What Postpartum Recovery Is Really Like

Your body needs some TLC after Baby arrives. Here's your postpartum recovery timeline, with tips for helping you feel better fast. 

Mother holding newborn baby girl, smiling
Photo: Cultura RM Exclusive/Wonwoo Lee/Getty Images

When you hold your newborn at the hospital, your brain is on total love overdrive. That delicious skin! Those promise-filled eyes! And you're likely to be so consumed with this scrumptious baby of yours that you won't even mind the discomfort that giving birth can bring.

Well, mostly, you won't. Because after labor, being a mom can be a real pain. But understanding the postpartum recovery process can help you feel less stressed about the changes taking place in your body, and better able to focus on your baby.

Some doctors say you need six weeks to bounce back from a vaginal delivery. In actuality, though, you may need more time to heal from bruising, swelling, tearing, 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. If you've had a cesarean section, you'll need to give yourself at least 12 weeks to recover from the abdominal surgery.

"Most women find that their postpartum complaints resolve within two to three months," says Robert James Gallo, M.D., an OB-GYN at Hackensack University Medical Center, in New Jersey. That may sound like eons, but life with a newborn flies by.

Common Postpartum Symptoms

Every new mother, regardless of delivery method, will probably experience mild cramping as their uterus slowly contracts back to its usual size, shape, and position. The female body may have been designed for childbirth, but you'll still need to deal with discomfort from all the stretching and pushing, especially if you tear or have an episiotomy—a surgical cut between the anus and the vagina. (Soaking in a shallow tub filled with warm water, called a sitz bath, can help minimize the discomfort).

After you give birth, it can take two to three days to have a bowel movement. Weakened ab muscles, bowels traumatized from delivery, or use of narcotic pain medication can cause the constipation (and maybe even hemorrhoids). Many moms fret that they'll rip their stitches, so they hold it in, which makes matters worse. To get things moving, guzzle at least eight glasses of water a day plus eat plenty of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Walking will help too.

You'll also have vaginal bleeding (called lochia) that lasts for six-eight weeks. This lochia is 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."For the first few days after delivery, expect to change your pad every couple of hours," says Eileen Ehudin Beard, a nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner in Silver Spring, Maryland. The amount of discharge should decrease from there.

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. Practicing Kegel exercises, in which you squeeze and release your pelvic-floor muscles, can help improve your symptoms.

One in three deliveries today is a C-section, and 80 percent of women who have the procedure will experience discomfort at the incision site. C-section moms may need to take it slower than those who deliver vaginally. Once you can, walk around to prevent swelling and blood clots in your legs. Pain medication such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are generally safe, but check with your pediatrician if you're nursing. Try keeping the incision clean to prevent a C-section scar infection.

Fluctuating hormone levels may cause hair loss, acne, emotion, and night sweats until they return to normal. What's more, if you opt to breastfeed your baby, you may temporarily experience sore nipples and engorgement (a condition in which your breasts are tender and swollen with milk).

During the recovery period, some women experience the "baby blues" or postpartum depression (PPD)—a more serious condition marked by intense feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anger, and/or anxiety. Let your healthcare provider know if you think you have PPD.

Best Postpartum Recovery Products

Stock up on as many pairs of the hospital's free undies as you can, since they make great postpartum recovery garments! Mesh undies keep your own panties from getting ruined from lochia, 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 or eight weeks, all of the bleeding should stop."

Here are some other noteworthy items for postpartum recovery:

  • A sitz bath to soothe perineal tears or hemorrhoids
  • A spray bottle to soothe your vagina, especially when peeing (Try the MomWasher Peri Bottle for PostPartum Care by Fridababy)
  • Ice packs for hemorrhoids or tears. "Ice is your friend," Beard says. Crush a few cubes in a baggie, lie down, and apply it while you're resting to ease inflammation and pain.
  • Witch hazel, either in liquid or pad form, to soothe pain down below. (Check out Tucks Medicated Cooling Pads)
  • A postpartum recovery belt, which promotes healing, reduces swelling, and may help you lose the baby weight faster
  • Breast pads and/or nipple cream to relieve discomfort, whether you're breastfeeding or not
  • Comfortable clothes and pajamas

If desired, you can also buy a postpartum recovery kit that contains a bit of everything. The popular Frida Mom Postpartum Recovery Kit, for example, has 33 items, ranging from an ice maxi pad to perineal heating foam.

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