12 Little-Known Things That Happen to Your Body After Giving Birth

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12 Little-Known Things That Happen to Your Body After Giving Birth

If you're Olivia Wilde, you hit the red carpet 11 days after giving birth wearing tight black pants. If you're Blake Lively, you look exceptionally glam a few months post-baby in a snug black and white dress at New York Fashion Week. And, if you're Stacy Keibler, you showcase a taut tummy three months after delivering your child.

But you're you – and you might be sporting a sizeable paunch, strapped with a bladder that can't hold onto its urine and riding on feet so swollen you've gone up a shoe size. And it's been six months since your little angel was born.

"The majority of us do not have a situation where we can have juice ... [and] paleo meals delivered to our homes on a daily basis," says Noell Yanik, a 32-year-old personal trainer in Fort Mill, South Carolina, who has a 3-year-old son and is expecting a baby in January.

Rather, most new moms are adjusting to bodies not celebrated by tabloids. Here's what you need to know if you're one of them:

1. Your legs, feet and ankles will continue to swell.

Many women assume that once the baby comes out, the swelling in their lower extremities will go down. Not so, says Dr. Shannon Clark, associate professor in the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. "Once the uterus is empty, that blood has to go somewhere," she says. Most likely, it will pool in the tissues of your legs, ankles and feet for a couple weeks after the birth – and the swelling will be even more pronounced if you've already had a few kids.

2. You will likely be sore down there.

Some new moms don't realize where they tore until they go to the bathroom, wipe and "feel stitches they weren't expecting," Clark says. But tears in the perineum (the area between the vagina and the anus) are common, caused either by childbirth itself or a provider cutting the perineum to make room for baby – a procedure called an episiotomy. In fact, Clark says about 65 percent of women who delivery vaginally will need stitches to repair lacerations, which can also occur in the vaginal canal, on the side of the urethra and in the labia. "It's very important for a woman to ask her doctor, 'Where did I tear?'" she says.

It's also important for women to abstain from using tampons and douches and sex while the area heals – usually four to six weeks for a routine episiotomy and up to eight weeks for a more severe tear, like one that goes up the rectal sphincter. While the pain can get worse in the first day or two after birth as medications are wearing off, it should lessen after that. If it's only hurting more, "you've got to let somebody know," Clark says.

3. Your stretch marks are probably here to stay. ​

During pregnancy, many women develop stretch marks on their bellies, behinds, breasts and thighs, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. And while they may fade after childbirth, they may never go away. That can be tough for women to accept, points out Yanik, who says stretch marks grace her hips, thighs and lower belly. "At first, you feel so mutilated and like it's so unfair that you have to wear these scars for the rest of your life," she says. But if you allow yourself time to be angry or frustrated, you can eventually come to terms with the marks as symbols of what your body can do. "It's a much less superficial way of viewing our bodies, and it feels pretty powerful," Yanik says.

4. Stock up on maxi pads.​

Yanik's ​new mom clients often come to her embarrassed. They ask, "Why am I peeing my pants?" when they try to jump rope or even run up the stairs, she says. The answer? The pressure on your pelvic muscles while carrying a baby and giving birth weakens them, making your bladder temporarily tough to control. While a vaginal delivery can make incontinence more probable, women who've had C-sections​ can experience it, too, Clark says.

Fortunately, incontinence usually resolves within a few weeks after birth, Clark says. She suggests practicing exercises like Kegels that strengthen your pelvic muscles both during and after pregnancy to help reduce​ bladder issues after the baby is born.​ 

5. … and more maxi pads. ​

You might also want maxi pads for what they're intended for: blood. "Most women anticipate bleeding, but it can be pretty heavy after delivery and some women are surprised by that," Clark says. Sometimes, ​lochia –​ or the post-birth discharge that contains blood, mucus and uterine tissue – lasts up to six weeks after delivery, but it tends to lighten up over time. If you've had a cesarean delivery, you'll have less bleeding to worry about, Clark says, since doctors clean out the uterine cavity after the surgery.

