As a new mom, there were some postpartum changes that really shocked me. Quite a few of them, actually. Having a baby should be the most natural thing in the world, right? Our bodies were made for this – equipped to handle everything that childbirth involves. Or so we are told.
I must have looked a little nervous when I arrived at the hospital in labor with my first child because the nurse patted my arm in a motherly fashion and said, “Relax honey, you’re body knows what to do.” Does it? I wasn’t so sure. In fact, for the next few weeks, I was convinced that my body didn’t have a clue. Delivery went smoothly, but afterwards, I spent a lot of time worrying, crying, and thinking that there must be something wrong with me. Why isn’t this easier? Why won’t my baby latch on? Why am I still in pain? Why am I so tired? Why,…why…why…
Time, experience – and some hormonal balance – have taught me that prenatal classes (and books, and doctor’s appointments, and even talking to friends) prepare you quite well for pregnancy, labor, and delivery. But, no one tells you that there is a “To Be Continued”. Maybe it’s because no one wants to take away from the beauty and joy of childbirth. Or, maybe it’s because, as Moms, we feel selfish complaining when we should be appreciating our perfect, healthy baby. Whatever the reason, I was completely unprepared for “Part Two” – what happens after your baby is born.
Let’s be honest, pregnancy isn’t easy. You are growing a human life inside of you. That alone puts a lot of demands on your body. Then add to that the stress of labor, delivery, and milk production. Oh, and hormones! Don’t forget about the hormones. Are they a friend or foe?
The point is, while you may have a beautiful baby, there are some not-so-beautiful postpartum effects that may surprise you. But, as shocking as they may seem, they are likely more common than you think. You are not unusual, and you are not alone. Your body will just need some love, care, rest, and – most importantly – time. I learned that I didn’t need to ask, “Why?” The answer was obvious: I just had a baby. And, I needed to give my body time to heal and recover.
20 Postpartum Changes That You Might Not Expect
Everyone’s experience will be different, but here is a list of some postpartum things that may help you be a little more prepared.
1. You Will Feel Weak. Television shows depict new moms sitting in their hospital beds, smiling, looking pretty, proudly passing their baby to the many visitors who have come to congratulate them. If this is what you are expecting, prepare to be shocked. That is not reality. At least it wasn’t mine. By the time I pushed an 8.5 pound baby out of my body, I was sweaty, my hair was wet and stuck to my face, and my arms were so weak I could barely hold my newborn. There was no way I was able to lift her up so I could show her off or pass her to the nearest relative. My legs were so rubbery that I needed help walking to the restroom, and just climbing back into bed seemed overwhelming.
Your body has just endured a major event. You are going to be weak and shaky. It is not uncommon for your blood pressure to drop, so you could feel dizzy or light-headed. Some moms say that sipping water or eating something helps, but mostly, your body just needs time to recover from the shock.
2. You Will Still Look Pregnant. I was so sick during my first pregnancy that I actually lost weight. So, I made the silly assumption that I would be able to leave the hospital in my pre-pregnancy clothes. I wasn’t expecting to fit into my skinny jeans, but surely sweatpants would be fine, right? Nothing in my hospital bag fit. I was completely discouraged when I had to wear maternity clothes home.
Remember that your stomach muscles have been stretched. A lot! So, they are not going to spring right back the minute the baby is born. Unfortunately, most doctors say that you can expect to still look 6 months pregnant. And this is true even if you have watched your weight gain and stayed in shape during your pregnancy. But, take heart. Most of that is just saggy skin, a stretched out uterus, and bloating. Everything should shrink back to its usual size within 6-12 weeks.
Sadly, any non-baby weight gain will not magically shrink away. That may require some diet and exercise.
3. Your Breasts Will Hurt. During your pregnancy, you might have heard about ‘engorgement‘, but I don’t think you ever really understand it until you experience it. And experience it, you will! The first couple of days aren’t so bad, but about the third day your breasts will fill with enough milk to feed four babies. They will feel heavy, hard, swollen, and sore. Nursing will help, but usually you just have to wait it out. Eventually, your body will figure out how much milk you need and the extreme engorgement should settle down.
In the meantime, there are a few things that you can do. Warm cloths or a warm shower can help release a little milk which should provide some relief. Breast shells may also be helpful. One mom even told me that she used ice packs to help with the swelling. But, be sure to warn your breasts up before nursing! Also, it’s not unusual for your breasts to leak a lot during the first few weeks, so breast shells or nursing pads would be a good investment.
