Though pregnancy changes your body in many ways, sometimes the most dramatic changes happen after delivery, during the postpartum period. Here’s what to expect.
Your sensitive perineum has been stretched to the limit and it may possibly have been bruised or torn. If it has been cut into, it’s bound to smart. Ask the nurse to instruct you on “peri-care”. Heat increases blood flow and promotes healing; cold numbs pain and decreases swelling. Both measures are necessary to heal a traumatized perineum. The nurse will tuck an ice pack up against your perineum as soon as possible (it will feel so good). She will advise you about soaking in a warm sitz bath (or the tub) and show you how to squirt warm or cool water over your perineum, using a peribottle.
Soothe the wound. Spray menstrual pads with either water, witch hazel mixed with water, or perineal wash, squeeze out the excess and put them in the freezer—the cool temperature will feel amazing to your tender perineum. Change and replace as needed.
Prevent pain and stretching during bowel movements. Hold a clean pad firmly against the wound and press upward while you bear down. This will help relieve pressure on the wound.
Sit down carefully. To keep your bottom from stretching, squeeze your buttocks together as you sit down. If sitting is uncomfortable, use a doughnut-shaped pillow to ease the pressure.
Do your Kegels. These exercises help tone your pelvic floor muscles. Simply tighten your pelvic muscles as if you’re stopping your stream of urine. Starting about a day after delivery, try it for five seconds at a time, four or five times in a row. Repeat throughout the day. Look for signs of infection. If the pain intensifies or the wound becomes hot, swollen and painful or produces a pus-like discharge, contact your health care provider.
You’ll have a vaginal discharge called lochia for up to eight weeks after delivery. Expect a bright red, heavy flow of blood for the first few days. If you’ve been sitting or lying down, you may notice a small gush when you get up. Don’t be alarmed if you occasionally pass blood clots. The discharge will gradually taper off, changing from pink or brown to yellow or white. To reduce the risk of infection, use sanitary napkins rather than tampons.
Contact your health care provider if:
During the first few days after delivery, you may feel contractions sometimes called afterpains. These contractions help prevent excessive bleeding by compressing the blood vessels in the uterus. Afterpains tend to occur when you’re breast-feeding and seem to be more noticeable with second or third babies. Medications used to control hemorrhaging after delivery can increase afterpains as well.
Usually these pains resemble menstrual cramps. If necessary, your health care provider may prescribe pain medication. Many medicines are safe even if you’re breast-feeding. Contact your health care provider if you have a fever or if your abdomen is tender to the touch. These signs and symptoms could indicate a uterine infection.
Swelling or bruising of the tissues surrounding the bladder and urethra may lead to difficulty urinating. Fearing the sting of urine on the tender perineal area may have the same effect.
To encourage urination, contract and release your pelvic muscles. It may help to place hot or cold packs on your perineum, straddle the toilet like a saddle or use a peribottle to pour water across your perineum while you urinate.
Difficulty urinating usually resolves on its own. Contact your health care provider if it hurts to urinate or if you have an unusually frequent urge to urinate. These may be symptoms of a urinary tract infection.
Pregnancy and birth stretch the connective tissue at the base of the bladder and may cause nerve and muscle damage to the bladder or urethra. You may leak urine when you cough, strain or laugh. Fortunately, this problem usually improves within three months. In the meantime, wear sanitary pads and do your Kegel exercises.
If you notice pain during a bowel movement and feel swelling near your anus, you may have hemorrhoids (stretched and swollen veins in the anus or lower rectum). To ease any discomfort while the hemorrhoids heal, soak in a warm tub and apply chilled witch hazel pads to the affected area. Your health care provider may recommend a topical hemorrhoid medication as well.
To prevent constipation and straining, which contribute to hemorrhoids, eat foods high in fiber—including fruits, vegetables and whole grains—and drink plenty of water. Remain as physically active as possible. If your stools are still hard, your health care provider may recommend a stool softener or fiber laxative.
You may find yourself avoiding bowel movements out of fear of hurting your perineum or aggravating the pain of hemorrhoids or your episiotomy wound. To keep your stools soft and regular, eat foods high in fiber, drink plenty of water and remain as physically active as possible. Ask your health care provider about a stool softener or fiber laxative, if needed.
