The postpartum recovery period usually refers to the first 6 weeks after delivery. But some believe that it lasts for 6 months or even 1 year after giving birth.
Many factors influence how a woman recovers from childbirth, and everyone’s experience is different. Some contributing factors include whether a woman has had past deliveries, and most recently, multiple deliveries, a vaginal delivery, or a cesarean delivery.
In this article, we look at a typical timeline of postpartum recovery. We also explore strategies for self-care and advice about caring for others.
The vaginal discharge that occurs after childbirth is called lochia. It contains blood and mucous membrane that lined the uterus during pregnancy.
A woman has lochia whether the delivery was vaginal or cesarean. Avoid using tampons for up to 6 weeks after delivery, as they may increase the risk of infection.
Afterbirth pains also occur regardless of the type of delivery. These pains result from the uterus shrinking to its prepregnancy size.
Right after childbirth, the uterus is round and hard, and it weighs about 2.5 pounds, but it shrinks to 2 ounces within about 6 weeks of delivery.
Breast milk arrives a few days after delivery. The breasts may feel full, tender, or uncomfortable, due to the amount of milk. The medical term for this is engorgement.
In some women, the feelings go away within a few days, and they should disappear completely within 2 weeks. If they do not, it is a good idea to consult a healthcare provider.
During delivery, the area between the anus and vulva — the perineum — can tear, or the doctor may make an incision. In either case, a woman may feel soreness in the area during postpartum recovery.
Some women feel general soreness all over the body. This should go away within a few days, but perineum soreness may last a while longer.
Urination can be painful after childbirth. Instead of using toilet paper to wipe, try rinsing the area with warm water from a squirt bottle.
The average hospital stay after a cesarean is around 3–4 days. A woman will most likely be in a substantial amount of pain following this surgery.
During recovery, it is important to get out of bed and move around to prevent blood clots from forming. Learn more about recovering from a cesarean delivery here.
During early breastfeeding, soreness of the breasts is common. Also, a woman will still have lochia, but the flow and the color will be lighter than it was a week ago.
Many women experience sadness, anxiety, and shifts in mood in the week or so after childbirth. These feelings, sometimes known as the baby blues, tend to go away within 2 weeks.
If any mental health symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, speak to a healthcare provider, as the issue may be a more serious one, such as
Learn more about postpartum depression here.
The vagina may still be uncomfortable, as the area is still healing. If a woman had any stitches during the delivery, these may feel irritated.
The site of the surgery may begin to itch, but it is crucial to avoid touching it to prevent infection and help speed recovery.
A healthcare provider can offer advice about caring for the wound and dealing with irritation.
Within 6 weeks of a delivery, the uterus has returned to its prepregnancy size.
The doctor may say that it is OK to resume sexual activity. However, many women do not feel ready right away, and this is perfectly normal.
A woman’s period may have returned by this time, though there is no cause for concern if it has not.
In terms of mental and emotional health, a woman may be feeling back to normal, or close to it, by this time.
However, it is important to note that postpartum depression can develop at any time within the
Learn how long postpartum depression tends to last here.
Anyone who thinks that they may have postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety should speak with a healthcare provider so that treatment can start as soon as possible.
There may be less pain and tenderness at this point, but the area may still feel sore. This is to be expected, but do bring up any concerns or questions with a healthcare provider.
A woman should not lift anything heavy in the first few weeks after a cesarean. By 6 weeks, the doctor may say that it is OK to start lifting again.
To help manage postpartum pain, tenderness, or soreness try:
- Padsicles: These help soothe the vagina and perineum. To make them, apply aloe and witch hazel to maternity pads and keep them in the freezer.
- Sitz baths: Resting in a shallow bath can provide relief to the perineum area.
- Spray bottle: Squirting or spraying warm water over the genitals may be a more gentle way to stay clean, compared with using toilet paper.
- Heating pads: Applying a heating pad to the abdomen may help relieve afterbirth pains.
- Expressing milk: A woman can ease pain from breast engorgement by expressing milk.
During postpartum recovery, it is also crucial to rest whenever possible and care for emotional and mental health.
To support someone during postpartum recovery, a person can try:
- providing meals
- ensuring that the woman’s home is clean and safe
- doing chores, especially shopping for groceries, which can be physically strenuous
- ensuring that the woman has all the medications and supplies that she needs
- providing care for any dependents, such as driving children to school
- providing emotional support
- checking for any signs of postpartum depression and helping the woman receive support
Overall, the best idea is to ask what a woman needs. The goal is to help make sure that her physical and emotional recovery is as smooth as possible.
Contact a healthcare provider about any of the following symptoms:
- a severe headache, changes in vision, or vomiting
- a fever higher than 100.4ºF
- heavy vaginal bleeding or bad-smelling discharge
- pus or foul-smelling fluid coming from any wound, such as that of a cesarean delivery or perineal tear
- pain, swelling, or redness in either calf muscle
- chest pain or shortness of breath
Any of these symptoms could indicate a health issue that requires immediate attention, such as an infection or blood clot.
Also, a woman should contact a healthcare provider right away she experiences:
- postpartum anxiety
- postpartum depression
- any suicidal thoughts
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
The body goes through many changes during pregnancy. After delivery, even more changes take place, rapidly.
The most important thing is to rest and concentrate on healing, emotionally and physically.