4. Breastfeeding Is Hard. While we are on the topic of breasts, lets discuss the next surprising postpartum change – breastfeeding can be hard. Sometimes, it can be really hard! I don’t know why, but most of us have the idea that it should be the easiest, most natural thing in the world. Your baby should instinctively know how to latch on, and your breasts should co-operate. But, it doesn’t usually work that way. If it were that simple, there wouldn’t be lactation consultants.
Teaching your newborn how to latch on can be difficult when your breasts are hard and engorged. Plus, it’s challenging to correctly position a tiny little baby – they are sleepy, their hands flail randomly, and they keep wanting to curl up into the fetal position.
Also, breastfeeding can be painful. My baby wanted to eat every half-hour. Not only was this exhausting, but my nipples became so sore and cracked that I dreaded the thought of nursing her. I almost gave up until my doctor recommended nipple shields. One mom told me that the first 15 seconds of each feeding felt like her breasts were being stabbed with knives. She was ready to throw in the towel and buy some bottles until someone suggested trying a different nursing position. It worked!
Bottom line: Quite often, breastfeeding is trial and error. You have to work with your baby to figure it out. You are both learning. For some, it will come easier than others. You may need a nursing pillow, some lanolin cream, breast shields or shells, or a pump. But mostly, you’ll need patience. And, don’t be afraid to contact a lactation expert. They can save you a lot of time and frustration.
5. You Will Have Post-Labor Contractions. These are sometimes called after pains. Your uterus stretched during pregnancy, and now it wants to shrink back to its original size. These pains will be even stronger during breastfeeding (McEnvoy, 2018). This is because, when you breastfeed, your body produces oxytocin, a hormone that causes uterine contractions. Some moms say they feel like they are in labor all over again. But, there is no reason to worry. While it can be very uncomfortable, it is all part of the recovery process.
6. There Will Be A Lot Of Blood. As your uterus contracts, it will get rid of the pregnancy lining that built up to help nourish your baby. This means you will bleed. A lot! When you are breastfeeding or when you move a certain way, you may even feel a “gush”. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Oh, and there might be the occasional clot. It’s not fun, but it is normal, and it can last for up to 6 weeks. Some moms say that this blood can also be quite smelly, so don’t be shocked if you notice an usual or strong odor.
While heavy bleeding is to be expected, if it becomes severe and you begin to feel dizzy, have heart rate changes, or faint, seek immediate medical attention. (Kadir, 2014)
7. You Will Be Sore From Tearing, Stitches, Or Bruising. You may tear or need an episiotomy during delivery, and this will require stitches to repair. For me, the longest part of the delivery process was the time it took the doctor to put me back together. I had so many stitches, I couldn’t sit down for a week!
As expectant moms, we are prepared for the pain of labor, but the pain you will feel after delivery is extremely understated. Babies are small, but when you are pushing them out of your body, it can feel like you are giving birth to a football player. No matter how far your hips open or how elastic your vagina may be, you will feel at least a little discomfort afterwards. Some ladies have those dream deliveries where they don’t tear or bruise at all, but for most of us, there will be soreness and swelling. Some moms even describe a feeling of heaviness or pressure when they first stand up. Others also report itchiness and stinging. Whatever your experience, it is safe to say that you will be sitting on a donut pillow, icing the area, taking sitz baths, or moving slowly for at least a few days.
8. Using the Restroom Will Hurt. One thing that I found very surprising (and somewhat irritating) was my inability to pee after giving birth. I felt like my bladder was full, but my body wasn’t giving it up. The nurse gave me a squirt bottle (peri bottle) to spray on the area, she ran water, and she even had me stand up and sit back down several times. Nothing worked. I was in a battle with my bladder, and I was determined to win. Eventually I did. But, be forewarned, the urine will really sting, especially if you have stitches.
And, what about bowel movements? Well, I put that off as long as possible (remember, I had hundreds of stitches. Ok, that’s an exaggeration. I’m not really sure how many. When I asked the doctor, she just said, “A lot!”). Anyway, for the first few days, bowel movements can be scary and uncomfortable. I asked a midwife for suggestions, and the first thing she told me was Don’t Strain. Don’t force it. Just drink plenty of fluids, avoid constipating foods, and take a stool softener if necessary. That part of your body took a beating, so a little pain is normal. If it’s extreme, talk to a medical professional, but otherwise, you just have to give your body time to heal.
9. This is actually quite common, so don’t be embarrassed. Lack of bladder control for the first few weeks after delivery is not unusual. You might leak a little when you cough, sneeze, laugh, or stand up too quickly. For some women, it may be a very small amount, while others will feel like they are wetting themselves. But, don’t worry! These muscles can be strengthened with Kegel exercises.
