What to Expect for Postpartum Recovery: Your Behind-the-Scenes Guide

June 5, 2012 Guest Blogger 2 comments

postpartum-recoveryPostpartum recovery is an important topic sometimes overlooked by women preparing for motherhood. I personally spent hours while pregnant with my daughter researching unmedicated childbirth, baby care essentials, and breastfeeding. Would I buy a cosleeper or would she sleep directly in the bed? Would we cloth diaper or use disposables? And just how many diapers is a newborn supposed to soil in a 24-hour period, anyway? One thing I didn’t spend time researching, and in retrospect wish I had, is what to expect for postpartum recovery. After polling a group of local mom friends and reflecting on my own experiences after my vaginal birth, I compiled the following guide to things I wish I had known about postpartum recovery.

Postpartum Recovery Tips for All New Mothers

  • You may experience physical changes like:
    • Hair loss: Many women often complain their hair falls out in clumps, often beginning around three months postpartum. Don’t worry, you are not going bald. This is a common occurrence and is thought by many to actually be a relatively normal amount of hair loss after not losing much hair at all during pregnancy. Sometime during the first year, this will taper off.
    • Sweating: You may very likely sweat like someone who has run a marathon for several days to one week after giving birth. Your body is ridding itself of excess fluid. A waterproof mattress pad or towels beneath you when you sleep may help with this temporary situation.
    • Leaking breasts: Your breasts may leak when your milk comes in, sometimes for months. (If yours don’t leak, don’t worry; leaking or not leaking is not indicative of milk supply.) Just know that your breasts will likely not leak the entire time you breastfeed, but if they do during the early months you may want to consider sleeping on a towel with a dry one kept close by so you can replace it during the night as needed.
  • You may experience an increased appetite and thirst. It will be important for you to:
    • Eat healthy food: Boy, will you be hungry. Make sure you stock your house with healthy food and snacks either just before delivery (when possible) or have your partner or helper do so after you give birth. Eat constantly and eat the amount you want, keeping in mind healthy choices; now is not the time to try to eat low fat meals or to diet. Your body needs these calories after birth, especially when you are breastfeeding a newborn. Consider keeping snacks on your nightstand for those middle of the night moments when you are ravenous but too tired (or with arms full holding a baby) to go to the kitchen.
    • Stay hydrated: Boy, will you be thirsty. Stay hydrated, drinking lots of water, and possibly juice and coconut water if they suit you. A large, reusable cup with a lid and straw can often be your best friend during the early, thirsty weeks.
  • You will need help and time to heal:
    • Ask for help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether from a lactation consultant for nursing issues or a therapist for mental health questions, or from your partner or a friend to do a load of laundry or bring you groceries or dinner. Consider hiring a postpartum doula or having a relative stay with you during the weeks following birth. A postpartum doula’s role is to mother the mother; in other words, she can help take care of things around the house and for you so you can have as much time as possible both to heal and bond with your baby. Some things a postpartum doula may handle for you include laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, light household cleaning, assisting with infant care and breastfeeding, and provide you with emotional support. (For a more complete list of ways a postpartum doula can help, click here.) Or if you have a partner who is willing and able, have him or her do all housework, cooking, cleaning, and baby care so all you have to do in those early weeks is nurse the baby and let your body heal. My husband and I had an agreement that worked out great for us at night during the early months when our daughter was still having a bowel movement every time she nursed. We bedshare so when she woke up I would nurse her, but he would do all diaper changes so I could stay horizontal and get as much rest as possible. Find an arrangement that works well for your unique situation.
    • It’s okay to say no: Don’t be afraid to say no. If you are worn out and need quiet time without visitors, say no. If you have a partner or helper with you, ask them to run interference on visitors by keeping their stays short or avoiding them all together at times.
    • Sleep when baby sleeps: This is so important. When baby sleeps, don’t run to dust, sweep, or clean the bathroom; that can wait. You need sleep to function and your nighttime sleep will be very interrupted during this period, so you will likely need these naps.
    • Take some time for yourself: While it’s hard to take time out for yourself when all you want to do is stare at your little bundle of joy, try to take at least a few minutes for yourself daily, whether in the form of a bath, shower, or a few minutes sitting outside with a cup of tea while someone else watches the baby. Being away from your baby may be hard for you to endure but that time will be like a recharging breath of fresh air for you.
  • You may experience the baby blues.  Hormonal changes that occur during and after birth may leave you feeling some extreme highs and lows in the couple weeks following birth. Here are some resources that can help you know whether what you are experiencing is just the “baby blues” or is postpartum depression or another perinatal mood/anxiety disorder:

