HealthAgenda

Pregnancy & Birth

Your body after birth

There are many body changes you might experience after carrying and having a baby. Here are some of the most common postnatal challenges and tips for moving forward.

Karen Burge
July 2018

Having a baby is one of those times when you discover your body is truly amazing.

But bouncing back from growing and nourishing a baby and bringing it into the world can be a slow process. Each body is different; and the way your body responds to pregnancy and childbirth will be different too.

Your recovery time is likely to be influenced by your health and fitness before falling pregnant, your pregnancy and birth history, the type of delivery you’ve had and the weight of your baby at birth.

For the first 6 weeks after birth, focus on rest and recovery, as much as possible.

“It’s important to balance activity with rest, as parenting is exhausting work and full physical recovery can take many months,” says Kiara Horwood, physiotherapist and Victorian chair of the APA Women’s, Men’s and Pelvic Health Committee.

As you begin to adjust to life with your new baby, here are some key body changes you might experience:

Pelvic floor weakness

The pelvic floor is a group of muscles and ligaments that support the bladder, bowel and uterus. After having a baby, it isn’t uncommon to leak urine by accident if you laugh, cough or sneeze.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) says pelvic floor exercises can help prevent this and should be continued beyond the postpartum period.

Horwood adds that some women may be aware of an initial heaviness or pressure in the vagina that resolves as their pelvic floor muscles restrengthen.

“It’s quite common to have an increased stretch in pelvic ligaments and other soft tissues in the walls of the vagina which may explain this sensation. However, sometimes this can lead to pelvic organ prolapse (when either the uterus, bladder or rectum move to protrude into the vagina or press against the wall of the vagina).”

If you experience these symptoms and don’t see an improvement after 3 months, see your doctor or midwife for advice.

Stretch marks

These red and silvery lines are most commonly formed in the third trimester of pregnancy, explains the Australasian College of Dermatologists, and are thought to be caused by hormonal changes and weight gain.

“The majority of stretch marks will improve over time, changing colour from red-purple to pink, then finally achieving a white wrinkled appearance.”

If your stretch marks really bother you speak to your doctor about treatment options.

Abdominal separation

It’s very common to have some abdominal muscle thinning and separation after pregnancy, and it can vary in severity from one woman to the next, says Horwood.

“Recovery of these muscles can occur naturally as long as you’re not pushing your body with heavy lifting or straining, or returning to high level exercise too early.”

If you’re worried about the extent of your abdominal separation, or the healing process, ask your GP to refer you to a women’s health physiotherapist.

Mastitis

Mastitis occurs when a blocked milk duct hasn’t cleared. Some of the milk banked up behind the blocked duct can be pushed into nearby breast tissue, causing inflammation, explains the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA).

Early symptoms can make you feel as though you’re getting the flu, and your breast will be sore, usually red, hot to touch and swollen. If you think you have mastitis, the ABA recommends starting the following treatment right away:

  • rest
  • keep the sore breast as empty as possible by feeding your baby often (your milk is safe to drink)
  • apply warmth to the sore breast for up to a few minutes before a feed
  • feed from the sore breast first
  • massage the breast gently while your baby feeds
  • change feeding positions to help shift the blockage
  • hand express if needed
  • apply cold packs after a feed to relieve pain/reduce swelling.

If your symptoms don’t improve after 12-24 hours, of you’re feeling very unwell, see your GP as you may need medication, for example antibiotics.

Painful sex

For a while after childbirth, you may have little interest in sex. Physical recovery, exhaustion, body consciousness and hormonal changes can often affect sexual desire, according to RANZCOG.

“It’s important to avoid sexual intercourse until you feel comfortable. Your body needs time to heal after childbirth … it’s normal to take weeks, even months, before you’re ready to have sex.”

It’s a good idea to talk with your partner about your feelings, concerns and expectations. Your GP can provide advice if you have ongoing concerns.

Body weight

It’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortable with the way your figure has changed, but be kind to yourself.

Horwood says that after 6 weeks, you should feel stronger and can start gentle exercise. “Walking is usually the best exercise to start with for most women as it’s low impact and gives new parents and their bubs the chance to get out of the house and into the fresh air,” she says.

“Returning to more vigorous or high impact exercise, such as running or sport, is best done slowly.”

Hair loss

If you notice you’re losing hair, don’t be alarmed. Pregnancy hormones prevent your normal rate of hair loss. After your baby’s born your hormones will start to rebalance and that’s when you’ll start shedding hair again. How noticeable this is varies.

The American Pregnancy Association says telogen effluvium – the excessive shedding of hair – can happen 1 to 5 months after pregnancy and affects between 40%–50% of women.

If you’re concerned about hair loss in the longer term speak to your doctor to ensure there isn’t another cause.

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