8 postpartum symptoms no one told you about
Having a new baby comes with all sorts of surprises — including some postpartum symptoms you might not have been expecting. Here are 8 you should know about, plus what to do if they happen to you.
If you’re pregnant, you might have already discovered that a lot of strange things can happen to your body during pregnancy. Bleeding gums, a bigger shoe size, a dark line down the middle of your belly — the list goes on. But the surprises don’t stop once the baby arrives. This makes sense if you think about it — your body has just done a remarkable thing. It grew a little human being in 9-plus months and then labored for hours, or even days, to bring it into the world.
Still, many new parents don’t expect the postpartum symptoms that can crop up or linger after giving birth. While many people feel mostly recovered by 6 to 8 weeks, “it can take months before you feel like yourself again,” says Mary Jane Minkin, MD. Dr. Minkin is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut. “Your body has gone through a lot. And it’s going to need time to return to baseline.”
But the last thing a new parent needs is to worry about whether their body is behaving normally, or if something has gone awry. To help you navigate it all, here are some of the most common postpartum symptoms you might encounter in the days, weeks, and even months after childbirth, plus when to check in with your provider.
Postpartum Symptom #1: Constipation
This is a common one. It’s often caused by pain-relieving medicines that are given in the hospital, as well as anesthesia. “These temporarily slow down your bowels,” says Dr. Minkin. Constipation can also be brought on by fear. If you have stitches in your perineum (the area between the vagina and anus), you may be worried that a bowel movement will cause more pain and damage.
What to do: To get things moving again, drink plenty of fluids — ideally, a gallon of water (about 16 cups) a day, says Lindsay Appel, MD. Dr. Appel is an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Also, eat foods that are rich in fiber, such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains. And ask your doctor about taking a stool softener like Colace.
Many health plans offer postpartum support and recovery programs for their members. To learn how to get the most out of your health benefits, reach out to your health plan.
Postpartum Symptoms #2: Hemorrhoids
Hemorrhoids — swollen veins in your anus and lower rectum — are practically a given during pregnancy. “Almost anyone who has ever had a kid has had them,” says Dr. Minkin. “Some people think you can avoid them with a C-section, but you can’t. You often get them during pregnancy too.” Hemorrhoids can itch as well as cause pain and bleed after a bowel movement.
What to do: Dr. Minkin tells patients to sit in a warm sitz bath. This is a shallow bath that helps clean and soothe the perineum. (You can buy a plastic sitz bath kit that fits over your toilet.)
Then, when they get out of the bath, Dr. Minkin tells patients to dry their bottom with a hair dryer on low heat. “It can be wonderfully soothing,” Dr. Minkin says. Witch hazel, a plant extract you can apply to your skin, can also help relieve pain and itching, says Dr. Appel. And take heart: Hemorrhoids normally shrink over time.
Postpartum Symptom #3: Uterine Contractions
This is your body’s natural way of stopping post-delivery bleeding, says Dr. Appel. The contractions put pressure on the blood vessels that are bleeding near where the placenta was attached. They also help your uterus shrink back to its normal size. (Fascinating fact: Right after you give birth, your uterus weighs about 2.5 pounds. But by 6 weeks later, it’s down to only about 2 ounces.)
What to do: Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen, says Dr. Minkin. It won’t get rid of the pain entirely, but it will help dull it.
Postpartum Symptoms #4: Night Sweats and Hair Loss
New parents may sweat more, especially at night. It’s due to all the hormonal changes right after delivery, says Dr. Minkin. You may also notice more hair loss during the first couple of months postpartum. Experts don’t know exactly why the hair loss happens, says Dr. Minkin. “But one theory is that it’s due to estrogen levels going way down.”
What to do: If extra sweating or hair loss persists for more than a few weeks, see your doctor. They can do a blood test to check your hormone levels. Sweating and hair loss can also point to a thyroid disorder. These symptoms affect about 5% of all new parents in the year after giving birth.
The good news is that most hair loss stops after about 6 months. In the meantime, don’t wear tight ponytails or braids, which can stress your hair. And if you blow-dry your hair, use the cool setting on your hair dryer.
Postpartum Symptom #5: Baby Blues
Up to 80% of all new parents struggle with feeling sad for the first few weeks postpartum. This, too, is due to hormonal changes. “With the baby blues, you feel overwhelmed, cry easily, and feel very emotional,” explains Dr. Appel. It should all resolve on its own within 2 to 3 weeks.
What to do: If your baby blues last longer than 2 to 3 weeks, or you feel so depressed that you can’t get out of bed to take care of yourself and your baby, see your doctor. You may have either postpartum depression or anxiety. These conditions often require therapy and possibly antidepressant medications. “It’s normal as a first-time parent to feel unsure if you’re doing something right,” says Dr. Appel. “But if you’re so worried you’re unable to sleep or do regular activities, you need to seek help.”
Postpartum Symptom #6: Vaginal Bleeding That Decreases Over Time
This is common, even if you had a C-section. It’s your body’s way of getting rid of all that extra blood and tissue it used for growing the baby. The bleeding will be heaviest right after delivery — you may even see clots during the first week. But it should gradually taper off within 2 to 6 weeks, says Dr. Minkin.
What to do: Use only sanitary pads. Avoid tampons, which can harbor bacteria that can cause an infection.
Postpartum Symptom #7: Swelling
You figured that once you gave birth, you’d go back to your pre-pregnancy body, right? Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a bit longer. “You may see swelling in your face and lower extremities as fluid shifts around in your body postpartum,” says Dr. Appel. Your body may also continue to hold on to water because of the temporary increase in a hormone called progesterone.
What to do: Try drinking more water — if you’re dehydrated, your body will hold on harder to the water it has. Another trick is to raise your feet above heart level. This helps improve circulation, so water moves through your body better. You could also wear postpartum compression socks. They may help increase blood flow and reduce swelling in the lower body. Ultimately, though, patience is key. The swelling should go away within a week on its own. If it doesn’t, see your doctor.
Postpartum Symptoms #8: Hives
If you’ve had hives in the past, don’t be surprised if you get a flare-up after giving birth. “It’s probably some sort of inflammatory response,” explains Dr. Appel.
What to do: The good news is that hives typically disappear on their own within 15 days of delivery. But if the itching is driving you crazy, talk to your doctor. They might suggest using an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, along with an oral antihistamine. Cool, wet compresses and oatmeal baths may also help.
When to See Your Doctor
You should contact your physician right away if you notice any of these postpartum symptoms:
- Vaginal bleeding that soaks more than one pad per hour, or that increases over time instead of decreasing.
- Passing large blood clots that are bigger than a quarter.
- A fever over 100.4°F.
- Changes to your vision, or a severe persistent headache. These could point to postpartum preeclampsia (high blood pressure). It can develop up to 6 weeks after childbirth.
- Vaginal discharge with a strong odor.
- Sore, red breasts that are hot to the touch.
- Leg pain with redness or swelling.
If you have postpartum symptoms that aren’t on this list but are still making you worry, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor’s office. Or, if you have a digital health management app like Wellframe, start there to connect with your care advocate. They can help answer questions, ease concerns, and determine when it’s time to see your doctor. Remember: All questions are good ones when it comes to ensuring your postpartum health.
A digital health management app like Wellframe can be a great source of support both during and after pregnancy. To find out if you have Wellframe, reach out to your health plan.
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