It’s all too easy to think that the pregnancy journey ends with labor and delivery. However, maintaining your health and regaining your strength in the days and weeks after you’ve had your baby is equally important. Called the postpartum period, the time after labor and delivery is sometimes called the fourth trimester. Some health care providers say it lasts about 6 weeks after delivery, others say up to 12 weeks, and it has even been broken into stages that can last up to six months. They include acute stages that occur in the hours after birth, the recovery and changes that occur in the first six weeks and longer-term recovery that may take up to six months.
In reality, the answer to how long the postpartum stage lasts is different for every new mother. It can depend on the nature of your labor and delivery, your overall health and what you do to in terms of self-care and treatments to support your recovery. The simple answer to how long postpartum healing will take is that it’s hard to predict.
Think about it; a lot went on in your body in the past several months—and even longer if you were undergoing fertility treatments. Your hormones have been wildly fluctuating (and they still are!), your tissues have stretched, ligaments have loosened and you had a baby. Whether you had a vaginal delivery or a Caesarean delivery, there was blood and fluid loss, tissue damage and a whole lot of strain on your body. In addition, your hormones have been on a little bit of a roller coaster and take some time to return to pre-pregnancy levels.
The postpartum period is a time when your body is going through a number of physiological changes as it returns to being non-pregnant. During that time as changes occur, health issues can arise. Here’s a rundown of some of the changes and issues that you can expect during the postpartum recovery period:
Hormonal fluctuations during the postpartum period can wreak havoc with your emotions. After labor and delivery, both estrogen and progesterone levels drop significantly. This drop in hormones, coupled with loss of sleep and changes related to having a new baby, can be emotionally challenging, bringing on a kind of depression, called the “baby blues”. Associated with feelings of sadness, irritability and intense mood swings, the baby blues tend to resolve in the few weeks after birth. However, when these symptoms last longer, they enter the realm of postpartum depression, the symptoms of which can be more severe and interfere with your daily functioning.
At the same time, a hormone called oxytocin becomes dominant in the early postpartum days. Oxytocin is responsible for ramping up mothering behavior and protective instincts. This is important in the bonding process, but the flip side is that coupled with low progesterone, it can produce worry and feelings of anxiety.
Scientists have also discovered that about 10 percent of new mothers develop something called postpartum thyroiditis, which is an inflammation of your thyroid gland. Your thyroid is responsible for all the metabolic processes in your body, and a postpartum thyroid imbalance can cause a speed up or slow down your metabolism. This can translate into changes in energy, digestion, sleep and emotional health, and can affect weight gain or loss.
Breast changes are accelerated right after delivery. The hormone prolactin increases to help you produce breast milk. When your milk comes in, your breasts become larger, and they can become hard and sore. If all goes well, this engorgement settles down after a few days. However, many new mothers experience breast issues, such as mastitis (an infection of the breast), lumps, low milk production and pain.
Sleep problems can occur during the postpartum period, which is ironic, because it’s a time when your body really needs to sleep. Both your body and mind recover and rejuvenate while you’re asleep. However, as a new mother, multiple nightly feedings, the inability to sleep and dream-disturbed sleep can interfere with your getting the quality of sleep that your body needs.
Your digestion may take a couple of weeks after childbirth to return to normal. After the stress of pregnancy and childbirth on your pelvis, the after-effects of having a C-section or simply the fear of pushing anything more out from that sensitive area can both cause and aggravate constipation. While constipation is a common postpartum problem, diarrhea can also occur. Other postpartum digestive issues include a poor appetite and acid reflux—both of which may have occurred from upward pressure on your stomach by the growing fetus.
Pain is also common during the postpartum period. For the first few days after you deliver, you will have contractions that feel like menstrual cramps. These afterpains help your uterus shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size. After a vaginal delivery, soreness and pain in your crotch will also be a fact of life for a week or so. If you delivered by C-section, healing is further complicated by a painful incision and the overall trauma of having surgery.
