Postpartum Uncut: BODY
Warning: graphic information about physical changes during the postpartum journey, as well as references to surgical procedures.
Let’s paint a picture: you’ve just brought a baby into this world, maybe with the help of vacuum or forceps, through the ring of fire or through the belly-birth-boulevard. You have been rewarded with two souvenirs from the experience, one being a blue book you vow to never misplace and the other is your gorgeous amazing bundle you’re meant to be obsessed with. You go home potentially that day, are given a breastfeeding leaflet and an appointment time for a follow up visit to weigh your baby and assist with your breastfeeding. You’re hot, sweaty, and every part of you feels wet for some reason. Your head aches, and you can’t seem to satisfy a ravenous hunger. Oh and you need to keep the baby alive and remember you’ll need that blue book for every appointment until your kid is 48 years old or else your baby will never get a vaccine and doesn’t count and the earth will stop spinning. Anyone else overwhelmed yet?
I’m going to start by stating there is not enough postpartum education in Australia, potentially across the world. So much emphasis is placed on pregnancy, ultrasounds, types of birth, even infant sleep (imagine THAT blog!) but there is really not much at all on what happens to a woman’s mind, relationships and her body once her baby is earth side. This is the first blog of a 3-part series describing some common experiences we face when we start navigating from pregnant to not pregnant. I am starting with things that go on physically. This is not a complete list, but I can safely say I or my nearest and dearest experienced everything detailed below. My aim is to bring to light what commonly occurs to attempt to make these things less taboo.
Apart from the post birth cramping that often comes with breastfeeding, your joints and ligaments can also be achy after you give birth. A lot of pressure was situated around your hips (which grew and stretched to support your baby) which then radiates down to your knees, so its natural to feel sore post birth especially if you are on your feet a lot trying to soldier on. Now is not the time to solider on – sit back down and put your feet up when possible. Also take it easy when you are considering exercise. Do not sign up for that fat burning Zumba class two weeks post birth because you most likely will do damage and not benefit at all from it. It’s also not the time to train for a marathon or partake in high intensity exercise like you used to. You should always get clearance from your GP or women’s health physio if you are considering getting back into your former exercise regime anyway, but I would start with some low intensity exercise. It genuinely takes a while for your body to regroup and recalibrate, and a common mistake is to do something extreme the minute you feel okay. Go for a walk to your coffee shop with a friend or your partner so they can push the pram or take a paddle in a pool. Pace yourself and be gentle with yourself, even if you feel great.
I can definitely say my belly and general body has permanently changed from carrying my son. I have a few white stretch marks on my belly and the shape of it has changed. I was surprised at how ‘back to normal’ it did eventually go, but it definitely is still not completely the same. I remember scrolling Instagram naked in my bathroom while my shower water was heating up not long after I gave birth to Henry, everything hanging out in all its glory (uneven boobs and all) and wondering how all these women looked so good after they’ve given birth. How did they have confidence to put themselves out there and promote a belly stretch mark cream and yet I could hardly stand the sight of myself? I quickly reminded myself of how amazing bodies are – my body grew not only a baby but an organ to keep it alive, provided a space for my baby, and also made food for them once they are on the outside. All women’s bodies are an artwork and to be celebrated. Just because it may look different to before doesn’t make it any less beautiful.
When you give birth (no matter how it happened) you will experience bleeding. It is a big fat myth that if you have Caesar you won’t bleed, but I will say that my bleeding was never clotty or heavy. If I were to describe my bleeding, I would say it was very much like day 3 or 4 period bleeding that lasted for around 4-6 weeks with a slow taper off. This will differ widely from girl to girl and I have heard vaginal birth after bleeding can be more intense. With a Caesar, the doctor will try to clean out as much of the uterus as possible while they are there which probably contributed to my bleeding to not be as heavy. Stock up on maternity pads and contact your doctor is the bleeding is causing you to feel sick. My motto is always ‘when in doubt, check it out.’
Have you ever had two watermelons hang off your chest? Yeah, me too. Engorgement for me was tough (okay I laughed a little when it happened as I dared to look in the mirror) mainly because my boobs were and are epic as is and engorgement took them to a whole new painful, heavy and hot level. My milk came in and it came in truckloads. Your boobs will feel like they are about to combust off you, but engorgement is a great sign that your proper breast milk is in and good to go. Cool, wet face washers can ease the pain and hot feeling that you experience, and if possible, avoid a bra. The initial engorgement only lasted a few days, and even though my boobs were still huge while I was feeding, the shock of it to my body did wear off. If I was at home, I just quit bras altogether, and if I was going out I would wear a comfy stretchy maternity bra that didn’t dig in.
