After all those hours of waiting, discomfort, anticipation, and pampering, your due date is here. If you belong to that almost non-existent species that does not experience labor pains, you are happily tucked in warm blankets, looking forward to holding your baby. If like the rest of womankind, you went through labor, you are groggily looking forward to meeting your little one and ignoring the exhaustion at having been through so much pain.
Your journey as a mother has just begun. The majority of the time in a new mother’s life will be spent taking care of her little one, and this can be a lot for anyone, even if it is not their first baby. The body has already gone through significant changes during pregnancy while preparing for the baby and more during labor and delivery.
A pregnant mother usually gets a lot of advice— how much work she should do, what food she should eat, how much rest she needs, how to prepare for delivery, and so on. Sadly, while everyone keeps track of the pregnancy, not many people are aware that the body also undergoes many changes soon after delivery.
A period that does not get much attention in the months following the delivery. New mothers often overlook their health and body, dedicating their time to care for the little one instead. Even the caretakers such as the baby’s father, the immediate family, and helpers focus on the baby instead of the mother; basics like sleep and rest often tend to get overlooked, primarily due to lack of time.
It is essential to read up on the changes that the body goes through after giving birth to a child.Unprepared new moms are the most susceptible to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or depressed, the very feelings that you do not want to be associated with being a new mother. Giving a new mother the proper preparation to restore her hormones, muscles, and nutrient levels will better her early days of motherhood.
The changes that a body goes through, like everything else, will vary from woman to woman, but at the end of the day, some changes and reactions that the body goes through are pretty much the same. Therefore, understanding some of these critical changes is imperative to prepare for what goes on in the body post delivering the baby.
One of the first things that happen closest to delivery is the hormonal changes in the body. Some hormones in the woman go from really high levels to the lowest levels, during the period just before delivery to just after. For example, immediately after delivery, the stores of the hormones oestrogen and progesterone drop dramatically.
This leads to a condition called baby blues, characterized by mood swings, anxiety, sadness, or irritability, which usually last a week or so after giving birth. If these symptoms get more intense and last longer, interfering with the mother’s daily life, this is called postpartum depression.
In the meantime, there is an overwhelming release of the hormone oxytocin, also referred to as the bonding hormone, immediately after delivery. Oxytocin is responsible for bringing about feelings of protectiveness towards the child, and while levels of oxytocin go up, so does anxiety.
These hormonal changes, particularly the hormones themselves, act on one another, affecting mood and energy levels. Because of the uptick in anxiety, the body’s natural response is to reach out for progesterone, a natural anti-anxiety substance. Still, it is not available as levels are low just after childbirth.
The hormones that regulate body temperature, metabolism, and organ function, are known as thyroid hormones, and these too are subject to change after birth. Postpartum thyroiditis, an inflammation of the thyroid gland, is a common side effect of changing thyroid hormones. Symptoms of thyroiditis include insomnia, anxiety, rapid heart rate, fatigue, weight loss, and irritability during the period of one to four months after birth or fatigue, weight gain, constipation, dry skin, and depression during four to eight months after birth. Therefore, it is recommended that thyroid levels be monitored regularly with blood tests and medications taken as advised by the doctor.
These hormonal changes are not limited to moods and energy either. During pregnancy, the body produces a hormone called relaxin, making all the joints looser in preparation for childbirth. The joints can take up to half a year to return to their earlier stability. Another effect of relaxin that may be combined with weight gain during pregnancy is that it may make the feet bigger and the foot arches a bit flatter, and this effect may be permanent. The hips of the mother may also stay wider due to this effect.
There will be a considerable drop in nutrient levels in the body during the first few months after childbirth. Exhaustion is a symptom most often experienced by mothers, which can be linked to low iron levels. In addition, the blood loss that occurs during delivery may put a mother at a higher risk of an iron deficiency following childbirth.
To boost iron levels, doctors recommend a prenatal multivitamin with iron. In addition to this, it is recommended to eat iron-rich foods. More severe deficiencies will have to be tested out by a doctor, and a recommended course of action will be followed.
Breastfeeding mothers need vitamins A, E, C, and B complex, choline, chromium, copper, iodine, selenium, and zinc. These can be achieved at required levels with a well-balanced diet consisting of healthy foods with some protein and complex carbohydrates.
