After giving birth – what to expect postpartum

Giving birth is a transformative, beautiful experience – it also might be the most physically difficult thing you ever do. Here’s what to expect postpartum and how to take care of yourself after you come home from the hospital.

Why didn’t anyone tell me it was going to be this hard? Every new mother has had this thought when they arrive home from the hospital and are faced with the challenge of taking care of a newborn while taking care of themselves. Birth – whether vaginally or via C-section – is physically and emotionally exhausting, and jumping from it to sleep-deprived nights and challenging days can feel just plain overwhelming.

ALSO READ: 8 Tips for New Moms: Surviving the First Weeks

Many moms wonder how long it takes to heal after giving birth and feel we don’t talk enough about what happens to women’s bodies postpartum. So, we’re here to break the silence and tell you what to expect postpartum – and that those runaway emotions, sore boobs and Titanic-sized maxi pads are all totally normal. You got this, mama.

Self-care isn’t indulgent, it’s absolutely necessary.

What really happens after giving birth

…and how to get through those first few days:

Be prepared. If possible, stock up on the essentials you need before you head off to the hospital. They’re not as fun to buy as baby’s going-home outfit or that cute silk delivery robe, but you’ll thank yourself later. Large, overnight-sized maxi pads, witch hazel pads or spray, soothing aloe vera gel, a small spray bottle and some full-coverage, soft, cotton underwear will be your best friends in the coming days and weeks. If not, send your partner or another loved one out on a pharmacy run to grab these things or take advantage of sites with super-fast shipping.

ALSO READ: First week home with baby – 9 tried-and true tips

A lot of bleeding is normal. Lochia is the fancy term for post-birth bleeding, which starts out like a very heavy period. Two to three days after delivery, the blood can be bright red and very heavy. Over the next four to six weeks, the blood should get lighter in color (pink, brown and cream colors are all normal) and intensity. Change your maxi pad every time you go to the bathroom or whenever else you feel it’s needed, and make sure to contact your doctor right away if the bleeding increases rather than decreases, soaks through your pad in less than an hour or smells bad. These can be signs of complications.

Your body after birth is pretty amazing.

Wait, was that a contraction? You might think that your days of contractions are over after you give birth, but some cramping and contractions are normal as the uterus shrinks back down to its pre-pregnancy size. These afterpains generally go away after a few days, but the whole “involution” process of shrinking back down takes about four weeks. Your body after birth is pretty amazing, right?

Stay on top of the pain. Make sure you have your prescription for pain medicine filled before you get home, and stock up on over-the-counter pain relief beforehand. Then, take the pills on time – managing your pain is crucial to your recovery after birth. Pain will keep you from being able to move comfortably and breastfeed, so it’s crucial to manage it. Your doctor can tell you what the best pain medication and dosage is for you or offer non-medication options if you choose.

ALSO READ: What NOT to Do After Giving Birth

Take care of your tatas. Three to five days after giving birth, your milk will come in and your breasts will feel sore, swollen and even hot to the touch. Hot and cold gel pads from the pharmacy can help alleviate the pain. A good-fitting, non-underwire bra will be your best friend, whether you are nursing or not. And if you’re experiencing nipple pain from breastfeeding, lanolin cream or nipple shields may be able to help.

Breastfeeding is a wonderful, natural way to feed your baby, but it can also be a challenge. Give yourself time to adjust and be patient. And don’t worry – many of these discomforts go away as you and your baby get the hang of it and your body adjusts.

READ MORE: 7 breastfeeding tips for new moms

Maybe you didn’t think much about poop pre-baby?

Prioritize pooping. We’re guessing that pre-baby, you didn’t think much about poop, but that’s about to change. Moving your bowels for the first time after giving birth can be downright scary if you’ve experienced tearing or have stitches, but the sooner you are able to, the better. Get up and move as much as your doctor allows, drink plenty of water and eat high-fiber foods.

When it’s time to use the bathroom, get some peace and quiet and try to relax. If your doctor okays it, take an over-the-counter stool softener if you’re still struggling. And remember, the thought of pooping for the first time is often worse than the actual event itself. After peeing or pooping, use a spray bottle with water to clean yourself and gently pat dry with toilet paper.

Soothe that spot. After birth, vaginal pain is normal. You might experience vaginal tearing during birth, or have a sore perineum (the space between your vagina and anus).

Cold packs help relieve the pain, so stock up on the ones provided by the hospital. When you get home, you can make your own “padsicles” by putting aloe vera gel and witch hazel spray on maxi pads, wrapping them in plastic bags and putting them in the freezer. And don’t have sex, use tampons or put anything in your vagina until you’ve been cleared by your doctor.

Take care of your stitches. If you’ve had a C-section, follow your doctor’s instructions for caring for your incision carefully to prevent infection. Don’t drive or overdo it; gentle walks and lifting nothing heavier than your baby is enough exercise right now.

If you’ve experienced vaginal tearing after a vaginal birth, use a spray bottle to cleanse the area and pat it dry. Avoid taking baths until told to do so by a doctor, but a warm shower is okay.

Recovery after birth isn’t just physical.

Cry it out, if you need to. Recovery after birth isn’t just physical. Postpartum hormones can make your emotions feel like a roller coaster. Couple those with lack of sleep and you might feel downright different from your normal self, which can be scary. Realize that feeling emotional and exhausted is totally normal and will get better over time.

Talk to a family member or fellow mom friend about how you’re feeling and realize it’s okay to be overwhelmed. But if you’re feeling constantly angry, irritable or anxious, or if your feelings are turning toward harming yourself or your baby, seek help immediately. Many women experience postpartum depression but healthcare providers are here to help.

READ MORE: Postpartum depression is a sneaky customer

Do what makes you feel like you. Yes, life as you know it has changed, but you’re still you. That can be hard to remember when you gaze at the exhausted face looking up at you from the bathroom mirror. But whenever possible, have someone else watch your baby and take the time to do the little rituals that make you feel like you: taking a shower, reading a book, having a coffee, blow-drying your hair, putting on makeup or getting a manicure or pedicure.

Self-care isn’t indulgent, it’s absolutely necessary. Taking care of yourself – and being honest about when you need help – will make you the best mother your little one could have.

Kaelyn Forde

Kaelyn Forde is a mom, journalist and yoga teacher. She writes about motherhood and teaches yoga to new moms and their babies in New Jersey.