Recovery After Vaginal Birth: How to Help Yourself Heal
As your due date approaches and you prepare for delivery, it’s a good idea to give some thought to the days after the birth—specifically, how you’ll manage your own care. Your body will have undergone a major event, and the effects can be more intense than you might realize.
“I think across the board, it is a major life transition—a physical, mental, emotional transition—for everyone, regardless of whether [labor] is two hours or 72 hours,” says Estela DiFranco Field, a certified nurse-midwife and associate medical director for the Duke University Hospital Birthing Center, in Durham, North Carolina.
However, every birth—and therefore every recovery—will look a little different. “There’s a really wide variety of ways that things can go. And that’s going to inform how the recovery goes,” DiFranco Field says.
Here are some key things to know that can help with recovery after vaginal birth.
What to Expect After Vaginal Birth
While each person’s individual experience will vary, there are some common things you can expect after a vaginal birth:
DiFranco Field says it’s “normal to have bleeding as the uterus contracts, returns to its normal size, and heals.” Known as lochia, this discharge resembles a very heavy period at first and can last up to four weeks. It “typically turns from bright red, to brown, to yellow, and then white or clear,” DiFranco Field explains.
“Most [birthing parents] have a variety of labial, vaginal, or small perineal tears, especially with the first delivery,” says Heather Figueroa, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn in Loma Linda, California. “Sometimes the tear is more severe, involving the external anal sphincter or rectum.”
In fact, vaginal lacerations occur in upward of 80% of vaginal deliveries, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
They vary by degree, with first-degree lacerations (only involving the first layer of vaginal and perineal tissue) being the most mild, and fourth-degree (extending from vagina to rectum) being the most severe. Depending on its severity, your tear may require stitches. A small number of people who give birth vaginally, about 12%, may have an episiotomy, which is when a doctor makes an incision to help widen the vaginal opening in the case of a difficult delivery.
Needing Time and Care to Heal
These symptoms may sound pretty scary, but know that the body will heal with a little TLC. Most people can expect a certain amount of wound healing in the vaginal area for several weeks, says Michael Beninati, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“We tell patients to abstain from sex, or basically from putting anything in the vagina, for six weeks because the vast majority of perineal lacerations and vaginal trauma from the birth will be healed by then.” Stitches usually dissolve by that time, too, he says.
Red Flags to Watch for During Recovery
As you recover, watch for signs or symptoms of an infection or other complications, and talk to your provider if anything seems unusual. “The pain should improve daily,” says DiFranco Field. “If you notice that it’s getting worse, that’s something to pay attention to.”
Along with worsening pain, DiFranco Field says other signs of infection or other complication include:
- Odor or discharge (different from the expected bleeding)
- Pelvic pain
- Chest pain
You also want to keep an eye out for abnormally heavy bleeding after delivery, including soaking through two menstrual pads an hour for several hours, says Figueroa. Headaches that don’t go away with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, or generic) can also be concerning, since they could be a sign of postpartum preeclampsia, a dangerous blood pressure condition, she says.
Keep an eye on your breasts, too. If one breast or part of the breast is red or painful compared to the other, that could be a sign of mastitis, which is an infection inside the breast, says Beninati.
Beyond the Physical
As you transition to life as a parent, make sure you also keep your mental health top of mind. “It’s one thing to be tired and a little tearful,” says Figueroa. “But it’s quite another if you are always crying, are having a hard time connecting with your baby, or can’t sleep from anxiety or worry.”
Make sure you immediately reach out to your doctor if you note these or other signs of postpartum depression, such as negative feelings that last longer than two weeks after the birth, any thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, loss of appetite, or withdrawal from others.
“Even women with seemingly ‘perfect’ deliveries have cried in my office that they don’t know what is ‘wrong’ with them,” Figueroa says. “If emotionally or mentally you are just not feeling yourself, it is really important to talk to your provider and loved ones.”
You can also reach out to Postpartum Support International at 800-944-4773 anytime you need emotional support. It offers a directory of mental health providers and a list of postpartum support groups.
5 Things That Can Help You Feel Better After Vaginal Delivery
Thankfully, there are a number of ways to help ease recovery and promote healing after vaginal delivery. “Find the routine that works best for you,” advises Beninati. That could include:
“My number one piece of advice is that you really need to rest for the first couple of weeks after a vaginal delivery—after a C-section, too—because the uterus is involuting, or getting back to its normal size,” explains DiFranco Field. “If you interrupt that process with activity, it takes much longer.”
2. Ice Packs
“We recommend an ice pack for 24 hours, to be worn in the underwear to help with swelling and healing,” DiFranco Field says. (You can find products shaped like a menstrual pad or make your own.) Similarly, in the hospital or birthing center, you may be provided a lidocaine spray to help numb the area. “Either of those can help with comfort in that immediate postpartum period,” she says.
3. Witch Hazel
DiFranco Field says that typically after ice, doctors recommend transitioning to applying witch hazel pads, which can help reduce inflammation in the vaginal area.
For Britney Fitzgerald, of New York City, who gave birth to her son in February 2022, witch hazel was particularly helpful. “A friend of mine sent me witch hazel perineal cooling pad liners and witch hazel foam. These two products helped numb my discomfort, especially the first three weeks after birth,” she says.
4. A Peri Bottle
A perineal irrigation bottle is typically offered at the hospital and can be taken home. It’s a squeezable plastic bottle, often with a bent spout on one end, which you can use to spray your vaginal area after urinating—meaning you don’t have to wipe as much with toilet paper while you’re healing. It helps you “keep the area clean without having to touch too much,” DiFranco Field says.
5. Sitz Baths and Stool Softeners
If you have significant lacerations, such as third- or fourth-degree tears, DiFranco Field recommends a sitz bath, which is a shallow tub that you can put on your toilet, fill with water, and sit in to soothe any pain.
It’s also helpful to have a stool softener on hand to prevent constipation, so you’re not straining against your stitches when you use the bathroom.
Take Care of Yourself—and Ask for Help
Although you’ll have a new baby to care for, it’s crucial that you don’t get lost in the shuffle. Britney says that while her husband was on parental leave, they slept in shifts so they could each get some rest. Her husband was on baby care duty from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., and she would wake up every couple of hours after that to breastfeed.
“That first uninterrupted chunk of sleep at the beginning of the night helped me push through those long mornings,” she says. Her mom and mother-in-law, who don’t live close by, also took turns visiting to help.
Professional services can also be worthwhile, too, such as a baby nurse or a postpartum doula, who can help you care for yourself and/or your baby. Britney used a lactation consultant for breastfeeding help the first two weeks. “Her Zoom sessions and text message encouragement throughout that period helped me work out some of my breastfeeding struggles,” she says. “She quickly answered questions so that I didn’t have to spend a bunch of time Googling information.”
Also important: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do everything you can as soon as you can. “Set very realistic, small goals for yourself during the first few days or even weeks,” Figueroa says. “A newborn is a full-time job. Sometimes just checking off a box that I brushed my teeth would make me feel accomplished.”
You May Also Like:
- How to Prepare for Vaginal Delivery
- How to Care for Yourself After Having a Baby
- The Fourth Trimester: A Postpartum Guide to Life with a New Baby
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