What is the postpartum period?
The postpartum period is when your body starts to regroup, heal, and return to its pre-pregnancy state. From hormonal changes to giving birth, you've been through a lot during the past nine months. Whether you had a vaginal delivery or cesarean, your body will take time to recover—you've just created another human after all!
How long does postpartum last?
The postpartum period has 3 stages, the first is 6-12 hours where your body is immediately recovering from the most difficult aspects of giving birth. The second phase usually lasts 2-6 weeks, and this is where you might experience the most emotional and appetite changes. Finally the third stage involves more gradual changes and can last up to 6 months.
What are some postpartum body changes?
During your postpartum recovery stage, you may experience numerous physical and emotional side effects.
Your breasts are adjusting to their new role as your baby’s food supplier. After about 2-5 days, breasts will fill with breast milk and may feel fuller and firmer.
If you have difficulty breastfeeding or if your breasts feel uncomfortably swollen and firm, hot, or unusually painful, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor about ways to address your concerns.
If you’ve had a vaginal birth—especially if you’ve had an episiotomy—your perineum, the area between your vagina and rectum, may be sore. A cold pack in the area and doing Kegel exercises that strengthen pelvic floor muscles may provide some relief, but consult with your doctor about the best recovery plan for you.
Vaginal discharge, called lochia, is your body’s way of getting rid of some of the blood, mucus, and tissue that was in your uterus during your pregnancy. It may look like getting your period at first, appearing dark red for the first days after delivery and gradually turning more pinkish, watery, and yellowish in its final stages. Lochia may last for 12 days or up to 6 weeks after delivery.
For the past nine months, your uterus has been stretching to accommodate your growing baby. Now, as it begins to return to its pre-pregnancy size, you may feel some cramping. These short, sometimes sharp cramps are called “afterpains” and can last a few days.If the discomfort doesn’t let up or becomes worse, contact your doctor.
If you’ve had a cesarean section, full recovery generally takes four to six weeks. It’s major surgery and your body will need time to heal. Follow your doctor’s orders for aftercare, which may include:
- Avoiding rigorous exercise, heavy lifting, or sex
- Walking to help avoid blood clots
- Keeping the incision area clean and dry
- Taking a fiber supplement to help avoid constipation
You may feel burning or other discomforts when urinating or may have trouble urinating. Drinking lots of water and soaking in a warm bath may provide some relief, but check with your doctor if you have concerns or if the pain continues.
If you find yourself dealing with some urinary incontinence, you’re not alone. It is a pretty common postpartum indicator. The stress and pressure on the urinary tract and pelvic floor muscles during pregnancy and childbirth can weaken the muscles and damage bladder control nerves.2 Be sure to address any concerns about incontinence with your doctor during your first postpartum checkup, or sooner if it becomes persistent and difficult.
As thrilled and excited as you may be to finally meet and bond with your bundle of joy, you may experience some not-so-joyous feelings. Lack of sleep, body aches, and the round-the-clock responsibilities of caring for your newborn may leave you a bit overwhelmed. Add in hormonal changes that can cause mood swings, and it’s understandable that you may feel stressed and emotionally up and down.
Crying unexpectedly? Snapping at your partner? Many moms experience some form of what’s known as the “baby blues, and it’s natural.” In fact, the American Pregnancy Association reports that approximately 70-80% of all new mothers experience some negative feelings or mood swings after giving birth.3 Common indicators of baby blues include:
- Crying for no apparent reason
While baby blues are normal, if they last longer than two weeks after birth, or if the indicators are becoming more severe, you may have postpartum depression.
Postpartum depression (PPD)
Postpartum depression may occur within the first four weeks after giving birth and lasts more than two weeks. It encompasses a mix of physical, emotional, and behavioral changes, which may include:
- Being uninterested in your baby or feeling like you’re not bonding with them
- Severe sadness or anger
- Feeling helpless or worthless
- Loss of pleasure
- Thoughts of suicide
- Thoughts of hurting someone else
What does recovery look like 6 weeks postpartum?
While every postpartum recovery timeline is different, by six weeks many women can expect:
- The uterus to be back to pre-pregnancy size
- Minimal post-vaginal delivery bloody discharge
- To get the green light for exercise and sex
- If you've had a C-section, you may be cleared for driving and heavier lifting
- Some feelings of exhaustion
- A postpartum appointment with your OB-GYN to help ensure that you’re recovering from pregnancy well and to discuss any physical and mental health concerns
Keep in mind, it took you over nine months to create your incredible baby, so it can take some time to feel yourself again, both physically and emotionally. Plus, you’re adapting to the amazing, but busy, life as a new mom. Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to practice self-care and ask for help!
More postpartum health resources
Knowing what to expect during your postpartum phase can help you prepare, recover, and heal so you can feel better as you bond with your beautiful baby. Explore our Tips and Resources section for more postpartum articles and videos, including:
- 6-Week Postpartum Checkup: Everything You Need To Know
- What Are The Baby Blues and What You Can Do About Them
- Postpartum Health: How To Care For Yourself After Pregnancy
- Potential Postpartum Complications To Be Aware of