10. Sweating And/Or Chills. Immediately after giving birth to my second child I began to shake and shiver uncontrollably. I couldn’t even hold my baby. The doctor said it was shock because I had such a quick delivery. The nurse told me it was a normal reaction because my body was recovering from a stressful event.
When I go running outside in the winter, I don’t start to sweat until after I come back into the house. The same principle applies to childbirth. My body was focused on a task, and when the stress of it was all over, I experienced an adrenaline drop. They had to put heavy heated blankets on me, and it was at least a couple of hours before I felt safe holding my newborn.
Also, you experience a lot of hormonal changes after delivery. It’s kind of like menopause (now you know what to look forward to!). You may have hot flashes or night sweats. Some moms told me that they alternated from hot flashes to cold flashes (yes, this is a real thing). You may even notice that your underarms smell more – or different – than usual. Again, this is normal. It may take a few weeks, or even a few months, but your hormones will eventually balance themselves out.
11. You Will Want To Eat And Drink All The Time. This is especially true if you are breastfeeding. Your body is trying to regain its strength while also producing enough nourishment for your baby. Not only do you need extra fluids to make milk, but you are also losing quite a bit through all that excessive sweating that we talked about. So, you may feel more thirsty than usual. Drink plenty of extra water, and don’t worry if you crave a second helping at dinner time. As long as it’s healthy, it shouldn’t be a problem. After all, you are eating for two, right?
12. You Will Learn The Definition Of Sleep Deprivation. We have all been told that new moms don’t get a lot of rest, but I don’t think we truly understand what this entails until we are running on less than two hours sleep for the fourth day in a row. Lack of sleep can make us feel emotional, insecure, and frustrated. Trying to function when you are tired is hard, especially when you know that there is not a good night’s sleep in sight.
On about week three postpartum, I can remember calling my Mother and begging her to come over so I could have an uninterrupted shower and a two hour nap. Which brings me to my next point: don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, getting a few hours sleep is the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby.
13. You Will Have A Very Low Energy Level. You know that nesting stage that everyone talks about? Take advantage of it! Once your baby is born, all that extra energy will disappear. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Childbirth is exhausting. Plus, blood loss can lower iron levels, which can also zap your energy. So, don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t feel like cooking a meal or cleaning your house.
There was a time when mothers stayed in the hospital for an entire week after having a baby. Can you imagine? Now, the average stay is less than 24 hours, and home births are becoming more popular. Fifty years ago, moms weren’t expected to do laundry or wash the kitchen floor two days after delivery. But today, for some reason, we get frustrated about our low energy levels. I think we expect too much from ourselves. For those first few days, the focus should be on meeting your baby’s needs and then resting and recovering whenever possible. If undone jobs really bother you, ask family and friends to lend a hand. Remember, it’s ok to ask for help.
14. Crying, Crying, And Then More Crying. It’s that hormone thing again. I’m typically not a crier, but I was amazed at how many tears I shed. One mom told me that for the first 3 days she cried all the time, but she wasn’t sad. She said the only way she could describe it was “everything was changing”.
It might be the anticipation you feel during pregnancy. It might be the sudden realization that you are responsible for this new little life. It might be that you are tired, sore, and overwhelmed. Whatever the reason, having a baby is an emotional experience. Put that together with all the hormonal and physical changes that your body is going through, and you can expect to be a bit of a hot mess for a week or two.
As moms, we think that we should be overjoyed at the birth of a healthy baby, so we feel ashamed when those negative emotions get the best of us. But, here’s the truth: you can be ecstatic and still feel like you are riding an emotional roller coaster. Crying isn’t wrong. Feeling overwhelmed isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s VERY normal.
Being emotional is different from postpartum depression, which is also a very real – and very serious – condition. If you are unable to get out of bed, lose interest in your baby, or experience personality changes, it is important that you seek the help of a medical professional.
15. Your Hair May Fall Out. Blame this on hormones, too! After childbirth, your estrogen levels fall, and this could cause postpartum hair loss. Don’t worry, it will grow back. But, surprisingly, some moms even said that their hair changed. Curly hair became straight and straight hair started to curl. As hormone levels balance out, your hair may return to its pre-pregnancy texture, but not always.
16. Your Tailbone May Hurt. No one told me about this one until after delivery. And then it was too late. Apparently, there are certain birthing positions that can put pressure on the tailbone and cause bruising. A nurse told me that body structure also plays a role. It may be something to speak to your midwife or doctor about, because a tailbone can take a long time to heal!