Another potential problem for new moms is the inability to control bowel movements (fecal incontinence)—especially if you had an unusually long labor. Frequent Kegel exercises can help. If you have persistent trouble controlling bowel movements, consult your health care provider.
Several days after delivery, your breasts may become heavy, flushed, swollen and tender. This is known as engorgement. It happens when your milk comes in. The discomfort usually lasts less than three days. In the meantime, it helps to nurse often or to express milk. Stroke your breasts gently but firmly toward the nipple. Apply warm or cold washcloths or ice packs, or try a warm bath or shower. You can also apply cabbage leaves to your breasts. Find out more on treating sore breasts.
Leaky breasts are another common problem for new moms. You can’t do anything to stop the leaking, but nursing pads worn inside your bra can help keep your shirt dry. Avoid pads that are lined or backed with plastic, which can irritate your nipples. Change pads after each feeding and whenever they get wet. Try not to wear breast pads for long periods of time as they can irritate tender nipples. If nighttime leaking is a problem, place a towel under your breasts at night.
During pregnancy, elevated hormone levels put normal hair loss on hold. The result is often an extra-lush head of hair. But now it’s payback time. After delivery, your body sheds the excess hair. Within six months, your hair will probably be back to normal. Shampoo only when necessary, and find a hairstyle that’s easy to maintain. Avoid hair dryers, curling irons and harsh chemicals.
You may notice small red spots on your face. These are caused by small blood vessels breaking during the pushing stage of labor. Expect the spots to disappear in about a week.
Stretch marks won’t disappear after delivery, but eventually they’ll fade from reddish purple to silver or white. Any skin that darkened during pregnancy—such as the line down your abdomen (linea nigra)—may slowly fade as well.
After you give birth, you’ll probably feel flabby and out of shape. You may even look like you’re still pregnant. Don’t worry. This is perfectly normal. Most women lose about 10 pounds during birth, including the weight of the baby, placenta and amniotic fluid. During the first week after delivery, you’ll lose additional weight from leftover fluids. After that, healthy eating and regular exercise can help you gradually return to your pre-pregnancy weight. Expect that this might take some time.
In addition to physical changes, childbirth also triggers a jumble of powerful emotions. Mood swings, irritability, sadness and anxiety are common. Many new moms experience a mild depression, sometimes called the baby blues. The baby blues typically subside within seven to 10 days. If your depression deepens or you feel hopeless and sad most of the time, contact your health care provider. Prompt treatment is important.
Another way your body gets rid of the excess fluids accumulated during your pregnancy is by perspiring more, especially at night. For the first night or two wear cotton clothing to absorb the perspiration and cover your sheet and pillow with a towel to absorb the night sweats. Excessive sweating is most prominent during the first week and gradually subsides by the end of the first month.
Your bowels may be as reluctant to work as your bladder is, and for similar reasons. The muscles involved in passing a stool may have been traumatized during passage of the baby. Drugs and anesthetics temporarily cause the intestines to be a bit sluggish; and your bowels were probably emptied naturally by the normal “diarrhea” that normally precedes birth. Besides these physical causes for problems with bowel movements, many mothers have a psychological reluctance to do any pushing with their perineal muscles, either for fear of hurting these tissues or because of a desire to rest them. Yet the sooner you get your intestines moving, the better you will feel.
Gas and bloating
The bowel sluggishness that contributes to constipation also may make you feel gassy, especially if you are recovering from a cesarean birth. Drinking and eating frequently, but in smaller amounts, and getting your body moving again, will ease these discomforts.
At your postpartum checkups, your health care provider may check your vagina, cervix and uterus to make sure you’re healing well. He or she may also do a breast exam and check your weight and blood pressure. This is a great time to talk about birth control, breastfeeding and how you’re adjusting to life with a new baby.
Share any concerns you may have about your physical or emotional health. Chances are, what you’re feeling is entirely normal. Look to your health care provider and support network for assurance as you enter this new phase of life.
Reprinted with permission from SCKOON.