When I had The Boy, I was totally caught off guard by postpartum recovery. My main birth prep was to read the Bradley birth books, as we were overseas and had no access to a live class. In his book, Dr. Bradley says some things that weren’t exactly true for me, things like “Natural birth moms love the pushing stage!” and “Natural birth moms almost never tear! And if they do, it’s just a minor tear and they can’t feel it anyway because the baby’s head numbs the perineum!” and “Natural birth moms feel great afterward! They walk to their room instead of ride in a wheelchair and they are back to normal in no time!”
Suffice it to say that after my first birth I was cursing Dr. Bradley.
I hated pushing, I did tear – quite badly, actually – and felt every bit of it, and I tried to walk to my room (after eyeing the wheelchair I determined I would never be able to sit again) but nearly passed out when I stood up (THANK GOD Husband was holding the baby) so the wheelchair it was. And it was much longer to feel “back to normal” than I expected. Now, recovery was MUCH quicker and more comfortable after my second, so every birth is different. But I learned it is better to be prepared than sorry. It is a good idea to have some supplies gathered beforehand because you need to stay in bed for a while after giving birth – no running errands! – and if you think it is awkward for you to buy some of this stuff, try sending your husband out to get adult diapers.
1. Bleeding – You bleed pretty heavily after having a baby. It is called lochia and this happens even if you have a c-section because you are bleeding from the site where the placenta detached. My midwife told me to get some Depends and said they were really comfy and I would love them. I scoffed…but she was right. They are GREAT for the first few days. I like these – you can get coupons for them, and if you go here you can get a free pair. You will want more than the free pair, though – go ahead and treat yourself to a whole pack. After a couple of days you can switch to pads – NO TAMPONS. The bleeding usually lasts a few weeks and gradually tapers off. Your bleeding is your body’s way of telling you how you’re healing – if it picks up after slowing down, you are doing too much and need to rest more. You may feel ridiculous for resting as much as you need to but your body truly needs it. You will bleed for a much shorter time if you spend the first days/weeks in bed (or at least laying down).
2. Soreness – even if you don’t tear, your muscles just did A LOT of work. Your joints stretched. Your entire pelvis will be somewhat sore and your lady bits will be swollen. One of my friends recommended keeping Tucks pads in the fridge and layering them on top of your pad like pepperonis. This feels great! I like these because they also have aloe in them for extra healing and soothing, but regular Tucks will work fine. You can also use a bag of frozen peas as an ice pack. If you deliver with a midwife, she will sometimes give you some herbal teabag-type things to use as an ice pack too.
3. Bathroom – Your first pee and poop after you deliver may terrify you. For pee, your care provider *should* give you a little squirt bottle called a peri bottle (unless you are in France where they give you NOTHING). You fill it with warm water, then as you start to pee you squirt it where the pee is coming out. This dilutes it so it doesn’t burn. (You’ll thank me later.) For poop – many ladies swear by mild stool softeners. Personally I just eat Activia yogurt every day. Basically you do not want to have to push to get poop out so if you have any favorite tricks, this is the time to pull them out. (No pun intended.) Your pelvic muscles are really stretched after having a baby so you may very well discover that you have “stress incontinence,” which means you leak pee when you laugh, sneeze, or cough. Or you just leak pee. Take heart, this is correctable and (usually) a very easy fix. Go ahead and start doing Kegel-type exercises again after you deliver. These are the only exercises you are allowed to do for at least 6 weeks! Do 10 squeezes every time you nurse the baby, or give yourself some other kind of reminder.
4. Abdomen – During pregnancy all your internal organs get squished around to make room for baby. Once baby vacates the premises, these organs start drifting around in search of their previous home. This is a very unsettling feeling, like your whole torso is filled with Jell-O. At minimum I recommend wearing a belly band – the kind you use during pregnancy when your normal jeans don’t fit but maternity jeans are too big – to help everything feel contained. However, the more I learn about diastasis recti (abdominal separation) the more it seems to be very, very common after pregnancy. If you think you may have this I highly recommend splinting your abs, either with this splint or this one. And I know I said you were only allowed to do Kegels but I will also allow you to do a few diastasis-safe ab exercises (no crunches!!!) to take advantage of your postpartum healing hormones. (Short version: try to pull your belly button to your spine and pulse a few times. That’s it. I am not talking about a strenuous workout here, you are just trying to get the left and right halves of your abs to be friends again.)
