When Amy Buresh brought her newborn son, Noah, home from the hospital a year ago, she felt completely overwhelmed. "After about 13 hours of labor, I ended up having a C-section and was recovering from that as well as learning how to nurse, surviving on little sleep and trying to take care of Noah," says Buresh, who lives in Lincoln, Neb. "It was a little scary."
Scary indeed. And not wise. While your newborn needs loads of attention during those first few weeks after his birth, you need care too. "All the focus is on the new baby, but women also need to focus on themselves," says OB-GYN Tracy W. Gaudet, M.D., director of integrative medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine and author of Consciously Female (Bantam).
"Mothers think that because they're going home from the hospital, they're good to go," says Nancy Chandley-Adams, RN, IBCLC, who works in the patient-education department at Women and Infants' Hospital in Providence, R.I. "But their bodies still have to recover."
The key to recovery during your first six weeks postpartum is narrowing your to-do list down to the essentials. Easier said than done? Get down to basics with this week-by-week guide to taking care of yourself after you have a baby.
Recuperating From Delivery
Giving birth impacts almost every part of your body. "Many new moms are surprised at how sore and tired they are," says Karen Ruby Brown, a certified nurse-midwife at the University of California, San Diego, Community Women's Health Program. Another surprise is how utterly "goopy" you feel. "The body is releasing so much stuff—blood, sweat, tears, milk—that women feel like walking bodily-fluid factories," Brown explains.
During week 1 you'll experience uterine contractions, bloody vaginal discharge, possible breast engorgement and post-episiotomy pain (if you had one). You'll pass clots that can be as large as a small plum. You'll feel even more uncomfortable and in pain if you had a C-section. (For symptoms that require immediate medical attention, see "Red Flags: When to Call Your Doctor" on the left.)
How To Care For Yourself
Make time to minimize pain Strategies may include taking sitz baths, using hemorrhoid wipes, squirting the vaginal area with warm water (especially after going to the bathroom) and following your doctor's recommendations regarding incision sites.
Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen If your doctor prescribed a stronger pain medication, use it as directed; the drugs won't harm the baby if you're breastfeeding.
Drink plenty of water to avoid constipation If you had an episiotomy, talk with your doctor about taking stool-softening medication to reduce the pain of post-op bowel movements.
Nurse frequently to prevent breast engorgement When your milk comes in, usually between days 3 and 5, your breasts may become overfull, swollen and hard. You can relieve engorgement pain by applying ice packs or cold cabbage leaves, though the latter haven't been proved effective.