A few weeks postpartum 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 midwife) assured me that nothing was wrong — postpartum hair loss is normal and can be attributed to shifting hormones.
This was one of many postpartum body changes 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 new parents to be surprised by what’s happening to their bodies postpartum, says Dr. Alan Lindemann, OB-GYN. “However, no two postpartum periods will necessarily be alike,” he says. Every postpartum experience is different, and even the same parent may have a completely different postpartum experience from one pregnancy to the next, Lindemann adds.
What are normal postpartum symptoms?
According to Lindemann, normal postpartum experiences may include:
- Vaginal bleeding (called lochia), which may last between 2-4 weeks.
- Breast engorgement or fullness.
- Protrusion of your stomach.
- Uncomfortable bowel movements and pain from episiotomies or tears.
Your protruding stomach may last for several weeks or months, explains Lindemann. “It is caused by the stretching of your abdominal muscles and the tissue around the muscles and body organs (fascia),” he says. “It takes the uterus six weeks to shrink back to normal size.”
What postpartum body changes are not normal?
However, that doesn’t mean all postpartum changes are normal. Lindemann shares some “red flag” postpartum symptoms that would warrant an immediate call to your doctor:
- A fever over 100 degrees F.
- Vaginal bleeding that’s heavier than a normal period or that has an unpleasant odor.
- An episiotomy scar that is bleeding or has become infected.
- Signs of mastitis (breast infection), such as a red, hard, painful areas in the breast and a fever.
- An abdomen that is painful to the touch.
Physical signs aren’t the only things to take note of, says Lindemann. Although it’s normal to experience something called “the baby blues,” where you experience mood swings in the week or two after giving birth, if these mood swings are severe, last beyond the first two weeks after birth, or are interfering with your ability to care for yourself or baby, you may be experiencing postpartum depression.
If you are experiencing any troubling mental health issues postpartum, Lindemann encourages you to reach out to your healthcare provider ASAP for help. “I can’t emphasize enough that postpartum depression needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” he says.
9 postpartum body changes 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 parent. We caught up with nine parents who shared some of the more surprising and lesser-known postpartum symptoms:
1. Holy night sweats!
Night sweats are normal postpartum, but for some, they are quite severe.
“I had such bad night sweats that I got an ear infection,” says 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.”
Postpartum parents are prone to night sweats due to the increase in blood and fluids in the body during pregnancy. The body doesn’t need these extra fluids after birth, says Sarah Shealy, certified nurse-midwife and professor of nursing.
“Our bodies have a couple of ways to get rid of extra fluid: pee and sweat,” says Shealy. “In the first week postpartum, you will need to pee every two hours, and you will feel very sticky and sweaty as your body clears the extra fluid.” This is all totally normal and nothing to be concerned with, she assures.
2. Postpartum body odor
Oh my goodness, why didn’t anyone tell us about postpartum B.O.?!
“I smelled terrible postpartum,” says Erin Donohue, of Warwich, Rhode Island. “My (body odor) changed from familiar stinky to offensive.”
An increase in body odor is also common, says Shealy, and has to do with the increased sweating that your body does as it releases all of the fluids that build up during pregnancy. Interestingly, having a stronger scent postpartum may help with infant bonding, Shealy says (yes, really!).
“The olfactory sense (smell) is very well developed in your newborn,” she describes. “They can’t see you very well unless you are close up, but they can smell you and this is one of the ways our babies bond to us. “
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.
It’s quite normal for breastfeeding parents to have milk leak at inopportune times and seemingly out of the blue, says Lindemann. “Your baby’s crying or your thinking about feeding your baby may cause your milk to ‘let down,” he says. “In some cases, the milk will actually shoot out in a stream from the breast.”
4. Violent waves of thirst
We may have heard that breastfeeding would make us hungry, but not all of us were prepared for how insatiably thirsty we’d get.
“Every time I nursed my daughter,” says Victoria Fedden of Florida, “I’d suddenly be overcome with the most violent waves of thirst. I’ve never experienced something like it outside of nursing.”
Intense waves of thirst while nursing are definitely typical, according to Shealy. “Making milk takes a lot of fluid and energy, so it’s quite normal to feel hungry and thirsty,” she says. She suggests trying to drink at least three liters of water per day and keeping water bottles in easy-to-reach places while you are breastfeeding.
5. Contractions during breastfeeding
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 and quite painful at times.
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.
Even though it’s normal for postpartum contractions to be quite painful, contact your healthcare provider if basic pain medication doesn’t relieve the discomfort of these contractions.
6. 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 feelings of love and protectiveness for 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. “I wanted her to be with me constantly, like I felt like I didn’t have my right arm without her.”
This intense protective nature can be explained by postpartum hormones, says Dr. Whitney Casares, pediatrician and founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club. “Because hormones change during the first 2-3 weeks after a baby is born, it can cause more anxiety and even a ‘mama bear’ instinct,” she describes, “where [parents] feel possessive of their baby and they are extremely sensitive to others who might harm their baby.”
8. Postpartum ‘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 parents 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 adds.
9. First poop horrors
After giving birth, worrying about having and then having your first successful 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.
Casares says this is a fairly common experience and sometimes may be exacerbated by pain medications used after birth, which have constipating side effects. Additionally, the muscles in your perineum area (vaginal and anal area) may be still adjusting after birth.
But holding onto your poop will only make things more painful or overwhelming in the long-run, she says. If you have concerns about pooping postpartum, consider reaching out to your doctor or midwife for recommendations of safe stool softeners.
Does your body change permanently after pregnancy?
If you’re wondering when your post-pregnancy body will start feeling normal again after having a baby, you’re not the only one. The good news is that many of the most intense physical experiences — such as postpartum bleeding, trouble pooping, postpartum sweating/body odor and breast engorgement — subside after those first few weeks. But it can take longer than you might expect for everything to feel “normal,” or at least close to normal.
“Though most of the changes that are the most bothersome immediately after having a baby do go away, most experts consider that the postpartum period lasts for about one year,” Casares says. Some of these longer lasting symptoms include soft or loose abdominal muscles and leaking breast milk, she says.
Although you will generally feel more like yourself by a year postpartum, in many ways, you’ll never be quite the same, says Shealy. “You will never not be a person who birthed a baby; this changes you like nothing else,” she describes. “It is one of the most monumental intense human experiences one can have.”
Still, that doesn’t mean that postpartum body changes and the emotional adjustment to new parenthood aren’t without bumps in the road. If you have any questions about your body after pregnancy, or your postpartum mental health, please reach out to your doctor or midwife.