest and build up strength.”
According to Ryan, newborns typically see a pediatrician within the first week of birth. However, if you have concerns after delivery, he or she could see your baby the day after birth.
“If you have a vaginal delivery, you will see your obstetrician six weeks after delivery,” said Ryan. “If you have a C-section, you will see your obstetrician two weeks after delivery, then four weeks after that.”
During that follow-up appointment, your doctor will perform a breast and vaginal exam, check C-section incisions and make sure the uterus has returned to its normal size and shape. At this appointment, you might be cleared to resume sexual intercourse, exercise and birth control.
Follow-up care may also include physical therapy for people who experience a relaxed bladder or pelvic floor problems due to a vaginal delivery.
“Most physical therapists offer pelvic health treatments for pelvic pain, as well as bowl and bladder dysfunctions,” said Ryan. “These ‘mommy bounce back’ sessions can be very helpful.”
No matter what your road to recovery looks like, postpartum is a healing journey that takes time, support and grace. Remember—if you’re struggling with postpartum depression or need to talk to someone, reach out to your health care provider.