The key to recovering from childbirth and taking care of your newborn is to place nonessential activities on hold and take care of yourself too. Here's how.
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.
Continuing Your Recovery You'll start feeling better during week 2, but that doesn't mean you should launch into major housecleaning mode. Instead, try to get outside. You'll continue to have vaginal discharge as well as soreness and itching at any incision sites. If you're breastfeeding, your nipples may be sore.
How To Care For Yourself Don't overdo it Vaginal discharge, which was bright red during week 1, will turn brown during week 2. If you exert yourself too much, however, it will turn red again—that's a warning sign you're doing too much and need to slow down.
Start taking brief walks This will exercise your muscles and reduce your risk of developing blood clots, which are more common after childbirth. Take it easy, but do a little each day.
Get help if nursing hurts Some nipple soreness is normal, but if your nipples are cracked, bleeding or truly painful, contact a certified lactation consultant (visit iblce.org for a referral).
Dealing With Emotional Changes During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels are about 10 times higher than normal; once you give birth, they begin to plummet. By day 7 postpartum they return to prepregnancy levels, but the emotional ups and downs are just starting.
"Your hormones impact every organ system, and your body needs weeks to adjust," says OB-GYN Gaudet, who also wrote Body, Soul, and Baby (Bantam). During this time your emotions can be all over the place. The "baby blues" usually don't last long, but if they do and are severe, you may have postpartum depression, which affects about 10 percent of new mothers.
How To Care For Yourself Don't suffer in silence Talk to your doctor, nurse or midwife as well as family and friends if you can't shake your moodiness, especially if you have a history of depression.
Lower your standards Give yourself a break if you don't measure up to prepregnancy expectations regarding housework and social obligations. "A lot of women have this 'supermom' idea that they have to do everything themselves to be a good mother," Chandley-Adams maintains.
Take a break every day Do something special for yourself, even if you just call a friend, listen to music or read.
Feeling Exhausted Your body has done quite a bit of healing by week 3, but your brain may be foggy with exhaustion. "Never in your life will you be as sleep deprived as you are when you have a new baby," says Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Boston. "But remind yourself that this phase of your life is temporary."
How To Care For Yourself Sleep whenever you can Remind yourself to put everything but the most essential tasks on hold, nap when the baby does and sleep close to your baby so you can get maximum rest.
Get dad's help with feeding Once breastfeeding is established (after about a month or so), have your partner give the baby a bottle of pumped milk during the night so you can sleep.
Practice stress-relief techniques Try meditation, a mindfulness exercise or a mini-relaxation (inhale slowly and deeply, hold for a couple of seconds, then exhale slowly and fully).
Feeling Frustrated With Your Body Although you are mostly healed, parts of you still feel strange. You may be leaking urine, itching from hemorrhoids or struggling with constipation. You wonder if your body will ever return to normal—you feel fat, your belly is poochy, your breasts are huge, and the smallest exertion seems to wear you out.
How To Care For Yourself Start taking longer walks Daily exercise burns calories, tones muscles, improves mood and gets you out of the house. Don't want to leave the baby? Put her in a front carrier or stroller.
Make every calorie count Pack your diet with fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat dairy and low-fat protein. A peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread with an apple and a glass of milk is a perfectly nutritious meal that takes only a few minutes to prepare.
Drink plenty of water It boosts your milk supply, helps your digestive system function effectively and fills you up.
Be patient with your body "Some women may feel completely recovered within a couple of weeks, but for others this process may take a good deal longer," Brown says.
Adjusting To Your New Life Your body's returning to normal. In fact, at your six-week checkup your doctor has probably given you the OK to start having sex again and to return to work. But your life is completely different now that you've had a baby. "Becoming a mother often triggers women to re-evaluate who they are and their course in life," Gaudet says. "It's a hugely transforming event."
How To Care For Yourself Keep a journal Writing helps you examine and understand your emotions and find answers to difficult questions.
Talk with other new mothers Share thoughts and ideas with friends or women you meet in play groups, postpartum support groups or mom-baby exercise classes.
Make big decisions carefully You're experiencing one of the most dramatic transitions of your life—it's not a good time to quit your job, leave your husband or move cross-country.