- Swollen feet
- Hair loss
- Back and hip pain
- Belly paunch
- Looseness “down there”
After giving birth, you may discover some strange things about your postpartum body that no one warned you about. “Why didn’t anyone tell me I’d leak urine?” you may wonder. Or, “How come no one mentioned my feet would look like boats?”
It’s time to let the cat out of the bag. We’ve rounded up the most common post-pregnancy shockers, and included tips for dealing with them. Note: For a complete list of changes you might experience, check out our article onbody changes after childbirth.
It’s completely unfair – in addition to your baby’s dirty diapers, you’ve got your own soaked underwear to deal with.
How to deal: It doesn’t happen to everyone, but postpartum incontinence is both normal and temporary for many moms. “During labor, the baby’s head is mashing the side wall of the vagina. As a result, the nerves can become temporarily numb,” says Christina Munoz, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina. Because of this numbness, the nerves don’t fire correctly – so you don’t always get the message that you need to go, and the muscles that keep you continent don’t always get the message to hold it in.
“For 16 months after I gave birth to my daughter, I had to wear a heavy duty sanitary pad, and if I walked very fast or exercised, my bladder would empty completely,” says mom Candice Stone. “It was very embarrassing.”
A c-section doesn’t necessarily let you off the hook either. Just as with a vaginal delivery, the surgery can lead to temporary interruption of the nerve fibers around the bladder, says Karen Deighan, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Illinois.
The good news is that in both cases, the nerves regenerate quickly. Within a few days to a few weeks, you’ll likely enjoy dry underwear once again. Meanwhile, use sanitary pads (which you’ll need for postpartum bleeding anyway) and visit the bathroom frequently, even if you don’t feel the need to go.
If the leaking doesn’t resolve after a few weeks, however, talk to your doctor. You may have a condition called stress urinary incontinence, caused by a weakening of the pelvic floor muscles surrounding the urethra. In severe cases, this problem is treatable with a simple surgical procedure. This is what relieved Stone’s incontinence. “Since surgery, it’s basically 100 percent better,” she says.
After a nine-month respite from menstruation, “Aunt Flo” is back with a vengeance. At first, the blood is bright red and heavy, and then it turns pinkish after the first few days. Unlike a normal period, the discharge continues for up to several weeks.
How to deal: Postpartum vaginal discharge, known as lochia, consists of blood and sloughed-off cells from the lining of your uterus. Lochia gradually lightens in both color and volume, and by the fifth or sixth week, you’ll have just a small amount of white or yellow-white discharge. Tampons carry a risk of infection, so use sanitary pads. Take things slowly, as strenuous physical activity can increase the bleeding.
“The third day after my c-section, my feet started to itch. I looked down to see two elephant trunks!” says Susan Kasper.
How to deal: Get your comfy slippers out, at least for the next few days. This swelling, called edema, is totally normal. “After delivery, your uterus squeezes blood into your body,” says Munoz. “In addition, you probably received IV fluids during labor. All that blood and fluid has to go somewhere, so it gets dumped into your feet.” (It can also flow into your hands, which is why your rings may be tight.) The swelling should go down within a week to ten days.
You may find that your shoe size remains a bit larger than it used to be, though – even after the swelling goes down. This is because ligaments throughout your body loosened during pregnancy, causing your feet to spread. “After having both my boys, I’m finding size 11 doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I actually bought a size 12 pair the other day!” says Jeanine Boiko.
For some people, the change is permanent – but not for everyone. “It’s hard to predict,” says Munoz. “Sometimes your feet get smaller gradually, so don’t throw out all your old shoes in the first month.”
A few days after you deliver your baby, you discover that not only are your breasts bigger than ever, they’re as hard as rocks.
How to deal: Engorgement occurs when your milk comes in, bringing with it an increased blood flow to your breasts. While the sensation of fullness is mild in some women, for others it can be extremely uncomfortable. “What helps the most is getting the baby to nurse well,” Dieghan says. “So if you’re having trouble getting breastfeeding established, consider working with a lactation consultant.”
If you’re not nursing, the trick is to not empty or stimulate the breasts – which may be easier said than done. “The inclination is to empty them, because it feels better. But then your body will think you’re nursing, and the breasts will just fill up again,” says Dieghan. Instead, apply cold packs or, interestingly, cabbage leaves. You’ll find additional advice on easing the discomfort in our article on engorgement.
You should start to feel better in a day or two, but if you don’t, definitely talk to your doctor. Your breast discomfort could be a sign of a different problem, such as a breast infection.
“I always thought if I made it through pregnancy without hemorrhoids, I was home free. No one told me it’s common to get them from pushing during a vaginal birth,” says Erin Charpentier. “Sure enough, I came home from the hospital with a whole set.”