Breasts: While oestrogen and progesterone levels drop, levels of the hormone that helps make breastmilk called prolactin start going into overdrive. This leads to engorgement, making the breasts bigger than during pregnancy because of increased blood flow and milk. This process is at its peak two to three days after birth and is characterized by stiff and sore breasts. The engorgement will settle down within a few days as the baby breastfeeds.
Uterus, vagina, and vulva: The uterus has been subjected to a lot and will continue to give trouble post-delivery. The first is the afterpains that will feel the same as menstrual cramps, which will begin shortly after delivery and last for two or three days. The contractions from these are what helps the uterus to shrink back to its pre-baby state eventually. The squeeze to the original size will take place over about six weeks as the uterus lowers itself behind the pubic bone.
There will also be a bloody discharge called lochia for up to six weeks after delivery. The blood and mucus that make up this discharge come from the placenta attached to the uterine muscle. With a standard vaginal delivery comes a swollen, bruised, and sore crotch for some time. In the case of a Cesarean section, a puffy belly and painful incision are to be dealt with. Both of these will gradually get better over several weeks with adequate rest and painkillers.
The perineum should be healed at the six-week mark. In some cases, however, the nerves may have been injured, causing numbness or sensitivity, or there can be scar-tissue adhesions. Also, vaginal dryness can be caused by lower oestrogen. Therefore, regular periods may be expected to start in six to eight weeks if not breastfeeding, or around the six-month mark if nursing.
Belly, bladder, bowels, and pelvic floor: The bladder may have mixed signals during the weeks following childbirth. This is because the signs to the brain have been disrupted due to the pressure during labor or the baby’s head pressing against the urethra during delivery. The labia and vulva may also be swollen, which could lead to pinching of the urethra. Cold compresses or a warm sitz bath can go a long way in relieving these symptoms. Also, the first week or two after delivery may see increased urinary or sweating activity as the body adjusts to changing hormones and works to get rid of excess fluid.
Dehydration, the side effects of pain medication, a C-section, and fear of pushing anything else out may lead to postpartum constipation in the first week. Lots of water, fruit juice, and walking around is recommended to get rid of this. The doctor may also prescribe a stool softener to treat this.
The pelvic floor, which involves the muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves that support the uterus, bladder, vagina, and rectum, may have undergone a lot of stress during the delivery. Bladder incontinence is the most common side effect of this, peeing a little when sneezing or coughing.
Fecal incontinence can also be an issue. A damaged pelvic floor can also cause a prolapse, which is a weakened spot in the vaginal wall that allows the bladder, rectum, or uterus to drop out of position, and symptoms of this include frequent peeing or pee leaks, pain during sex, or a feeling of pressure in the groin. A physiotherapist can fix these with some exercises, as a weakened muscle can be retrained to function correctly.
Muscles: In the months following childbirth, the core muscles can be weak, making even the most mundane light lifts seem heavy. This is a common symptom of diastasis recti, which is a gap between the left and right abdominal wall muscles. This is caused when connective tissue thins out in response to hormones. Most pregnant women experience this. But, again, a physiotherapist can give the correct exercises to help regain abdominal strength and heal the gap.
Legs: The weight gained during the pregnancy can cause spider veins, varicose veins, and stretch marks. Compression socks and leggings can help ease pain from varicose veins in the early days after delivery.
Face: Changes in hormone levels can also affect facial skin, causing dry patches, acne, or pigmentation. A dermatologist can be consulted in case the breakouts become inflamed and painful, which may be a sign of more severe cystic acne. Benzoyl peroxide is considered the safest choice for regular acne.
Hair: Starting from when the baby is around three months old, losing up to a third of the hair is normal. This is because, during pregnancy, high hormone levels cause more hair growth. When these hormone levels drop after birth, some hair is dropped, and new growth begins.
Teeth and eyes: As with everything else, hormonal changes and blood volume during pregnancy can make one more susceptible to cavities and gum disease after having the baby. Pregnancy hormones and fluid levels may also cause slightly blurry vision or dry eyes, and if these persist, an optometrist should be consulted.
With most of the above-listed changes occurring due to changes in levels of hormones in the body, there is little to do in preparing for the same. The best course of action is to eat a healthy, balanced diet and keep rest periods as long as possible. If any of the symptoms flare up, consulting the relevant doctor for some medication is recommended. Have fun with your little one during the weeks after, but do not forget to take care of yourself as well.