Painful Realities of Postpartum Recovery
by Dana Sullivan
What will you face during the days and weeks after recovery? We share the realities (no sugar-coating!) -- and tips to help you feel better
No one knows better than you that pregnancy is an amazing journey. But after you give birth, your body goes through another round of dramatic emotional and physical changes. You probably feel both sheer joy and utter exhaustion, and you may be experiencing physical pain that you didn't expect. As Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway wrote in their classic pregnancy guide, What to Expect When You're Expecting, "You probably worked harder birthing your child than most boxers work in the ring. So it isn't surprising that … you look and feel as though you've gone several rounds."
Here are some of the most common postpartum complaints from new moms -- and advice from The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on the best ways to treat them:
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 1: Afterbirth Contractions
After you give birth, your uterus must continue contracting in order to get back to its original size. These contractions aren't as painful as labor contractions, but they can be intense and uncomfortable. They may intensify during breastfeeding, since suckling stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which contracts the uterus.
The good news: New moms' contractions will decrease over the next few days. Try to keep your bladder empty, and when the pain is severe, lie on your stomach with a pillow beneath your abdomen. If you've had a C-section and can't lie on your tummy, practice the same relaxation techniques you used during labor, such as deep breathing and visualization.
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 2: Breast Engorgement
When your milk comes in (two to five days after delivery), your breasts may become painfully full and hard. If you're not breast-feeding, the engorgement should subside within a few days. If you're breast-feeding, it may take a week or more for your baby and your breasts to work out a supply-and-demand relationship. Until then, here are a few things new moms can do:
- Apply bags of crushed ice to your breasts several times a day
- Stand under a warm shower, which should trigger letdown and release some milk
- Express a little breast milk with a breast pump or by hand
- Massage your breasts, stroking gently but firmly toward the nipple
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 3: Difficulty Urinating
The bladder and urethra are right next to the birth canal and can become stretched and bruised during delivery. (If you had an epidural or a C-section, the effects of the anesthesia may also make it difficult to urinate for the first postpartum day or so.)
To get your bladder working again:
- Drink water immediately after delivery
- Run water in the bathroom sink (hearing running water may increase the urge to empty your bladder)
- Stand or walk (gravity may help)
- Soak your bottom in a tub of warm water
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 4: Episiotomy
Good hygiene is essential while your wound heals. Take warm sitz baths to keep your bottom clean and to soothe soreness:
- Use a warm-water rinse on your bottom while you urinate to reduce the stinging caused by the acidic urine running over the wound
- Place ice packs on your bottom
- Place a pad soaked with witch hazel between your perineum and sanitary pad
If the pain is unmanageable, ask your physician to prescribe pain medication.
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 5: Hemorrhoids
The best way to prevent hemorrhoids is to avoid constipation. But if it's too late for that, here are a few tips:
- Take a hot sitz bath two or three times a day for 10 minutes each time
- Apply cold compresses with witch hazel several times a day -- it may bring comfort
- Try sleeping on your side, which takes pressure off the rectal veins
- Avoid standing or sitting for hours at a time
- Don't strain during bowel movements (elevating your feet on a footstool may make it easier to avoid straining)
If none of these home remedies relieves the discomfort, ask your physician to recommend a stool softener and a medicated topical cream.
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 6: Gas Pains
New moms' bowels are traumatized by childbirth, just as your bladder is. The muscles may be sluggish, which can cause constipation and a gassy, bloated feeling. If you've had a cesarean, the pain may be very intense. A few tips:
- Drink and eat small amounts, slowly and often
- Avoid foods that are known to cause gas, such as beans, onions, cabbage, broccoli, and fried and sugary foods
- Ask your physician to suggest a gas-relieving medication
Postpartum Recovery Reality No. 7: Cesarean-section Incision Pain
New moms are given pain medication to take for at least the first few days following a C-section. It may make you feel woozy, but it will help you sleep -- something the pain would likely prevent. If your stitches aren't the type that dissolves, you'll need to have them removed by your health care provider, probably within four or five days after delivery. She'll tell you how the incision should look and feel while it heals, but if you notice any of the following symptoms, call her immediately:
- Fever over 100.4 F
- Nausea and vomiting
- Painful urination
- Bleeding that is heavier than your normal period
- Pain, swelling or signs of infection
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Women's Health: Painful Realities of Postpartum Recovery