5. Afterpains – these are contractions after you give birth. They help the uterus go back to its normal size. Supposedly you don’t feel them too much with the first baby and after that they get worse with each kid. Well, I definitely felt them after The Boy, and they didn’t feel good…but they were much worse after The Girl. When you breastfeed, your body releases oxytocin which triggers these contractions so it can be really hard to focus on your baby when you’re in pain. My midwife recommends this stuff called After Ease. There are a few different ways you can take it; I squirted a dropperful into my water bottle every time I filled it up. I started using it right after I had The Girl and I was skeptical about how well it actually worked…until I ran out. Then I promptly bought some more.
6. Hunger (and thirst) – I thought I was hungry when I was pregnant. Oh, no. That was just a foretaste (ha!) of Hunger. The first few weeks of The Boy’s life I was RAVENOUS. Beyond ravenous. I was so hungry it felt like I would never be able to eat enough. I was so thirsty it felt like I would never be able to drink enough. If you have someone helping you after baby is born make sure they know to keep the fridge and pantry fully stocked, and ask them to make you snacks. You will spend so much time nursing and changing diapers (and sleeping whenever you can) that it will be easy to skip meals (even though you’re SO FREAKING HUNGRY). Make sure you are getting plenty of protein and fresh fruits and vegetables. Your helper can wash the fruit ahead of time or cut it up if necessary so it’s grab-and-go easy for you. If you don’t have a helper, try to get your fridge stocked ahead of time or ask a friend to bring you some. Also, whether you have a helper or not, it is a good idea to put some meals in the freezer before baby comes. Don’t wait until the last minute to do this…I may have had a bad experience with procrastination on this one.
7. Sweating/leaking fluids – You have a lot of extra fluids when you’re pregnant, and I don’t just mean your amniotic fluid. Your blood volume drastically increases too. After baby is born, your body needs to get rid of all that extra fluid, so you will still find yourself peeing all the time and for a while you may also wake up at night to find yourself drenched in sweat. Additionally, you may also leak milk for a while – days or weeks for some, months for others. After a few nights of waking up soaking wet all over in milk and sweat, I started sleeping on towels. One for the upper body for the sweat and milk (I was sticking a prefold diaper in my shirt, leaking straight through that and still had a puddle of milk around me), and one under my hips/bottom in case of a pad leak. (Postpartum is a very undignified time in your life.) It is way easier to toss a wet towel on the floor and grab a clean one (or two) than to change the sheets, especially if you have to wake up daddy. This time is very short, usually a few days to a week, although the milk leaking may last longer. Breastmilk does stain so use towels you don’t mind having spots on. If your baby is sleeping with you, make sure the towel is big enough for them too because babies spit up and their diapers leak. There are just a lot of fluids going on.
8. Hair loss – After a few months – around 4, in my experience – all your hair will fall out. Even if you know this is coming, even if your friends warn you that it is A LOT of hair that will fall out, you will find yourself in the shower thinking “DEAR GOD, I HAVE CANCER, HOW WILL MY BABY EAT WHEN I DIE?!?!?!” It is a terrible amount of hair. The hair that is left will be noticeably thinner; you will find yourself wrapping that ponytail holder around an extra time or two. Then, around month 7 or 8, just when you think you are more bald than not, your hair will start to grow back so you will have a super-attractive halo of teeny little hairs that stick up all over the place.
9. Nipple pain – Everyone says it’s not normal, but it IS common, and while you get the kinks worked out of how to teach a baby to latch on you want to keep your nipples intact. My very favorite nipple cream/balm is Mustela Nursing Comfort Balm. You can get it at Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby. They gave me a little sample packet of it at the hospital in France – the only thing they gave me – and I loved it. I acted like that stuff was gold cream the way I treasured it and used it so sparingly. For some reason it did not occur to me to give it to The Husband and tell him to go buy me a whole tube of it. Anyway, I like that it doesn’t have lanolin in it and the texture is like lotion, so it just soaks in and doesn’t stain your clothes or feel sticky. It’s great stuff.
The most important thing you can know about postpartum recovery is REST. Rest rest rest rest rest. Don’t go to the mall, don’t go for long walks, don’t do any housework that isn’t absolutely necessary for survival. Just stay in bed with your baby and rest. Besides being great for breastfeeding and bonding, you will heal so much faster and better if you take the first few weeks to simply rest. Gather a “kit” of your recovery supplies before your birth so you don’t feel the need to go to the store. Instead, you can focus your attention and whatever energy you have on getting to know your sweet baby!