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After Pregnancy: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Most moms will tell you that the moment they hold their baby for the first time, all the pain and suffering from the previous nine months disappears. The dramatic physical changes you experience while you are pregnant happen gradually. Once you give birth, those changes reverse themselves rather quickly. After pregnancy, your body will begin to go through a transformation, a readjustment period. You may experience common problems or discomforts in the weeks after delivery. While you are learning to breastfeed and care for your baby, it’s important to be flexible and enjoy this special time.

The Good: Bonding With Your New Baby After Pregnancy

For most new parents, bonding with a new baby begins shortly after he or she has entered the world. The worries you had throughout the pregnancy and the pain of labor and delivery all but disappear when you look into your baby’s eyes for the first time. After that, the infant has to be introduced to grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and friends who have been waiting for their arrival. Taking your baby home for the first time can be a challenging but joyous time for new parents. Breastfeeding is a great way for a new mother to bond with her baby, and it offers many benefits for both mother and child. For the child, breast milk offers the best nutritional source for the first year. It contains all the nutrients that infants need to grow and develop properly.

Children who are breastfed have fewer allergies, fewer infections, and fewer digestive problems than those fed with formula. Breast milk contains infection-fighting antibodies that reduce the incidence of ear, respiratory, and digestive tract infections during the first few years of life. Another benefit of breast milk is its availability. It’s always available, free, and requires no preparation.

Breastfeeding after pregnancy can also help the uterus return to its normal size more quickly due to hormonal interactions. You may want to occasionally consider bottle-feeding during the first weeks after birth, too. This way, fathers and other family members can have a chance to bond with the baby. Plus, bottle-feeding gives mom and her nipples a much needed break. Bottle-feeding can be done with expressed breast milk or with baby formula. Bottle-feeding with formula is a mother’s personal choice, and it is nothing to feel guilty about.

Formula contains all the nutrients your baby needs to grow and develop, and the bonding still takes place. Formula should always be prepared according to the instructions on the label. Many mothers opt to use baby formula if the baby is not gaining enough weight from breastfeeding alone, or in the case of infant adoption.

Most new parents wonder how soon they can begin having sex after pregnancy. For most, sex can typically resume within four to six weeks after childbirth. For women who have suffered a tear or needed an episiotomy, the vagina and the skin around it can remain extremely sore for the first few weeks. Your healthcare provider may recommend waiting a bit longer.

The Bad: Common Problems That Occur After Pregnancy

Some women experience problems with their vagina, uterus, and breasts after pregnancy. Vaginal soreness and discharge seem to be the most common problems. The soreness is due to the stretching of the skin of the perineum (the vaginal opening), which may have been torn or cut during the delivery. This can cause painful urination for a few days after delivery. For relief, it’s recommended you use cold compresses or ice packs periodically for the first few hours following delivery. Sitting on a doughnut-shaped pillow may also relieve the pain. Your doctor will give you instructions on how to clean the vaginal area and reduce the risk of infection. If the pain persists, you may be prescribed pain relievers. Many women experience a vaginal discharge that is a mixture of blood and the remaining tissues of the placenta. At first it tends to be heavier, but it tapers off two to six weeks after delivery. Your healthcare provider may recommend avoiding sex and the use of tampons during this time to reduce the risk of infection.

Most breast conditions develop after childbirth and are the result of breastfeeding. Most of these problems are temporary, lasting only a few weeks, and are not likely to interfere with breastfeeding. Let’s take a look at some of the various problems your breasts may develop:

  • Engorged breasts

Two to four days after delivery, your body begins to produce breast milk. During this time, your breasts will become engorged with milk. For many women, this is a painful time. The best thing to do if you are in pain is to feed your baby frequently. This will release the build-up of milk. Occasionally, the nipples are too swollen for the baby to latch onto, so you may need to express some milk with a breast pump before breastfeeding. However, you should not use the pump to relieve the engorgement, since doing so will only produce more milk. Hot showers, a good support bra, and ice packs are also good solutions to relieve the pain from the swelling. If you prefer to stop breastfeeding, it takes approximately three days of not nursing before your breasts stop producing milk. If your pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe you a pain reliever.

