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Your postpartum body: 9 unexpected things no one warns you of

Wendy Wisner
April 10, 2019
Your postpartum body: 9 unexpected things no one warns you of

A few weeks after my first child was born, I went to take a shower and found that my hair was falling out in handfuls. I ran out soaking wet, telling my husband that something was terribly wrong. Luckily, a Google search (and a call to my doctor) assured me that nothing was wrong — postpartum hair loss is normal and can be attributed to shifting hormones.

This was one of many changes to my postpartum body that threw me for a loop. Why didn’t anyone tell me I would essentially be wearing an adult diaper for the first few days of my postpartum recovery? And what about those wild mood swings, where I’d want to bawl one second and feel totally blissed out the next?

“It’s very common for mothers to be surprised by the postpartum experience, particularly first time mothers,” says Dr. Erica Giwa, medical director and OB-GYN at Texas Children’s Health Plan, the Center for Children and Women. “Having a new baby is a beautiful experience, but being postpartum is difficult. Things start happening to your body that you just aren’t used to.”

What’s normal?

According to Giwa, normal postpartum experiences may include:

  • Three to six weeks of vaginal bleeding

  • Contractions while breastfeeding as your uterus shrinks back to normal size

  • Fluctuating moods as your hormones adjust

It can take several months for your post-baby body to feel normal again, she explains, and all new mothers need time to adjust to their “new normal.”

What’s not normal?

However, that doesn’t mean all postpartum changes are normal. Giwa shared some “red flag” postpartum symptoms that would warrant an immediate call to your doctor:

  • Any vaginal or abdominal pain not relieved by medication

  • Excessive vaginal bleeding

  • Fever greater than 100.4 F

  • Headache, blurry vision, upper right-sided abdominal pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling unable to care of yourself or your baby; thoughts of harming yourself or your baby

These symptoms could indicate a more serious health problem, which may include infection, cardiac compromise or even postpartum depression. Contact your doctor if you’re experiencing any of them.

9 postpartum experiences you should know about

There’s what the pregnancy books and your doctor tell you, and then there’s what it’s really like to be a postpartum mama. We caught up with nine moms who shared some of the lesser-known symptoms:

1. Holy night sweats!

Night sweats are normal postpartum (blame those changing hormones again). But for some moms, they are quite severe.

“I had such bad night sweats that I got an ear infection,” said Katie Karpenstein, of Tarrytown, New York. “I’m a side sleeper, and I guess my ear was sitting in a puddle of my own sweat every night.”

2. Postpartum B.O.

“I smelled terrible postpartum,” says Erin Donohue, of Warwich, Rhode Island. “My (body odor) changed from familiar stinky to offensive.”

Oh my goodness, why didn’t anyone tell us about postpartum B.O.?!

3. Spilt milk

Yvonne Maalouf, of Marshfield, Massachusetts, says she was prepared for breasts leaking between feedings, zillions of diaper changes and cleaning up baby spit up, but no one told her she’d wake up in a bed completely soaked — with her own breast milk.

4. Violent waves of thirst

We all knew that breastfeeding would make us hungry, but not all of us were prepared for how thirsty we’d get.

“I had this weird thing that some of my friends say they experienced, too,” says Victoria Fedden, of Florida. “Every time I nursed my daughter, I’d suddenly be overcome with the most violent waves of thirst. I’ve never experienced something like it outside of nursing.”

5. Contractions during breastfeeding

It’s one thing to know that contractions during breastfeeding are normal, but Katie Bingham Smith, of Bowdoinham, Maine, says her contractions were more painful than she expected.

“My contractions almost made me throw up,” she says.

Dr. Kimberly Langdon, OB-GYN and medical advisor at Medzino Health, explains that contractions happen during breastfeeding because of the release of oxytocin and can be severe at times. Of course, contact your doctor if basic pain medication doesn’t relieve the discomfort of these contractions.

6. A belly on the loose

Langdon says that after birth, it’s normal for your abdominal muscles to be stretched out and your whole lower abdomen to droop. For Heather Bill, of Warren, Michigan, that reality took on a whole other meaning.

“The first time I stood up after the twins were born, I really thought that all of my internal organs were falling out of my body,” she says.

7. Mama bear on overdrive

We all expect to love and protect our babies, but some of us are surprised about how incredibly possessive we feel.

“I didn’t want to share my baby with anyone except my husband and mom and only in small doses,” recalls Leigh Anne O'Connor, of New York, New York. “I wanted her to be with me constantly, like I felt like I didn’t have my right arm without her.”

8. New mom ‘tennis elbow’

“With both my kids, I wound up with something akin to tennis elbow in my left arm and a pain in my left wrist,” says Dawn Allcot, of West Babylon, New York. “I’m a lefty, so it was the arm I held the baby with. It was just from using muscles that never got much of a workout.”

Langdon says new mothers are more prone to injury, and many end up with back pain from bending and lifting their babies. Ligament and joints get looser in pregnancy, too, and take some time to tighten, she says.  

9. First poop horrors

After giving birth, successfully passing your first bowel movement can be quite the event.

“For the first several weeks postpartum, I literally experienced PTSD when I sat on the toilet, because the sensation of a bowel movement was frighteningly similar to bracing my laboring cervix for extreme expansion,” says Chana Maya Ritter, of Albany, New York.

Giwa says this fear is common, but delaying that first poop only makes matters worse. She recommends staying hydrated and using a stool softener, if necessary.

The good news is that the most intense, horrific and, yes, weird postpartum symptoms do diminish soon after birth. Once you schedule your first visit with your doctor at six to eight weeks postpartum, things should be moving in the direction of normal, Giwa says.

That said, it can take up to a year for your post-baby body and life routines to settle back.

“Your life is never going to be the same as it was before you delivered,” says Giwa. “Get as much rest as you can, and always set realistic goals.”

Read next: 6 questions you should never ask new moms

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