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Recovery after birth

Vaginal delivery, C-section or VBAC bring different recoveries. Here’s what to expect.

Pregnancy and childbirth can take a toll on a woman’s body. After all, you did just grow another human! Whether you’ve delivered via vaginal birth, cesarean section (C-section) or vaginal birth after cesarean (commonly called a VBAC), you can expect some downtime after baby’s grand entrance. Each type of delivery results in a unique physical experience and postpartum recovery. Here’s what you can expect from your recovery after giving birth.

What happens after vaginal delivery

After a vaginal birth, most women are fully healed after six weeks. During this time, you may experience varying postpartum symptoms, most of which will subside after a week or so. After giving birth, expect to deal with:

  1. Vaginal soreness — If you’ve had a vaginal delivery, you will be sore. Expect to have stitches and general pain in this area for a few weeks. Ice, pain medicine and soaking in a warm bath can reduce your discomfort.
  2. Perineum pain — When giving birth, it’s not uncommon for the area between your vagina and rectum (called your perineum) to tear slightly. If your doctor has performed an episiotomy (a small incision to reduce the risk of tearing and make more room for baby), you may experience more pain.
  3. Vaginal bleeding — For the first few days and up to a month after giving birth, it’s normal to have heavy, bright red discharge. The discharge may contain blood clots and, over the next few weeks, will become diluted in color from red to clear. Use a squirt bottle filled with warm water to keep the area clean and wear a pad until the bleeding stops.
  4. Hemorrhoids — Hemorrhoids are swollen, irritated veins around your rectum that often pop up after delivery. They may itch or even bleed after you go to the bathroom. Soaking in a sitz bath or applying witch hazel can soothe the irritation. Your doctor may prescribe a stool softener or recommend you drink more fluids.
  5. Constipation — After giving birth, it’s normal to be constipated. To get some relief, eat high fiber foods and drink between 8 and 10 glasses of water daily. This should help you return to normal within a few days.
  6. Tender, leaking breasts — As your milk comes in, your breasts may become engorged. This will subside once you start breastfeeding, or if you’re not breastfeeding, until you stop producing milk. If your breasts become red or warm, or the swelling doesn’t go away, call your doctor.
  7. Sore nipples (if breastfeeding) — As you and your baby learn to nurse, your nipples may crack or even bleed. Use nipple balm to reduce cracking or rub some breast milk onto tender nipples.

After a C-section

If you’ve had a cesarean birth (also called a C-section), in addition to the above postpartum symptoms experienced after vaginal birth, you’ll also be healing from major abdominal surgery. This may make it harder to complete regular activities, such as cleaning or showering, and may make caring for your baby more challenging.

To deliver a baby via C-section, your doctor will make a horizontal incision four to six inches above your pubic bone. From there, an incision will be made across your uterus to safely deliver your baby and remove the placenta. You can expect about six weeks to fully heal after a C-section.

To help your incision heal and prevent infection, your doctor will instruct you on how to keep the area clean. When you shower, do not scrub the area. Instead, let soapy water hit it while you shower. Pat dry when done. Try to expose it to the air as much as possible to promote healing. Be on the lookout for signs of infection such as swelling, redness, oozing or pain around the wound. If you experience swelling, redness, oozing, pain or opening around the wound, be sure to contact your doctor right away.

Recovering after a VBAC

For women who’ve had a previous C-section and want to try a vaginal delivery, a VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section) might be a good option. Not everyone is a good candidate for this type of delivery, so you’ll want to discuss it with your doctor as part of your birth plan.

After a VBAC, you can expect to deal with the previously mentioned postpartum symptoms experienced after vaginal birth. You may need to pay closer attention to your scar from your previous C-section, as a VBAC can increase the risk of rupture. But on the flip side, you’ll likely have less recovery than you would have from a repeat C-section. Repeat C-sections can make you more susceptible to blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), infections and excessive bleeding.

Focus on mom a little bit

No matter which kind of delivery you have, childbirth is hard work! The most important tool for recovery is to take care of yourself. Never be so busy caring for your baby that you forget about you. Seek help when you need it. Ask friends and family members for specific requests, such as watching your baby while you shower, helping prepare meals, or doing your dishes or laundry.

You may feel exhausted and overwhelmed — that’s to be expected. Birth is an emotional and sometimes traumatic experience. Whether you’ve had an easy labor, exhaustingly long labor, scheduled C-section or emergency C-section, you may be feeling extremely tired and out of sorts. Try to rest as much as possible and focus on healing as you settle into your new routine.

Baby blues and postpartum depression

Due to hormonal changes after birth, you may experience baby blues. These feelings of sadness or anxiety are normal and can hit within a few days of giving birth. They will typically subside within two weeks.

However, if you start to feel deep sadness, lose interest in things you once enjoyed or feel like you want to harm yourself or your baby, you may be experiencing postpartum depression. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s crucial to seek help right away.

Most importantly, talk to your partner and your support system. Make sure everyone understands your limitations and be sure to communicate your needs and feelings. Bringing a baby into the world is an exciting time. Savor as many moments as you can.

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