In addition to pelvic changes, pregnancy has altered your body in a number of ways that can contribute to postpartum pain. Your core muscles have become weakened due to pregnancy, which may lead to back, hip, sciatic or leg pain. Pregnancy can also cause varicose veins, which can be painful. And while not usually painful, many women report having stretch marks and scarring from surgery (C-section or episiotomy) related to childbirth.
The bottom line is that your body went through a lot during pregnancy and childbirth, and the postpartum weeks and months are a time to heal and return to your pre-pregnancy state. Sometimes the postpartum period is a bumpy ride, but fortunately, there’s help and support.
At BodaHealth, our team of practitioners are trained and experienced in helping women navigate postpartum issues that may arise. In fact, BodaHealth is known for its work with postpartum patients. Midwives, OB-GYNs, fertility clinics, general MDs and other clinics throughout Vancouver refer their patients to us because of our reputation for treating fertility, pregnancy, postpartum issues and women’s health issues in general.
In working with women who are having postpartum issues, we offer a number of healing therapies that include:
- Acupuncture can be an effective treatment for women during the postpartum period in a number of ways. The use of acupuncture for effectively treating a wide variety of pain conditions is well-known. During the postpartum period, it can be a useful way to reduce pain from sciatica, back pain and surgical repair. In addition, a number of research studies indicate that acupuncture may be helpful in treating postpartum depression. Scientists have found that one of the ways that acupuncture works is by raising estradiol levels, which contributes to the rebalancing of hormones. However, estradiol also increases serotonin, which is a brain chemical that can reduce the risk for depression.
Acupuncture may also be used to help with sleep issues, stress, lactation problems, menstrual problems, digestive or bowel issues and to promote healing.
- Chinese Herbal Medicine. Herbs may be used in a number of ways during the postpartum period. They can boost your energy, nourish your blood, promote healing and help with sleep issues. Herbs are prescribed in formulas that can be modified as your body changes and heals, and they’re a good adjunct to acupuncture treatments.
- Cold Laser Therapy. Also known as low-level laser therapy, cold laser is a light therapy that gently penetrates into deep layers of tissue and causes physiological changes at the cellular level. It ramps up cellular metabolism, increases circulation, reduces inflammation and speeds up healing. While cold laser therapy is used in the treatment for dozens of different health conditions, during postpartum healing, it’s helpful in relieving pain, reducing inflammation and breaking down scar tissue.
- Naturopathic Medicine. At BodaHealth, our naturopathic physician uses natural remedies to help women during the postpartum period. Treatment may include vitamin and herbal supplementation, nutritional counseling, exercise and lifestyle changes. When appropriate, our naturopathic doctor can order lab tests and prescribe medications.
- Holistic Nutrition. What you eat during the postpartum weeks and months is especially important. Not only are you trying to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, but you’re also breastfeeding, exhausted and may be iron deficient from blood loss during delivery and the weeks following. At BodaHealth, we have a holistic nutritionist on staff because we understand the importance of nutrition infertility, pregnancy and postpartum healing. They can assess your current nutritional status and work with you to develop an eating plan for optimal health. If vitamin or mineral supplementation is needed during this time, they can guide you through the best choices for your needs.
- Massage Therapy. Postpartum massage is a whole-body therapy that focuses on both your physical and emotional recovery after labor and delivery. While massage feels relaxing and is a great way to treat yourself, it also has a number of health benefits, including pain relief, reducing fluid retention, enhanced sleep, help in rebalancing your hormones, increased circulation to promote healing and it may help with breastfeeding.
In sum, the postpartum period is often uncharted territory—even if you’ve given birth before. It can be frustrating, puzzling, exhausting and even surprising at times. Fortunately, there’s a whole team of natural health practitioners at BodaHealth who can help you navigate this incredible time in your life. Please give us a call to find out how we can help you.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.