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Healing Hints: What Postpartum Recovery Is Really Like

mother holding newborn baby

I felt well prepared for the labor and delivery of my first child, but recovering from the birth was a total surprise. At my postdelivery checkup, my doctor assured me that I was healing normally, but "normal" felt a lot rougher than I'd anticipated. Since then, I've talked to other moms who say that they were equally unprepared for their recuperation.

Our prenatal education classes had focused almost entirely on the birth itself, with little mention of the postpartum period. However, understanding the recovery process can help you feel less stressed about the changes taking place in your body, and better able to focus on your baby. Learn from our experts what you can expect.

Six Weeks For Recovery Is Just An Estimate

I'd read that it would take six weeks to bounce back from a vaginal delivery, but you may in fact need more time to heal from bruising, swelling, episiotomy stitches, and sore muscles, according to Isa Herrera, women's health specialist and the clinical director of Renew Physical Therapy, in New York City. (Soaking in a shallow tub filled with warm water, called a sitz bath, can help minimize the discomfort.) If you've had a cesarean section, you'll need to give yourself at least 12 weeks to recover from the abdominal surgery.

No matter how your baby arrives, you may have mild cramping as your uterus slowly contracts back to its usual size, shape, and position. You may lose some hair, develop acne, feel teary, and have night sweats until your hormones return to normal. While you and your baby are learning to breastfeed, you may temporarily experience sore nipples and engorgement (a condition in which your breasts are tender and swollen with milk).

The Frequent Bathroom Breaks Won't Be Over Yet

You might feel like you're peeing as often as you did while you were expecting. Pregnancy causes swelling in your body and an increase in your blood volume, and all of that excess fluid has to be eliminated, explains Myra Wick, M.D., a specialist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the Mayo Clinic and co-medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy.

If you've had a vaginal delivery, you may have trouble feeling the urge to go because stretching during childbirth can cause mild temporary damage to nerves of the bladder. Try to urinate frequently, even when you don't feel like you have to. You may also leak a little bit of urine when you cough or laugh.

This condition (known as stress incontinence) is common during pregnancy and after childbirth because both can weaken your bladder muscles. Practicing Kegel exercises, in which you squeeze and release your pelvic-floor muscles, can help improve your symptoms. Wearing a pantyliner will keep your underpants dry.

Those Disposable Mesh Undies Will Be A Lifesaver

Whether you have a vaginal delivery or a C-section, you'll have vaginal bleeding (called lochia) that's heavier than a typical period because you'll be bleeding from the site where the placenta was attached, as well as shedding the thick layer of uterine lining that cushioned your baby. Stock up on as many pairs of the hospital's free undies as you can. They'll keep your own panties from getting ruined, and they're made of a stretchable, spongy mesh fabric that's good for holding maxi pads (avoid tampons until you've healed completely).

Additionally, they're waistband-free, unlike most regular underpants, so they won't irritate your C-section incision, if you have one. Once you run out of the hospital underwear, high-waisted panties from the drugstore are an inexpensive substitute. "After two weeks, you shouldn't have any more heavy red bleeding," says Coralie Macqueen, a certified nurse-midwife in private practice in New York City. "By six weeks, all of the bleeding should stop."

Take It Slow, Even If You Feel Better Fast

Ease into your new routine with help from family and friends. You'll be sore right after the birth, and you'll appreciate having someone else do the laundry and help prepare meals for a week or two. Limit trips up and down the stairs, avoid long walks, and wait to do rigorous exercise until you've gotten the okay from your doctor. "You need sufficient rest for the muscles and ligaments that hold your uterus in place to regain their strength," says Macqueen.

Since I have stairs in my house, I came up with my own solution so that I could stay on one floor for most of the day. I packed a bag full of anything breakable that I'd need from upstairs, and then I just chucked pillows and blankets downstairs. My method certainly wasn't graceful, but it helped me get the rest that I needed and return to my old self. Take heart. You'll bounce back too.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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