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Understanding your postnatal body

The female body is incredible. When you break it down and really consider it, the fact that you had the ability to grow an actual human being from scratch is mind blowing.  Even more fascinating still is the fact that apart from taking your vitamins, being careful about what you ate and perhaps giving your mind time to be calm and relaxed, your body did the lion’s share of the work, ALL BY ITSELF.

Now you find yourself on the other side of your birthing story. You are a mother with a babe in arms, sensitive breasts and a gigantic maternity pad in place. Following the birth of your baby you may be surprised just how open and tender you feel as you adjust to motherhood and your body heals from pregnancy and birth.

In recent decades we seem to have acquired a stoic response to the transition to motherhood. It seems that ‘bouncing back’ as quickly as possible is the goal and many women feel pressure to get on with it without making a fuss. However, it is not helpful to put such pressure on a brand-new mother who is in the midst of the biggest change, both physically and mentally, that a woman can go through.

Officially the postnatal period is considered to be the 6 weeks that follows birth. Around this time you will make an appointment with your GP and get fully discharged from maternity services, unless they have any remaining concerns about your wellbeing.

However, we think that this hugely underestimates the time it takes for many new mothers to feel like they are getting back to themselves. Birthing is monumental. It takes 3 trimesters to grow and nurture a baby inside so once they are born, we feel like women should give their physical selves at least a 12 week time frame to gently rebalance physically and emotionally adjust post birth.

How a woman heals and restores from birth is individual and actually some mothers only feel like they have regained their energy and physical normality up to 18 months after their baby has arrived. There is no ‘one size fits all’ to your postnatal healing process. Take the time you need.

So which parts of our bodies require an extra dose of TLC post birth and how can we support ourselves as we morph back once again to a new postnatal version of ourselves?

Uterus

The uterus is the largest muscle in the female body at full capacity. Following birth, the uterus has to contract and clamp down to return to a non-pregnant state. Directly following birthing your baby the uterus contracts significantly and encourages the release and birth of the placenta. Once effectively emptied the uterine fibres contract further and over the course of the next 7-10 days, your uterus will return to a clenched fist sized muscle. During your postnatal visits, your midwife will ask if she can touch your tummy and feel where the uterus is and check that it is indeed returning back to where it sat pre-pregnancy.

Vaginal blood loss

Post birth you will have vaginal blood loss. This occurs no matter how you birthed your baby as it comes from the area where your placenta has been released from, which is now open and starting to heal. It will last for around 4 - 6 weeks. At first, directly after the placenta is born, there is likely to be a heavy loss. If you are concerned by how much is coming out do ask for the midwife’s advice. As the weeks continue you will notice the loss diminishes and starts to change from heavy red to pale pink and then nothing.

Caesarean section

Caesarean sections now account for approximately a quarter of all births in the UK. Whatever the reason may have been, the recovery period needs to be honored as your body has been through significant abdominal surgery. We appreciate that this is easier said than done when you also have a newborn to care for. Just consider for a moment how you would nurture and care for your body if you had been through ANY other form of operation? It is so important to be gentle with yourself and accept as much support as possible in the days and weeks that follow. As your muscles knit back together and your wound heals be very careful about the weight of items that you carry. As a guide we generally suggest you hold nothing heavier than your baby. Remember, even if you have not birthed vaginally, you still need to be very mindful of your pelvic floor and perineum, as you will not initially have the core strength to support them fully.

Post Natal Oedema

Following your birth, a combination of hormonal changes, extra blood and fluid can cause swelling and this is called oedema. IV fluids are also a significant cause of postpartum swelling. Most women who experience a C-section receive medications and anaesthesia through IV and those who give birth vaginally may receive medications and certain fluids. These extra fluids tend to accumulate in your body and take several days to leave. You will find you feel the need to wee frequently as your body attempts to get rid of the excess.

Pelvic Floor

When you think about your pelvic floor, it is useful to think of it being a muscular hammock that runs from the front of your pelvis right across to your tail bone. However you have birthed, your pelvic floor will need some TLC in the postnatal period as it regains the tone that has been strained during your pregnancy by the weight of your growing baby.

Perineum

The perineum is the area between the vagina and the anus. It is common to experience a tear or grazing in this area during birth, especially if this is your first vaginal delivery. Whether you need stitches or not, you are likely to feel tender, swollen and bruised initially after birth. Your perineal area will be checked by your midwife or doctor following birth and they will advise as to whether you will need stitches. You may have had a little cut to your perineum to help make some extra room for baby to birth. If so you will have had stitches and you will be advised to take pain relief to keep you as comfortable as possible. If you have experienced a more advanced tear you may also be taking a course of antibiotics to help avoid an infection occurring and laxatives to stop you becoming constipated.

Hemorrhoids

If you are experiencing a sore and itchy bottom, little hanging lumps around the anus or bleeding when have a bowel movement it is likely that you are suffering with hemorrhoids (piles). These swollen veins can be found around the anus or lower rectum can be inside or outside the anus.

Breasts

Many women notice changes happen in their breasts prior to birthing. The breast tissue may become fuller, the areola and nipple may appear darker and it is possible that you have been expressing small amounts of milk during the last few weeks of pregnancy. Following birth, with a baby that is encouraged to breast feed and with the added postnatal surge of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin you will find that your breasts will produce colostrum in the first few days after birth and then around day three to five following birth you will notice your breast feeling fuller, heavier and maybe even start to drip a lighter and more watery milk.

Hormones

Our hormones are incredible before, during and following birth. They create the perfect environment for conception, support our baby as they grow and our bodies as we change shape to accommodate a growing baby. They also play the key ingredient in triggering and supporting labour and birth and they then adapt to make our bodies into milk machines. However, they can leave us feeling very emotionally wobbly. High as a kite one minute, feeling completely loved up and euphoric, then tumbling down with a crash to a tearful postnatal heap. Add the joy of severe night sweats and leaking breasts and you may find you don’t quite know what to do with yourself. FEAR NOT! This is absolutely normal and your hormone system will balance out and re-settle during the postnatal period.

The Brain

We have always had an expectation that physical changes will occur during the postnatal period, but what about what your mind experiences as you pivot into motherhood. It is hardly surprising that you may feel anxious, low, high or indifferent as you navigate through this huge period of change and your mind needs to be nurtured just as much as the rest of your physical postnatal body.

Excerpt from The Little Book of Self Care for New Mums by Beccy Hands & Alexis Stickland (Vermillion, £12.99).

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