Postpartum recovery is often treated as an afterthought in many antenatal books and classes, but it is an extremely important part of the pregnancy, birth and parenthood process. It’s a time of high intensity, huge change and heightened experiences, but it’s also one that is physically and emotionally demanding, and one that needs support.
Officially speaking, the postpartum / postnatal period begins as soon as the baby is born and is generally classified as the first six to eight weeks afterwards, however, once you have given birth you are always postpartum. There’s no going back to exactly how or who you were before.
Postpartum recovery includes emotional and physical recovery and while your baby is the priority, there’s no reason to neglect or ignore your needs during this time, and responding to these well can actually provide a really strong foundation on which to adjust to motherhood and best serve your baby too.
In this blog I’m going to be talking about the multi disciplinary ways in which you can aid your postpartum recovery, from what to expect from your postnatal body – physically, mentally and emotionally, and how to navigate the highs and lows of the postpartum period.
What to expect from your body
Every woman and every birth is different, so while there are some typical symptoms and experiences that accompany the postnatal recovery period, these are all variable and individual.
So let’s run through some of the most significant parts of the postnatal recovery process.
Once you have given birth you will have bleeding and after pains as your womb continues to contract back down to (eventually) a prenatal size.
These cramps are accompanied by the lochia which is the postnatal bleeding you can expect to last up to six weeks. Stock up on some big knickers or even some disposable ones for the early days when the bleeding will be at its heaviest.
Going to the bathroom
Going to the bathroom for the first time after giving birth can be intimidating and sometimes painful. The best advice is to take your time, try putting your feet on a low step and take a squeezy bottle of water to pour over yourself when you have to pee or poop. Keeping very well hydrated after the birth and increasing your fibre intake will work wonders to make sure things pass painlessly.
Leaving the hospital
When you enter the hospital there’s a huge sense of anticipation but when you have to leave with your baby in a tiny car seat, it’s a lot more daunting. This is the moment when everything starts to feel incredibly real and it’s up to you to take it from here. It’s normal to feel frightened or even overwhelmed at this point. It is a surreal moment, but one to cherish too.
Many women are surprised at just how pregnant they can look after having had their baby. Yes, the baby and placenta and the amniotic fluid may have vacated your womb but it takes weeks and months for your stomach to ‘deflate.’ It’s quite normal to still look pregnant after having the baby, so if anyone dares to ask ‘when are you due?’ try to see it as a normal part of the postpartum process rather than a badly aimed comment.
Your hormones are likely to be all over the place as your body’s production of oestrogen and progesterone actually reach menopausal levels in the days and weeks after birth. These hormonal shifts are responsible for the emotional highs and lows, and account for some of the baby blues which can take the wind out of your sails. There is a period of anti-climax that can accompany the postnatal recovery process and this is entirely to be expected too, but if you feel that it’s lasting longer than a few days, then it’s worth talking to a health care professional about the possibility of postnatal depression.
While your hormones rebalance, it’s worth cutting out sugar, caffeine and alcohol as these can exacerbate symptoms. Instead, try to increase your intake of fibre, healthy fats and protein as these will help balance your hormones.
When your milk comes in, boy do you know about it. Very often engorged breasts can feel rock solid and incredibly painful. There are things you can do to relieve them – try adding hot flannels to your breasts before a feed and ice packs afterwards and that old wives tale about using cold cabbage leaves in your bra – it actually works to sooth sore breasts.
Recovery – down there
Perineal trauma is unfortunately part of many women’s postnatal recovery experience. After delivery you may find that you are feeling bruised and battered down there. If you have had a tear or an episiotomy it can take a few weeks to feel back to normal. While you’re in the thick of it, try taking arnica tablets or using an ice pack or a sitz bath (if recommended by your midwife).
C Section scars
If you have had a C-section, at around 3-4 months post birth, you may benefit from manual scar therapy performed by an experienced soft tissue therapist. It will help to increase the energy flow in the affected area and reduce the chances of scar adhesions. Scar adhesions can affect fertility, back ache, pelvis ache and menstruations to name just a few, so it’s definitely worth looking into!
No one likes to talk about the little leaks that can often happen unexpectedly in the early days of postnatal recovery. The medical term is stress-incontinence and the majority of women experience this the first weeks after giving birth. However, if you find that you’re still leaking urine a couple of months after the birth then please do go and see a woman’s health physiotherapist as this is not normal.
Altered breathing pattern
During pregnancy the diaphragm gets pushed up to make room for your growing baby but it doesn’t always re-adjust so well afterwards. This tends to contribute to compromised breathing patterns. Optimal breathing helps us to strengthen the core as well as reduce the chances of unnecessary ‘stressing’ and every new mama can do with that! Get a session booked in with a therapist/practitioner who can do some manual work on your diaphragm AND teach you easy breathing techniques which you can practice at home.
The early weeks of new motherhood are often accompanied by night sweats where your whole body is drenched. These rather uncomfortable periods are linked to the hormones in your body working overtime. Remember how I said your hormones mimic the menopause in postnatal recovery? Well, I wasn’t joking and hot flashes and night sweats are all part of the ‘fun,’ but should settle down after a couple of months.
Transitioning to motherhood
By far one of the lesser explored topics of postnatal recovery, is the mental transition to new motherhood. It’s a difficult time in many ways as everything is so intense and relentless, but finding time to say goodbye to your old self and welcome your new self is really important. Having a close network of other new mums is really important in being able to feel less alone during this huge transformation. While motherhood may have been something you wanted for a long time it doesn’t mean that accepting the reality of it isn’t challenging in its own way. My advice is to schedule in some time for self-care, no matter how fleeting. A hot tea, a longer than usual shower, a walk to the shop by yourself, whenever you can have a little headspace to adjust to the new you – take it and allow yourself to acknowledge your feelings – they’re all normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Life as parents
Equally, adjusting to your new identity as parents is challenging. You’ve gone from a couple to a family unit, and that transition also takes time. Just as you need time to adjust to motherhood, try to schedule time to discuss your relationship and give you and your partner space to communicate and connect. It’s normal to find the experience of new parenthood destabilising, but over time it does settle back down.
Sex after baby
I have already written a whole blog post on sex after having a baby – there’s so much to say. But the essential is finding a way to redefine what a healthy, happy sex life is going to look like now you are parents. The parametres of your relationship have moved in every possible way, but that doesn’t have to mean a worse sex life, just different.
Dealing with trauma
Whether your pregnancy was overshadowed with worry, or your birth was challenging or your postpartum recovery has been particularly difficult, all these huge changes in your life can be disorientating and in some cases, traumatic. If you had a difficult birth for example, make sure you schedule time to do a debrief with a trusted medical professional or counsellor so you can share your experience and hopefully get some insight in the why behind the what.
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Image credit : @mygreatestwonders