So where is all my hair going? Once we got home from the hospital, I remember people kept asking me if my hair was falling out. I was so puzzled and kept thinking that is such a random question. I said no, feeling pretty felt smug because my hair was still doting its lusciousness from pregnancy. Henry was around 3 months old when I was washing my hair one night and strands and strands of hair just kept coming out in my hands. I was sure I would leave the shower bald. Queue me eating my own smugness. The mass exodus of your hair can begin anytime, but I think from my own research, it most commonly occurs a few months postpartum. My hair loss tapered off by 6 months, and then it started regrowing so strangely. Baby hair was sprouting all around my hair line, and I would also randomly find little and new sprouts of hair all over my scalp. Its normal, but weird. I have one friend who told me in her culture, postpartum hair loss occurs when your baby begins to know and love you. I thought this was sweet!
Is it true that you do not get a period as long as you’re still breastfeeding? Absolutely not. This topic is a widely diverse experience of all mothers, and there is no short answer. Generally, if you breastfeed, it will delay you getting your first postpartum cycle, but even that statement is a broad stroke generalisation. A few of my friends who breastfed got their period back after 6 weeks, but then others didn’t get it back until they stopped feeding all together. I was in the middle, getting mine back after 7 months postpartum. By this point, Henry was established on two solid meals a day and I had decreased my breastfeeds to 4-5 times a day. Sometimes, breast milk supply issues can encourage your period to come back faster (a big sometimes!) and weaning your baby or toddler completely will also most likely encourage it to return as well. Just know there is no right or wrong here, and if you are concerned about your supply, always consult a lactation consultant (I have two breastfeeding blogs coming soon, so more information about this is on its way!). Also, it’s important to point out that your period could return at any time and you could be ovulating at any time postpartum. If you are not feeling ready to become pregnant again, make sure you consult your GP for a birth control method that will work for you and your partner.
Are my laughing days over? Pelvic floors are no joke, and are compromised during pregnancy, labour and birth. I haven’t suffered too much in this realm (I was a dancer for 10 years which I believed epically helped my core and pelvic floor during pregnancy) but many of my friends suffer a generally weaker pelvic floor now post baby and especially after post babies. I have heard that the pelvic floor does get weaker and weaker the more pregnancies and births you experience, but there are ways you can help it in the future and moving forward. There are of course kegel exercises you can do daily, but contacting a women’s health physio and making an appointment to gain some tailored insights, resources and exercises will be greatly beneficial if you are finding the loss of control impacting on your daily life. There is also a book called The Pelvic Floor Bible by Jane Simpson that was recommended for women learning about what is going on down there, offering great tips on strengthening and preventing further pelvic floor issues in the future.
The odds of you receiving stitches across your lower abdomen or down below are high during birth. No matter where you received the stitches, the care you need to administer across both areas are quite similar. I remember the first time I walked after my Caesar, which was 24 hours post-surgery. I literally felt like my body was going to rip apart if I straightened my back. It was a scary thought. I would imagine for a girl who has had a vaginal birth, you may feel similar especially whilst going to the bathroom. Looking after ourselves during fresh postpartum has a lot to do with how we birthed our babies. I was lucky that my caseload midwife visiting me at home was very thorough in checking out my scar and gave me lots of tips to take care of it properly. The main takeaways were to keep it as clean and as dry as possible to steer clear of infection. She also said resting will speed up the process, and to keep hydrated. The healing process of our scars no matter if they are down below or not will differ widely from girl to girl but if you are resting as much as possible and keeping it clean, that should really help. My scar was numb for a long while, but the pain subsided after a few weeks. Again, do not go lifting everything in sight or go riding bicycles and horses the moment it’s starting to feel normal. Be gentle and always give yourself extra time to heal. Lastly, there are tools to help c-section wounds heal quickly if you may be at risk for a slower or more complicated recovery. Ask your midwife or GP for some management strategies that suit you.
This scratched the surface, girls. There are a million and one other things that may happen to your body postpartum, but I truly hoped this help you feel more normal. If you are unsure of anything that is going on with your body, it’s worth mentioning to your GP for your own peace of mind. You don’t have to battle through anything or grin and bear it, because there is professional and tailored help out there.