What is the postpartum period?
The first six weeks after giving birth is known as the postpartum period. As well as navigating those early days with a newborn, you’ll also be getting used to a different sort of body shape.
As much as you might want to spring back into your pre-baby jeans like a celebrity, it’s more important to nurture it as it heals.
What happens immediately after giving birth?
Your body will go through a number of changes immediately after giving birth, so we’ve rounded up all you need to know about your body after pregnancy.
After birth, many of us are surprised that our tummies don’t look flatter. This is because you can still look pregnant while your uterus shrinks to its usual size. Breastfeeding can help, as the nursing hormones help the womb contract.
You’ll feel strong muscle cramps, like period pains that can be quite sharp. Don’t forget that your tummy muscles have stretched too, and you are not advised to start exercising seriously until after your six-week check-up. Watch out for diastasis recti, where the muscles of the abdomen have not yet healed. Speak to your GP if you suspect this.
You will be passing blood after the birth, sometimes with a very heavy flow. This is called lochia, lasts up to 36 days and is the body getting rid of the blood, mucus and tissue that lined your womb during pregnancy.
You’ll need to use extra absorbent sanitary towels (leave tampons until after the six-week check). Lochia may be heavier and darker when you breastfeed, and you may pass clots - this is all normal. The only time to worry is if you are losing a lot of blood in large clots, or if you pass more than a pint of blood or many large clots during the first day after birth.
If you had a vaginal tear or an episiotomy, you would have had stitches. Keep them clean by bathing or showering daily and gently pat dry. Take painkillers if they are sore (check which you can take with your pharmacist if you’re breastfeeding) and speak to your midwife if you have concerns.
Using the loo
You may be anxious about going to the loo after birth, as urine can sting if you’re sore. If you have stitches, you may worry about them popping when you need to poo. Drink plenty of water to ensure urine is not too concentrated and hold a pad over your stitches when you need to go.
A mild laxative may also help. In the early days, your pelvic floor may be looser, so you may wee when you sneeze, cough or laugh. This should resolve itself in a while – keep doing your pelvic floor exercises!
At first, your breasts produce a thin, yellowish liquid called colostrum, which is your baby’s first food. By the third or fourth day, your milk should have ‘come in’ properly.
You may have tender or sore nipples, so make sure you have a good, supportive bra, breast pads, nipple cream and a good friend or breastfeeding consultant at hand to show you how to get your baby to latch on properly.
Your postpartum body from birth to week six
What changes should you see in your body from birth to week six?
The first week
In the first week, your vagina may be sore, you’re bleeding and having contractions as your uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy size. If you had a Caesarean, your stitches and abdomen will be sore, plus moving and lifting is difficult.
Emotionally, it’s very likely you’ll be quite hormonal, tired and tearful – especially around the third day. Remember, this is normal, and it’s ok to feel a bit overwhelmed – you are not alone. Make sure you have someone you can lean on for support during these early days.
The second week
As you move into the second week, the bleeding lessens, and your stitches may start to itch as they heal. Make sure you watch out for blocked milk ducts in your breasts and keep some nipple cream to hand. If you had a Caesarean, you’ll find you can move a little more easily.
Mentally, this can be a tough week and some women may get ‘baby blues’ – though this is different to postnatal depression, which you need to keep a look out for. Try to get out each day for some fresh air and exercise.
Week two to week week six
Gradually, these signs of healing will continue until by week six, your uterus should have shrunk back to its pre-pregnancy size, and you’ll have your six-week check-up – which means you can get back to driving, exercise – and sex (if you want to!).
Your bleeding should have practically stopped, though it can occur again temporarily around the time you might have your next period. Tears and episiotomies should be healed by now. C-section mums can start lifting again—nothing too heavy—and their scar might be itchy, with patches of numb skin above. You may continue to feel tired and overwhelmed – that’s normal, though if you have feelings of depression or anxiety, speak to your doctor, and get some help.
Will my body be permanently changed?
Your postpartum body may not be quite the same as before; you may have stretch marks, a C-section scar and your breasts will have changed due to feeding your baby. Some slackness of skin and muscles in the tummy area is inevitable.
Some women will continue to have backache, some pain around the pelvis, incontinence, and sore breasts for a while after the six-week postpartum period. Most of this is natural and will resolve itself with gentle exercise and the healing of time. Don’t be in too much of a hurry!
How can I ‘tighten’ my body after pregnancy?
If you want to get back into some exercise after giving birth, the best advice is to go slowly with just a little at a time. Incorporate some exercise into each day such as a walk in the park with your baby in the pram or a carrier; as well as giving you and baby some fresh air (which helps them sleep), you will also boost your mood, as being in nature can improve your mental health.
When you are ready for more structured exercise, join a yoga class or gym where you can get good help and advice; your instructor should have experience with new mums, so look for a class that’s for women like you. This is also a great way to meet other new mums and their babies, which can give you a great group of friends.
Listen to your body and do not do too much – after all, you are still caring for your baby and your nights are probably broken, so take it easy.