What is Postpartum Recovery?

wiseGEEK Writer

Postpartum means after labor and delivery, and it is conventionally thought that this time period extends for approximately six weeks. Some would argue, that especially from an emotional standpoint, the six-week time period is a little limited. Whatever the measures of recovery in weeks, there are lots of things to expect from postpartum recovery, and these include changes to the body and emotional changes. There can also be things to look for as potential warning signs that the body or mental status is not making a healthy recovery.

A drop in pregnancy hormones can cause crying.
A drop in pregnancy hormones can cause crying.

Postpartum recovery in the first few hours and days is marked by physical discomfort, where women can expect to continue to feel some contractions as the uterus shrinks in size. Breastfeeding women should be particularly prepared for larger contractions when they nurse their babies. Knowing in advance that these may occur is a good plan because they can be hugely uncomfortable and shocking, especially the first few times they occur. As the days pass, these contractions will pass too.

Postpartum depression may arise within a month after a woman has given birth.
Postpartum depression may arise within a month after a woman has given birth.

On the topic of breastfeeding, whether or not this is a woman’s choice, the breasts typically engorge with milk on the third or fourth day after labor. This can feel very swollen, and it might make nursing a little difficult for a day or two. Once mother and baby have established a supply and demand routine, this swelling typically goes down or only occurs on time with the baby’s usual nursing schedule. Not breastfeeding means ultimately that the milk supply ceases, though this doesn’t necessarily occur immediately.

Women can expect postpartum recovery to include vaginal bleeding and soreness if the perineum had tearing or if there was an episiotomy performed. A little spray with antibacterial or antiseptic spray may be needed with each bathroom use. Having a bowel movement is likely to be painful at first, and if very difficult, might require a laxative, though this isn’t always recommended. Bleeding looks very much like bleeding during a menstrual period, but it can last longer — up to six weeks.

Postpartum recovery also encompasses an emotional recovery from pregnancy and childbirth, and this can take some time as emotions run high. First, breastfeeding moms have their bodies flooded with hormones that help them to lactate, and all moms are experiencing a sudden drop in pregnancy hormones. This may cause sudden crying, laughter, intense feelings of love, and a variety of other “emotional attacks.”

All of the things mentioned above are usual, but most of them can also progress to a stage where they are not healthy. For instance, the emotional times expected during postpartum recovery could become much more severe, with mom rejecting baby, with severe desire to commit suicide or hurt the baby, or with a never-ending experience of extreme emotions. This is postpartum depression or psychosis, and needs to be addressed so treatment can begin.

Similarly, normal bleeding after pregnancy is expected, but bleeding that saturates more than one pad an hour or that has the presence of large blood clots in it is not normal, especially after the first few days. This suggests hemorrhage and immediate treatment is needed. Very swollen breasts might make it impossible to nurse, or failure of the breast to respond by producing milk could require a doctor’s help or a lactation consultant’s support. Also, continued contractions that are extremely severe suggest seeing a doctor right away to establish maternal health.

Other sets of rules will apply for women experiencing postpartum recovery after a c-section. These could include recommendations on when to become more active, discussions of what signs might indicate infection, and addressing pain relief from surgical wounds. Within about eight weeks, though, most women are able to resume a normally active life, and the postpartum period is considered over.

Breastfeeding women may experience larger uterine contractions.
Breastfeeding women may experience larger uterine contractions.

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