17. Postpartum Anxiety Is Not Unusual. Being responsible for a newborn can be overwhelming – and sometimes a little scary. Ok, maybe a lot scary. Are they warm enough? Are they gaining enough weight? Are they crying too much? You may find yourself checking on them just to make sure their little tummies are still moving up and down.
When my daughter was about 3 days old, I remember calling ER and telling them that my baby was having a hard time breathing. The nurse on the other end of the line very patiently replied with, “I think she is breathing just fine because I can hear her crying.” Newborns breath funny, right? And, being a new mom, I had interpreted a couple of “raspy” sounding breaths as “she’s gasping and choking and crying because she can’t breathe.” Illogical? I know. But, it was real to me. I was so worried that I was going to do something wrong, or miss something important, that I overreacted.
A friend of mine said that she always thought taking care of a baby should be second nature, that you would just automatically know what to do. But this wasn’t the case. She had so many questions and so many situations when she wasn’t sure what to do. Her greatest source of anxiety came from this lack of knowledge and the fear that she would make the wrong decision. When she was brave enough to mention this to someone, they suggested a Mom’s Support Group. Now, she has three children, but she continues to attend the group so she can be an encouragement and help to other new moms who may be struggling with the same things.
Having a baby is a life changer. It’s a new experience, and one that we can’t completely prepare for. So, being a little anxious is to be expected, at least until we adjust to our new role of being a mother. If this anxiety starts to affect your ability to function and take proper care of your baby, seek medical attention immediately.
18. You May Feel Shame. This is probably the one postpartum change that surprised me the most. To be brutally honest, some moms can be judgemental. Maybe they don’t intend to be. Maybe their confidence draws out my insecurity. Maybe they are just passionate about how they believe. Or, maybe I’m just too sensitive. I’ll blame it on hormones…again! For me, breastfeeding was not easy, so I considered switching to bottles – or at least supplementing. Gasp! You would have thought that I was setting my child up for a life of sickness and failure to even entertain such an idea. I felt like giving into this desire would make me a bad mom. Yes, I agree that breastfeeding is best for the baby, but sometimes it’s not an option.
I spoke with a distraught mom who had mentioned to friends that, at the advice of her midwife, she put her baby on a schedule rather than feeding on demand. The backlash she received was so extreme that she cried for two days. Being a mom is hard. We all do the best we can. And, every baby is different. As long as they are happy and healthy, we are doing a good job. Moms should be supported, not judged or criticized. I was shocked, but I learned pretty quickly that you have to trust your instincts and develop thicker skin. Don’t let other people’s opinions (and the shame they may cause) stand in the way of doing what is best for you and your baby.
19. It’s Ok To Take Time For Yourself. After delivery, people come to see the new bundle of joy. And, you are happy to show off your newborn. Every proud parent would be. It’s all about the baby, right? But, isn’t it ok to be about you too? Even just a little bit? When my daughter was born, everyone who came brought a gift for the baby. And, I was very appreciative. But, I remember being completely surprised when my friend walked in with a care package for me. There was my favorite chocolate, some luxurious bubble bath, an interior design magazine (because I love decorating), and a homemade coupon that said, “Good for one lunch out. Cash in when you need a break. Both lunch and the babysitter are on me.” I cried. But, it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized just how valuable that little basket was. As moms, we often feel guilty or selfish when we want to take time for ourselves. Our own well-being drops way down on our list of priorities. But, it’s extremely important that we stay healthy, rested, and heal and recover properly. I’ll say it again – it’s Ok to ask for help. Sometimes, we need a little “Me Time”. Don’t let yourself feel guilty about it. It doesn’t make you a bad mom. In fact, it just might make you a better one.
20. It Takes Time. I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. So many of us have the idea that after childbirth we will just “bounce right back”. As already mentioned, this is not typically the case. One mom told me that she had booked a flight to Florida for right after her 6 week checkup because she wanted her grandmother to meet the new baby. She assumed that, by this point, she would be fully recovered, and was shocked when she was still exhausted and experiencing discomfort from tearing. We are pregnant for 9 months, yet we expect to be back to our pre-pregnancy selves in just a couple of weeks. And, we are surprised when it actually takes 6, 8, or even 12 weeks.
Childbirth is an amazing experience, but it can also be a stressful one. Your body spends 9 months preparing for it, so it’s not going to bounce back immediately. And, the road to healing can have some unexpected twists and turns. In those first few days, weeks, and months, your body will go through a lot of changes. Your life will go through a lot of changes. Your baby will go through a lot of changes. It takes time to fully recover and find a balance. So, be kind to yourself! You deserve it!
Guest Author: T. tenBrinke who is a mom herself and volunteers regularly with pregnant and new moms!