How to Care for Yourself After Having a Baby
It’s not hard to find advice on what to expect when you’re expecting, and frequent check-ins with an ob-gyn or midwife can give you guidance through the ups and downs and aches and pains of pregnancy. But when it comes to knowing what to do to care for your health after the baby is born, many birthing parents feel as though they’re on their own.
We’re here to give you some tips for how to care for your mental and physical health post-pregnancy.
Focus on Postpartum Healing
Even under the best circumstances—short labor, an uncomplicated delivery, a baby who latches on naturally and sleeps well—the time period immediately after you give birth is likely to be full of challenges, especially if you’re a first-time parent.
“The first two weeks after delivery can be very stressful,” says Jacqueline Zuponcic, D.O., a board-certified ob-gyn at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, in Ohio.
For starters, you’ve just been through a massive transformation, one that has likely altered you physically as well as emotionally. It’s very likely that you’re still dealing with some pretty intense physical symptoms from the birth.
If you had a vaginal birth, you may have discomfort or pain from hemorrhoids, tears, or an episiotomy that needs to heal. If you’ve had a cesarean section, you’ve had a baby and surgery at the same time, and it may take extra time to recover. You’ll have an incision that will need to heal, and you may be restricted in how well you can move around and carry out everyday tasks.
In addition, you’ll be experiencing postpartum bleeding (like a heavy period) and possibly constipation and engorged breasts or chest.
Follow any instructions your doctor has given you for postpartum care and healing, such as keeping the incision clean and dry and avoiding lifting more than 15 pounds in the first six weeks if you had a C-section, according to Zuponcic.
Be gentle with yourself during this time. Although you’re now responsible for a new baby, you should prioritize self-care after childbirth, as well, which can help you heal and begin to gain back some of your strength and energy.
If you don’t have a family member or partner who can help care for you and your baby in the first couple of weeks, you may want to consider hiring a baby nurse or doula to help out.
Seek Help for Pelvic Issues After Childbirth
Pelvic issues are common after childbirth, according to pelvic floor physical therapist Mary Austin, a board-certified women's health specialist and director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Pelvic Health Physical Therapy Residency.
These can include urinary incontinence (difficulty holding your urine), fecal incontinence (trouble holding stool), and pelvic girdle pain (pain in the pubic, groin, or genital region); pain around the lower back, tailbone, buttocks, or hips; pain with position change; or feeling as though your leg is “giving out,” says Austin. Certain birth complications and other factors can increase your risk for these problems.
If you’re experiencing any of these issues, you may want to see a pelvic floor physical therapist. They can address your specific problems and help you find a treatment plan.
In many cases, these specialists will recommend special exercises, like Kegels. These small, focused contractions of the muscles in the pelvic floor may help build muscle strength and endurance. The action is similar to stopping the flow of urine or holding back gas, Austin says, which is one of the reasons Kegels are often recommended for incontinence.
A pelvic floor therapist can show you how to do them correctly, introduce you to different variations of Kegels, and put together a plan (which type of Kegels, how many, how often) for your specific symptoms.
Postpartum Self-Care to Prioritize
Whether you’ve had a vaginal birth or a C-section, your body and mind have endured some significant wear and tear. Some changes will resolve quickly and naturally; others will require some effort and maintenance on your part. To help you feel more like yourself again, here are some things to prioritize:
New parents are almost always sleep-deprived—even more than they were in the last month of pregnancy. But sleep deprivation and deficiency are not just annoying; not getting restful, restorative sleep can adversely affect your short-term and long-term health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep deficiency is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
In addition to feeling sluggish and tired, without adequate sleep you may have problems remembering things, completing tasks, concentrating, and making decisions. Your reaction time may be slower, which may make you feel less equipped to keep up with a baby’s needs.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to anxiety or depression or exacerbate postpartum depression.