  • Cracked nipples

With breastfeeding come dry, cracked nipples. This can cause a sharp pain while your baby is nursing and can be a nuisance even when you are not nursing. Health professionals suggest using warm water only (no soap) to wash your nipples. Doing this, and drying them completely after a feeding, can prevent the nipples from becoming cracked. It’s also important to make sure your baby has your entire areola (the pigmented area surrounding your nipple) in its mouth. If these options do not help, your doctor may recommend a soothing cream to apply between feedings. Alternating breasts from one feeding to another may also reduce the pain and discomfort.

  • Mastitis

When bacteria from a nursing child’s mouth enters the milk duct and develops into an infection, it is called mastitis. This is a common problem among breastfeeding women, one that requires an antibiotic for treatment. Symptoms usually include redness, soreness, hardness, and swelling of the breasts. Occasionally, these symptoms are accompanied by a fever and chills. Treatment should not interfere with breastfeeding, so you need not discontinue doing so. In fact, continuing to breastfeed during treatment can help relieve pain and clear up the infection. If your baby does not empty the breast after feeding, pump out the remainder of the milk.

  • Thrush

Thrush is a type of yeast infection that can be passed from baby to mother. Thrush appears as white patches on your baby’s tongue. It can cause the mother problems, such as dry, cracked, or sore nipples. Typically, anti-fungal creams are prescribed and applied to the nipples several times per day. Sometimes an oral drop for your baby will be prescribed. Occasionally, thrush will spread to your baby’s digestive tract and cause a diaper rash that can also be treated with an anti-fungal cream, or in rare cases, oral anti-fungal therapy. Treatment may last several weeks.

  • Blocked ducts

Occasionally, small, hard lumps appear in your breast while you are breastfeeding. In most cases, this is a blocked milk duct. Massaging the area and taking hot showers can help the lump to disappear. If it has not disappeared within a couple of days, contact your doctor. You may have a breast abscess. Breast abscesses are infected, pus-filled areas of tissue that form when bacteria enters the breast through the nipple. The bacteria then infect the milk ducts and glands. Breast abscesses are not common, and occur mostly when the nipples become dry and cracked, or whenever bacteria has an easy way to enter the system. Antibiotics are usually prescribed for treatment, and you are allowed to continue breastfeeding throughout the treatment process.

The Ugly: Depression After Pregnancy

Unfortunately, many women feel what are known as the “baby blues,” after giving birth. This is normal and typically lasts only a few days or weeks. First-time mothers may feel overwhelmed or anxious about their new challenges and responsibilities. Some women simply feel let down after pregnancy, having anticipated the birth for so long. Unfortunately, some women continue to feel depressed months after the birth of their child. This is known as postpartum depression, and it can prevent them from functioning. Postpartum depression is serious, and is usually the result of a combination of factors such as chronic lack of sleep, sudden change in hormone levels, and genetic susceptibility. Symptoms of postpartum depression include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Inability to sleep, even when tired
  • Sleeping too much, even when your baby is awake
  • Feelings of anxiety or hopelessness that last longer than two weeks
  • Having little interest in your baby
  • Having little interest in other members of your family
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby

Anti-depressant medication may be given to women who are suffering from postpartum depression. If you are experiencing the symptoms above, contact your doctor right away. He or she may be able to treat the problem, or may be able to recommend a support group for women and families who are experiencing this problem. In severe cases, you may need to be admitted to a hospital for treatment, but this is rare. Here are some tips to help you prevent those baby blues:

  • Get plenty of sleep, because lack of it can affect your hormone levels, which can interfere with your ability to function.
  • Make a shift schedule with your partner, if possible, so that baby duties are distributed evenly.
  • Don’t hesitate to accept help from your partner, family, and friends.

[Page updated November 2014]