Postpartum Recovery

The first six weeks after the delivery of your baby are considered your “recovery” period, eight weeks if you had a cesarean section. But some believe recovery lasts for six months up to one year postpartum. Even if you had the easiest delivery on record (and especially if you didn’t), your body has been stretched and stressed, so it needs time to recover and regroup.

Postpartum Recovery: How to ease and speed your recovery

Assemble Your Postpartum Care Team

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends assembling a postpartum care team to help support you. These are family and friends who can help by:

  • Caring for your newborn and other children
  • Offering breastfeeding support
  • Making meals
  • Doing chores
  • Helping you get to your health care visits
  • Providing emotional support

Maternal care provider

This is your ob-gyn or other obstetric care provider who is in charge of your care during the postpartum period. Call this person first if you have questions about your health after delivery.

Your baby’s primary care provider

This is the pediatrician or other health care provider who is in charge of your baby’s care. Call this person if you have questions about your baby’s health.

Other Professionals

These people may include:

  • Other doctors to help with medical conditions
  • Counselors to help with breastfeeding
  • Nurses, social workers, and other trained professionals

What to expect during your postpartum recovery

Many factors affect how a mother recovers from childbirth including previous deliveries, multiple deliveries, a vaginal or cesarean delivery. Every new mom is different, and recovers at a different rate with different postpartum symptoms.

1 week postpartum

After you give birth, you’ll experience a vaginal discharge called lochia. It contains blood and mucous membrane that lined the uterus during pregnancy. It will appear much like a very heavy period. Bleeding is heaviest for the first three to 10 days, then it will taper off — going from red to pink to brown to yellowish-white. A woman has lochia whether the delivery was vaginal or cesarean. During this time, tampons are off-limits, so rely on pads. If you notice large clots or you’re bleeding through more than one pad every hour, call your doctor to rule out postpartum hemorrhage.

Afterbirth pains also happen regardless of the type of delivery. These pains are from the uterus shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size. Right after childbirth, the uterus is round and hard, and weighs about 2.5 pounds, but it shrinks to 2 ounces within about 6 weeks of delivery.

You breast milk comes in a few days after delivery. The breasts may feel full, tender, or uncomfortable, due to the amount of milk. The medical term for this is engorgement.

If you breastfeed, the uterus will contract during feeding, helping it return to normal size a little faster.

If you decide not to breastfeed, your breasts will still fill, so try these tips to relieve engorgement:

  • Wear a supportive bra and place cold cabbage leaves inside the cups to dry up the milk.
  • Applying a cold ice pack will help relive pain and swelling, but it will not help dry up your supply of breast milk.
  • Shower with your back to the shower spray. If the shower spray hits your breasts, your body will think the baby is sucking and continue to produce milk.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) will help relieve some soreness.
  • No massaging of your breasts – by you or your partner.

Mental health

Estrogen levels drop after delivery, which can cause postpartum depression aka the “baby blues.” These feelings of sadness, irritability, and anxiety affect up to 80% of women.

These symptoms typically resolve on their own within a week or two. Getting as much rest as possible and having a good support system can help these symptoms seem less severe. If they do not, it is a good idea to consult a healthcare provider.

Vaginal delivery

During delivery, the area between the anus and vulva — the perineum — can tear, or the doctor may make an incision called an episiotomy. In either case, a woman may feel soreness in the area during postpartum recovery. Perineal massage during your pregnancy may help prevent tearing or the need for an episiotomy.

Recovery Tips: 

  • Ice your perineum every couple of hours for the first 24 hours post-birth. Make “padsicles” by adding aloe and witch hazel to maternity pads and keep them in the freezer until you need them.
  • Urination can be painful after childbirth. Instead of using toilet paper to wipe, spray warm water over the area before and after peeing to keep urine from irritating torn skin.
  • Try a warm sitz bath for 20 minutes a few times a day to ease pain. Avoid long periods of standing or sitting, and sleep on your side.
  • If you’re achy from pushing, take acetaminophen. Ease overall achiness with hot showers or a heating pad — or even treat yourself to a massage.
  • Do your Kegels. There’s no better way to get your vagina back in shape, make sex more enjoyable for you and your partner, and resolve postpartum urinary incontinence — no matter how you delivered. So get started with postpartum Kegel exercises as soon as you’re comfortably able, and aim for three sets of 20 every day.

