During pregnancy, first-time mothers often fixate on the physical sensations associated with labor and birth. They wonder what contractions will feel like and if they will need or want pain medication. They worry how a vaginal delivery might affect their future intimate interactions with their partners; and perhaps they may think about what factors may cause them to have a Cesarean section. Sometimes, however, women don’t think about the physical feelings they may have after their babies have been born. Recovery from childbirth, whether vaginal or Cesarean, is a unique time for mothers.
A woman’s physical recovery from childbirth will be as unique as she is. Every person’s pain threshold is personal – some people are bothered more by the same sensations that may not bother another person much. When labor and birth is uncomplicated, many women feel little discomfort during recovery. The more complicated the delivery, the more challenging the recovery can be. Full recovery from a vaginal delivery is likely to take four to six weeks. If a woman has an episiotomy or has experienced any tearing in her perineum or vagina, it typically takes almost two weeks for the flesh to heal and the stitches used to repair the tears to dissolve. Toward the end of this period, women may notice pieces of stitches on toilet paper or in the toilet bowl after urinating. This is not uncommon. At first the stitched area may be painful; sometimes women will feel a burning sensation or discomfort when sitting down. The pressure from sitting may actually feel good, as pressure can help numb the area. If this doesn’t work, sitting on a nursing pillow, such as a Boppy, can also help. As the skin heals, it is likely to feel itchy. It is important not to scratch the area! Mild itching means the wound is healing. You may also find that bowel movements are difficult for a few days. To make the elimination process easier, make sure to drink lots of fluids and take a stool softener, like Colace.
What about C-Section
If you’ve had a Cesarean delivery, your recovery will be different. A c-section is major abdominal surgery. Your hospital stay will be longer than with a vaginal delivery, likely three or four days. Though all women recovering from childbirth need to take it slow during the first few weeks after birth, women who have had c-sections must follow more strict recovery instructions during the first six weeks. The incision will heal more slowly than a tear or episiotomy will, though the sensations will be similar: pain at the site is typically followed by itchiness. Women recovering from c-sections will also feel pain when they try to sit up in bed or roll over. Sometimes women report wincing in pain when laughing as well. This is normal. The muscles and connective tissue at the incision have been separated and cut, so it will be difficult for women to use these muscles properly for several weeks following surgery. At the same time, moving is very important to your recovery as it prevents blood clots from forming. After the first day, taking short walks is an excellent idea. During the first several days you may experience gas or bloating; this is normal as your body resets itself after surgery. You should not lift anything heavier than your baby in order to protect the abdominal incision from re-opening. Most women should not drive for two full weeks following surgery. If the incision becomes red or tender, or if you have a fever, call your doctor.
What is lochia?
All women experience lochia, no matter how they delivered their babies. Lochia is like a heavy period, and it can last from a week to almost six weeks. If you are too active too early, this bleeding may increase. Let your lochia be your method for monitoring your activity level. All women, regardless of whether they choose to breastfeed their babies, also experience breast changes. On average, a new mother’s milk “comes in” sometime between the second and fifth day after her baby’s birth. If a mom is nursing her infant, the best thing she can do to alleviate any engorgement or discomfort is to breastfeed her baby every few hours. If a mom is choosing to formula feed, she should wear a supportive and snug bra (no wires!) for support. After your milk comes in, it should three to four days for your hormones to return to their normal levels, indicating to your brain and breasts that no more milk needs to be produced.
I’ve heard of abdominal binders and compression garments. Why would I need this?
An abdominal binder is a special compression garment that you wear around your midsection. You may be wondering why you would need to wear an abdominal binder after having a baby. The reasons for wearing an abdominal binder are typically related to surgery or childbirth – or sometimes, both! Maybe it seems like putting extra pressure on your belly might even hurt. On the contrary, compression is a common technique used to speed healing, often after surgery or after an injury like a sprained ankle. Compression offers support to the area that is healing. Compression also increases blood flow and reduces swelling, both of which are key components of the healing process.
The purpose of an abdominal binder it to promote healing through compression. During pregnancy, your baby takes up an amazing amount of space inside your body. Your abdominal muscles are stretched to their limit, and your lower back muscles must compensate for the shift in your center of gravity. The growing baby pushes your internal organs out of the way as he grows and grow. By the end of your pregnancy, your stomach has been pushed up close to your heart! As anyone who has had a baby knows, it takes some time before you return to your pre-pregnancy shape. When your baby is born, she leaves behind an empty uterus – and it takes approximately six weeks for this organ to shrink back to its normal size. Likewise, your organs do not immediately return to their pre-pregnancy locations, either. An abdominal binder, however, can speed this process along.
Wearing an abdominal binder as soon as possible after childbirth – no matter if you delivered vaginally or with a c-section – works wonders for your healing process. You should feel like your lower back is supported, even though your adbominal muscles are not yet able to do this job on their own. The compression, along with the natural after-birth contractions that you have, pushes your uterus from the outside in, helping it find its pre-pregnancy shape and location. The same is true for your other abdominal organs: compression can help your stomach and intestines drop back into their previous position. Binding your abdomen can also remind your abdominal muscles how to behave. Though you may not be consciously tightening your abs, the compression helps them snap back from being stretched to accomodate your baby. If you had a c-section, an abdominal binder is a must for your healing process. Compression over your incision will help reduce the pain that many women feel when they laugh, cry, or even roll over in bed. Wearing a compression garment will help your incision heal faster, too, because compression will increase blood flow to that area and help reduce the swelling around your incision.
The emotional changes for the mother after the birth of her baby are not to be overlooked. Many women – as much as 80% of women – experience baby blues, a mild and short depression a few days after having their babies. During this period, new mothers are likely to cry and feel as if they are unable to control their emotions. This is normal and typically passes after a few days. Many new moms are unprepared for this emotional rollercoaster, and it helps if another mother (maybe even the new mother’s own mother) can briefly share her own experience. It helps to assure the new mother that this difficult patch will pass. If it does not pass after several days, it is a good idea for the new mother to get in touch with her OB/GYN’s office for an appointment to discuss her symptoms.
Overall new mothers deserve great patience, from others as well as from themselves. Having a baby, whether it is your first time or your third or your sixth, is a major life adjustment. For the most part, it is a joyful adjustment, but there are always challenges in the process. As you integrate your new baby into your daily life, be patient and know that the adjustment is certainly not immediate. Many women look back and realize that integrating a new person into their families was a process that took many months, not just the short hours of labor and delivery.