6. Breast-feeding can be painful for the whole body.

As your body prepares to feed your baby, "breast engorgement and pain is going to happen," Clark says, although it's usually a more immediate problem for moms who don't breast-feed. If you have a fever, an area of your breast that's harder than the others, or your breast is red and warm, "don't ignore it," she says. Those are signs of mastitis and breast abscess, both painful infections that can be treated with antibiotics. "You've got to pay attention to your breast," Clark says.

It's not just your breasts that can hurt while breast-feeding, but also your shrinking uterus, which contracts during breast-feeding thanks to the release of oxytocin. The pain is usually worst in the first few days, then can feel like a bad period that tends to resolve in six to eight weeks, Clark says. That's why most clinicians send new moms home with ibuprofen.

7. Be prepared for hemorrhoids.

Just as pregnancy and childbirth can stress your bladder and cause incontinence, they can stress your rectum and cause hemorrhoids as well, Clark says. ​While you can't feel internal hemorrhoids, you might notice external ones when you're wiping or going No. 2. If they're painful, don't hesitate to tell your doctor – you won't be the first, Clark says. Sitz baths, creams and other treatments ​can help ease the pain.

8. ... and constipation. 

Pregnancy hormones can slow down the gastrointestinal system, as can pain medications that many new moms are on. Plus, women who have hemorrhoids or tears can be reluctant to push out a bowel movement because it hurts. "All of those things play into the constipation" that's common post-birth, Clark says. But anticipating it, taking a stool softener and making sure you're getting enough fiber can all help ease bowel backups. On the contrary, "starchy, white carbs are ... not your friend if constipation is something you struggle with," Yanik adds.

9. Your hair will probably fall out – even if you miscarry.

When women get pregnant, most "will have a massive mane of hair that grows," Clark says, thanks to pregnancy hormones that cause more hair follicles to be in the active growth phase than normal. Then, they have a baby, "and it all goes away," courtesy of the sharp decline in estrogen that sends more hair follicles into a terminal stage. While Clark admits she's exaggerating,​ the hair loss that usually peaks at about three months after birth can sometimes feel that way, she says. For some women who miscarry, the sudden surge and dip in hormones can have a similar effect. ​But shedding hair is normal, and most women's locks will return to pre-pregnancy thickness by their child's first birthday, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.​

10. Your gait may never be the same.

Most women expect their posture to change while carrying a pregnancy, but many also expect to resume their old stature quickly after birth. "Women are definitely surprised at the rounding of their shoulders and feel discouraged by it," says Yanik, who suggests women do back-strengthening exercises before and after pregnancy in order to combat the curve. Still, not all women will be able to strut like their old selves. "Some women will notice that their pelvis and way they walk might never be quite the same – especially with women who've had more than one baby," Clark says.

11. Your stomach won't be flat, but you may like it better.

After​ hosting a child for 10 months, your tummy won't immediately shrink to Stacy Keibler-esque proportions.​ Your belly fat​​ developed, Clark says, as "nature's way of protecting the abdominal area where the uterus is growing." The best ways to trim it down? Don't gain too much weight ​during pregnancy – the American ​College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women who are a normal weight when they get pregnant gain 25 to 35 pounds – and do exercises​ like side planks that engage your oblique muscles after you deliver. You can even start engaging those muscles just two weeks after birth by pulling your abs in toward your spine while you breathe, Yanik says.

For some women, Yanik included, post-baby bellies are an upgrade. Because the abs separate to the sides during pregnancy to make room for the baby – and never fully come back together – the right diet and exercises can mean more muscle definition for moms. "I got a defined line down my abs after [my] baby, and I never had that before," Yanik says.

12. Every body's different.

If the Kate Middletons of the world have you feeling down about your sluggish, aching and pudgy body, stop looking at the magazines and start talking to other new moms who can give you a healthy dose of reality. "Take responsibility of staying encouraged during this time," Yanik says.

The same sentiment can be applied to your parenting. "If there's something everyone says you should do … and it doesn't work for you, that's OK," says Jodi Rubin, a social worker and eating disorder specialist in New York who had her first baby in December. While decisions – be they about breast-feeding or where your baby sleeps – can seem monumental, each will probably wind up being one of many inconsequential choices you make as a parent, she says. In reality, Rubin says, "a balanced parent is what the baby needs."


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