How to deal: It’s true – even if you escaped hemorrhoids during pregnancy, you can still get them from labor itself. “Some women get monster hemorrhoids,” says Munoz. “And it makes sense. When a woman is pushing, you can often see the veins sticking out on her forehead. Well, the hemorrhoidal veins are under the same pressure, not to mention that the pregnant uterus was pushing on them for several months before delivery.”
There are a lot of ways to get ‘roid relief, including applying cold compresses, soaking in a tub or sitz bath, and using medicated wipes after your bowel movements. Many new moms find it helpful to exchange ideas and support with fellow sufferers.
If the hemorrhoids don’t go away in a week or two, or if you experience bleeding from the hemorrhoids, be sure to consult your doctor. It’s a common problem, and there’s no need to suffer in silence.
No, it’s not your imagination – your hair really is falling out. “I was so freaked out by this that I actually dried the hair from the shower floor on the back of a chair and saved it in a box, thinking it was going to become a wig in the next month or two!” says Kasper.
How to deal: Normally, about 85 to 95 percent of the hair on your head is growing and the other 5 to 15 percent is in a resting stage, about to fall out and be replaced. During pregnancy, estrogen causes even more of your hair to grow and less of it to rest and be shed. This accounts for that luxurious mane you may have sported before delivery.
After delivery, estrogen levels fall and more hairs enter the resting phase – meaning they stop growing and fall out all at once. This often happens around 12 weeks after giving birth.
Although dermatologists say hair should return to its pre-pregnancy thickness within six to 12 months, many mothers disagree. “My hair never grew back. It’s a lot thinner now,” says Cyndee Woolley, who gave birth two years ago. “This is one of those situations where the ‘medical facts’ don’t necessarily match what we hear from real patients,” Munoz concedes.
The important thing, though, is that the falling out part does eventually stop. So cancel those wig-making plans and treat yourself to a flattering new cut instead.
Back and hip pain
While these are common pregnancy complaints, many women don’t realize they can persist after childbirth. “After my daughter’s birth, I began to have lower back pain that would radiate down through my hips and legs. It got so bad that I could barely walk,” says Melanie Edwards.
How to deal: Experts aren’t sure why some women suffer from hip and back pain after childbirth. “It could be any number of reasons – stretched out ligaments, the wrong shoes, strain from carrying the baby, or factors we don’t yet know about,” Munoz says.
But this doesn’t mean the problem can’t be treated. Talk to your doctor, as physical therapy may be in order. “My doctor put me on pain medication and sent me to physical therapy. After a few sessions and continuing the stretches at home, the condition began to improve,” says Edwards. Walking, which gently strengthens your core muscles, can also help.
Did you optimistically include your pre-pregnancy jeans when you packed for the hospital, only to find yourself schlepping home in the maternity clothes you arrived in? Many of us have high hopes of getting our non-pregnant tummies back as soon as the baby arrives, but the reality is, most women continue to look pregnant for months after giving birth. “Nothing fits except for my maternity clothes,” laments one new mom.
How to deal: Have patience. For one thing, your uterus just completed a nine-month stretch; it’s hardly fair to expect it to pop back into place immediately. It should be close to its normal size within four to six weeks. Your belly, however, may take nine months to a year or more to get back to what you consider “normal.”
Even then, however, many women find that a “pregnant paunch” stubbornly remains. In addition to looser abdominal muscles, we can blame hormones for this. “Hormones direct where fat goes in the body, and after pregnancy, fat is more likely to land behind the muscles around the intestines,” says Munoz.
Exercise can help tone muscles and burn calories. But remember, no matter how you feel about your post-baby belly, your body has done an amazing thing. “I’m not as thin and toned as I used to be, but I love my postpartum body. My baby and I are healthy and strong,” says Abby, a BabyCenter mom. For a look at some beautiful, non-airbrushed post-baby bellies, check out our gallery.
Looseness “down there”
Some women are distressed to find that they don’t feel quite right in the vaginal area. “I gave birth two and a half weeks ago, and I feel like my body – particularly my lower half – is falling apart,” says one BabyCenter mom. “I don’t know if it will ever feel right again.”
How to deal: It’s not just your mind playing tricks on you. “The uterus, bladder, and rectum can all come down a bit as a result of labor, and some moms experience this as extra looseness or even a falling sensation in that area,” says Dieghan. Luckily, this is a temporary thing, which generally resolves within several weeks.
While you’re waiting, Kegel exercises can help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. In addition, Dieghan advises that new moms avoid straining those muscles. This means no heavy lifting and eating foods that can help you avoid constipation.
If you’re still feeling that falling sensation at your six-week follow-up appointment, let your doctor know. Physical therapy and special exercises can help get things back in place.