Pospartum Recovery Specific to a Vaginal Birth

  •  You will likely experience pain in your vaginal area. Here are some things you may want to try for relief:
    • Sit on a Boppy or other doughnut-shaped pillow
    • Use hemorrhoid pads such as Tucks for relief
    • Use pad pops/comfrey ice packs on your perineum for the first 24 hours to help reduce swelling
      After the first 24 hours, switch to heat on your perineum into order to speed up the healing process. Take soothing herbal bath/sitz baths: You can do this with a small sitz bath that is designed to rest in the toilet, or by filling your tub partially with warm water and Epsom salts or other herbs. Soak for at least 15 minutes 2-3 times a day.
    • Apply raw honey to any stitched area as stitches dissolve to ease discomfort associated with that process
    • Use a warm water spray each time you use the restroom or as desired (again, if you deliver at the hospital, they will usually give you one of these to take home)
    • Take homeopathic Arnica pellets and gel to soothe yourself
  • You may experience soreness in other parts of your body. Try to:
    • Take Arnica pellets and gel
    • Get a massage, even if at home from your partner or a postpartum doula
    • Take ibuprophen 800mg every 6-9 hours as needed
  • You may experience constipation or fear of bowel movement. Most women can easily pass a bowel movement after a vaginal birth but may be afraid of straining the area. Try to:
    • Relax as much as possible during bowel movements
    • Increase your intake of fiber and drink plenty of water
    • Help keep your stool soft by taking a magnesium supplement called “calm” and/or probiotics as needed. An over the counter stool softner, such as Colace, may also be helpful
  • Vaginal bleeding, or lochia, may occur up for up to around six weeks after you give birth. You will want to have a range of pad sizes on hand, starting with the very large ones given to you by the hospital (if you have a hospital birth) or the largest maxi pads available, down to pantyliners for when it is much lighter.
    • Bleeding should gradually diminish over this time. If you notice your bleeding increasing, you are likely doing too much activity. Take it easy. If you’re ever soaking a pad or more an hour, notify your provider.

Postpartum Recovery Specific to a Cesarean Birth

  • You will likely experience pain at the incision site as it heals. You should:
    • Keep the incision dry and wear loose clothing
    • Let others help with the housework, pets, and as much care of the baby as possible. Perhaps your partner and/or a postpartum doula can assume most if not all of these responsibilities aside from nursing the baby, for example, while you heal. You may be tempted to want to resume your normal activities, but resting as much as possible will aid in the healing process.
  • You may experience initial issues nursing your baby, but here are some things to know:
    • You can breastfeed after a cesarean. The idea that you cannot is a myth.
    • Have the lactation consultant called as soon as you know you are going to the operating room, so they will be ready to help you and baby as soon as you are together.
    • The football hold can be a good nursing position for new mothers post-cesarean as it doesn’t put pressure or weight on the incision site.
  • You may experience emotional pain associated with experiencing a surgical birth. This is not to say that all those who have a vaginal birth are happy with their experience or that one cannot have a positive cesarean birth experience. However in talking with other moms, I found this is one of the most pervasive feelings associated with cesarean birth recovery. Allow yourself time to mourn and heal emotionally; it is okay to grieve. Consider finding a therapist to talk to who specializes in postpartum issues, attending a postpartum support group, and spending time with other moms who can relate. One group you can contact for cesarean recovery support is ICAN of Atlanta.

Whether you give birth to your baby vaginally or by cesarean, what your body has endured will require recovery. Six weeks is the minimum amount of time you should expect to need to allow your body to heal, while many mothers need longer. Take it easy on yourself in the months following birth — your body and baby will thank you.

Read More About Postpartum Recovery

Keeper of the Home: Postpartum Rest and Recovery Tips (From a Mama Who Learned the Hard Way)
Mama Birth: Postpartum Recovery: The Good, The Blood, & The Ugly
 8 Truths About Postpartum Depression

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