Cesarean delivery

C-section deliveries require an average 3-4 day hospital stay. It will take six to eight weeks before you’re feeling back to normal. Depending on whether you pushed and for how long, you can also expect to have some perineal pain.

Before leaving the hospital you will be encouraged to get up and try to go to the bathroom within the first 24 hours after surgery. This will help start the healing process and get you used to moving around with your incision.  Remember to move slowly because you might experience dizziness or shortness of breath.

Recovery Tips:

  • It is important to get out of bed and move around to prevent blood clots from forming.
  • A woman should not lift anything heavy or engage in exercise the first few weeks after a cesarean. By 6 weeks, the doctor may say it’s okay to start lifting again.
  • Take acetaminophen or place a heating pad on your abdomen to help relieve afterbirth pains.
  • Care for your C-section scar by gently cleaning your C-section incision with soap and water once a day. Dry with a clean towel. Talk to your doctor about whether it’s better to cover the wound or leave it open to air out, or if you should apply an antibiotic ointment.
  • Stay regular. Your first postpartum bowel movement can take time, but don’t force things. Eat plenty of fiber-rich foods (whole grains, fruits, veggies), go for walks, and use gentle stool softeners to get and stay regular. Avoid straining, which isn’t good for perineal tears or your C-section scar, if you have either.

2 weeks postpartum

During early breastfeeding, soreness of the breasts is common. Also, a woman will still have lochia, but the flow and the color will be lighter than it was a week ago.

Cesarean delivery

The site of the surgery may begin to itch, but it is crucial to avoid touching it to prevent infection and help speed recovery. A healthcare provider can offer advice about caring for the wound and dealing with irritation.

More general postpartum recovery tips:

Eat well to ease fatigue and fight constipation. Just like you did during pregnancy, aim to eat five smaller meals throughout the day instead of three larger ones. Eat a combination of complex carbs and protein for energy, plus plenty of fiber (found in fruits, veggies and whole grains) to help prevent hemorrhoids: Think whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, veggies with hummus, or yogurt with a handful of berries. Drink at least 64 ounces (about eight glasses) of water every day. And try to skip the alcohol and caffeine, which can affect your moods and make it even more challenging to sleep than it already is with a newborn at home.

Keep moving. Yes, exercise is off limits for at least the first few weeks if you’ve had a C-section, and you won’t be immediately back to hard-core pre-pregnancy workout routines if you had a natural birth. But talk to your doctor about when and how you can exercise. No matter how you delivered, start by taking walks. Stroll around your house and, eventually, around the neighborhood (stroller in tow!). Walking helps with gas and constipation and speeds recovery by boosting circulation and muscle tone. Plus, it boosts your mood and has been shown to help ease depression-like symptoms.

For achy breasts, try using a warm compress or ice packs and gentle massage. Also be sure to wear a comfortable nursing bra. If you’re breastfeeding, let your breasts air out after every nursing session and apply a lanolin cream to prevent or treat cracked nipples.

Keep your doctor appointments. Checking in with your doctor is essential, since it helps ensure that everything is healing as expected. Your OB/GYN can also check in with you emotionally and, if necessary, suggest how to get help to adjust to being a new mom. If you had a C-section, be sure to make your appointment to remove your stitches, as leaving them in for too long can make scars look worse. And of course definitely let your doctor know if you have any symptoms that concern you, like fever, pain or tenderness around an incision.

Want to Know More?

Compiled using information from the following sources:

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Your Postpartum Care Team

Medical News Today: Postpartum Recovery, Postpartum recovery: What to Expect