7 Ways Your Body Changes After Childbirth
Everyone’s quite familiar with all the changes a body goes through during pregnancy. And, while it is logical for people to assume there are significant changes to a person’s body after childbirth, it may not always be clear exactly what those changes are or why they happen. So, let’s take a look at seven of these changes.
1) Changes to the Uterus – At the time of labor, your uterus is about 15 times heavier than before you became pregnant – and that does not include the baby, amniotic fluid, and placenta. After your baby is born, your uterus will continue to contract, especially if you breastfeed. The same hormone that produces milk is also responsible for starting labor and contractions – oxytocin. It is often the case that those mothers who breastfeed lose their “baby belly” quicker because oxytocin is released during feeding. These contractions continue as the uterus shrinks (called involution) and can feel like mild labor contractions.
2) Weight Changes – Immediately after birth, you will be about 12 pounds lighter than you were before birth: one 8-pound baby plus the placenta (1 pound) plus several pounds of blood and amniotic fluid. The extra water in your body will be eliminated through your urine, about three quarts a day, and sweat. By the end of the first week after birth, about 4 to 6 pounds of water weight will be gone. Postpartum vaginal bleeding is normal and expected. Referred to as lochia, this vaginal discharge, which consists of blood, sloughed-off tissue from the lining of the uterus, and bacteria, can continue sometimes up to six weeks.
3) Changes to the Bladder and Bowel – Labor and delivery can cause temporary swelling of the bladder and loss of sensitivity. This is especially the case if your labor was long or required the use of forceps or vacuum assistance, an epidural, or catheter. It is important for you to let the nurse know if you’re unable to urinate within a few hours after childbirth. If your bladder is too full, it may actually prevent you from being able to urinate. If that is the case, a catheter can be inserted to help drain the bladder. In the case of a cesarean section delivery, a catheter is placed before the surgery and left in for a couple of hours post-surgery/delivery.
By contrast, some mothers will also experience incontinence. The lack of sensitivity prevents your awareness of the need to urinate and your ability to control the release of urine from your bladder. Kegel exercises, which tense and release the vaginal muscles and the bladder muscles can help you regain bladder control.
Bloating and mild constipation are also common follow childbirth. During delivery, food is processed and progresses more slowly through the digestive tract. In general, dietary changes, pain medications, and more time in bed can contribute to constipation. It is important to drink lots of water, and take stool softeners if recommended by your doctor. Avoid straining during a bowel movement.
4) Changes to the Vagina and Perineum – Whether you delivered vaginally or by cesarean section, you will experience bleeding from the vagina (like a heavy period) following delivery, as the lining of the uterus is shed. In the beginning, the discharge (lochia) is mostly blood, but eventually it also includes bacteria and tissue from the lining of the uterus. The lochia will change color during this process, starting off as bright red and tapering to a brown or yellowish color. It can last up to six weeks. This process may be shorter for those who delivered by C-section. During this six-week period, it is important that you don’t use tampons because tampons can introduce bacteria into your uterus resulting in an infection. Following delivery, many women experience heavier periods – at least heavier than their periods were before they got pregnant.
Changes to the vagina also include the possibility of pain during intercourse, which for some can occur up to a year after birth. It is important that when you begin to have intercourse again that you start slowly and gently. With your lower estrogen levels, there will be less vaginal lubrication than there was when you were pregnant. If you’re breastfeeding, you will have even more vaginal dryness because breastfeeding keeps estrogen levels down. So water-based lubricants are suggested during this time.
If you did not have an episiotomy, the perineum should heal quickly. You should experience little to no associated pain, except perhaps during bowel movements. Wait to have sexual intercourse until the perineum has completely healed.
5) Changes to the Breasts – When you first start breastfeeding, your breasts produce colostrum which is a rich, creamy fluid full of antibodies. The baby’s suckling “triggers the release of the hormone prolactin, which stimulates milk production, and oxytocin, which causes the milk sacs and ducts to contract, propelling the milk to your nipples” (Babycenter.com) called the “let-down” reflex. When your milk “comes in” around the second or third day, you may experience engorgement. Your breasts may feel swollen, tender, hard, throbbing and full. “Nursing your baby often is the best thing you can do for relief. (In fact, frequent nursing right from the beginning sometimes prevents engorgement altogether.)” (Babycenter.com)
Breastfeeding isn’t always easy. Prior to delivery, engage a lactation consultant, particularly if you’re not using a midwife or doula. Breastfeeding should not be painful. If you experience pain with breastfeeding, consult your doctor or lactation consultant immediately. There may be an infection or an issue with your baby latching properly that needs to be remedied.
6) Other Changes to Your Body – Upon discharge from the hospital, your uterus is about the size it was at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Pack comfy mid-pregnancy clothes to wear upon leaving the hospital. On average, it will take six to nine months, sometimes longer, to return to your pre-pregnancy weight and figure.
These are some other changes you might notice or deal with:
- Hemorrhoids – These are caused by the increase in blood volume during pregnancy and the relaxation of the walls of your blood vessels in response to high levels of progesterone. “The veins below your uterus … are more likely to become swollen and stretched.” (Babycenter.co.uk)
- Stretch marks – These usually appear on the belly, breasts and thighs particularly if you gained a lot of weight quickly during your pregnancy.
- Swollen ankles – Your ankles may still be swollen for up to a week as your body eliminates excess water acquired during pregnancy.
- Hair loss – Pregnancy hormones prevented normal rates of hair loss and made your hair thicker and more luxuriant. After birth, those hormones start to drop and you may discover that you start losing your hair. Eventually, your hair will return to your pre-pregnancy state. Some women claim to experience changes in the appearance of their hair – straight hair before pregnancy becomes curly during and after pregnancy, or curly hair before pregnancy becomes straight or unruly after pregnancy.
“The good news is that as the level of the hormone progesterone in your body drops, the tone of smooth muscle throughout your body improves.” (Babycentre.co.uk)
7) Change in Activity Level – The physical recovery, the changes in hormones, the effects of sleep deprivation and the stress of caring for a newborn (along with other children) will affect your activity and energy level. This can lead to feelings of depression and increase stress. It is important to remind yourself that all that you are feeling is normal. You are not crazy. You are not incompetent. And, you are not a terrible mom because you can’t get these things done. (Justthefactsbaby.com)
Be patient with yourself during this time of recovery. “Having a baby is a huge adjustment and many new moms start out feeling anxious and overwhelmed … give yourself permission not to get things done … [and] get as much help as you can, especially in the first two weeks … The best thing you can do … is get some sleep.” (Justthefactsbaby.com)
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
Body changes after childbirth. Babycenter.com. Web. May 7, 2012.
Your Body’s Physical Changes After Childbirth. iVillage.com. Web. May 7, 2012.
You after the birth. Babycentre.co.uk. Web. May 7, 2012.
What Happens to Your Body After Childbirth. Justthefactsbaby.com. Web. May 7, 2012.