“The best advice, and sometimes the most difficult thing to do, is to rest when your baby rests,” says Zuponcic. Even though newborns’ sleep cycles are short (generally one to three hours), it’s a good idea to take advantage and get shut-eye when your baby does. One study suggests that even a 10-minute nap can help increase energy, decrease fatigue, and improve cognitive performance in people who are sleep-deprived.
2. Mental Health
About 85% of birthing parents experience “postpartum blues” or “baby blues,” which, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), are negative feelings that generally develop a couple of days after childbirth and may include crying for no reason, feeling depressed, or feeling angry with their partner or the new baby.
Zuponcic says that there are many reasons for the baby blues, including fluctuating hormones, physical discomfort, and extreme sleep deprivation. Symptoms tend to come and go and, fortunately, usually resolve within a week or two. But if they don’t, talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a therapist or provide other resources that can help.
In any case, it’s important to prioritize your well‑being and mental health after having a baby. Take time for things you enjoy, such as self-care, getting out into nature, time to yourself, or connecting with friends. All of these things can lift your mood in the postpartum phase, says Jessie Everts, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist, Twill clinical liaison, and author of the book Brave New Mom.
Approximately 12% of birthing parents experience postpartum depression, which includes more serious and pervasive symptoms and, says Zuponcic, is often characterized by sleep disturbances, lack of interest in things they previously enjoyed, guilt, energy deficits, concentration difficulties, appetite changes, agitation, and occasionally, suicidal thoughts and/or thoughts about harming the baby.
If you notice any of these symptoms, seek the help of a mental health professional, preferably one who specializes in postpartum mental health. Again, your ob-gyn should be able to refer you to someone, and there are also helpful resources online, including Postpartum Support International, which offers a provider directory, a help line, and support groups.
“Medication use and counseling have been found to be almost equally effective, but together their effects are greater than the sum of their parts,” Zuponcic says. “While we screen all patients for postpartum depression, if women are feeling that their mood is impacting their activities of daily living, or their ability to bond with their child, we would most definitely want to evaluate them.”
For postpartum parents, the importance of good nutrition cannot be overstated. Eating well and getting enough fluids can speed your recovery, increase stamina, and if you’re chest/breastfeeding, promote milk production.
Continue taking your prenatal vitamins, recommends Zuponcic. “Take calcium and vitamin D to restore depleted calcium, which is common during breastfeeding.”
She also recommends staying hydrated and following the USDA's MyPlate recommendations, which focus on eating a healthy balance of vegetables, fruits, proteins, grains, and fats. Focus on whole foods rather than processed foods, which can drain your energy.
If you’re chest/breastfeeding, it’s recommended to avoid alcohol or limit consumption to one standard drink a day, and you should wait at least two hours after drinking before you nurse the baby. Also, avoid fish with high mercury levels, since they can pass through the milk to the baby, says Zuponcic.
According to ACOG, exercise can help strengthen and tone abdominal muscles, boost energy, promote better sleep, and relieve stress. ACOG recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
Zuponcic recommends taking short walks as soon as you’re physically able—you may feel ready to do this as soon as you come home from the hospital (but if you had a C-section or pregnancy and/or birth complications, talk to your provider first). However, regardless of your energy level and physical stamina, extreme weight-bearing and cardio exercises are not recommended until six weeks postpartum, she says.
It’s common to want to lose the baby weight—and it gives some people a confidence boost if they do. But many new parents have unrealistic expectations about “bouncing back” after pregnancy, which could lead to—or worsen—depression.
Give it time and focus on practicing healthy habits. Weight loss after pregnancy, Zuponcic says, can be difficult. There’s no secret to it, she says, but sticking to an eating plan that was helpful for you in the past can be helpful now. Breastfeeding may also be helpful, Zuponcic added, because it burns a significant number of calories.
You can also look into local or online postpartum workouts, programs, classes, trainers, and more. Many programs even offer workouts that you can do with your baby while bonding with other new parents. Check with your ob-gyn before beginning any exercise regimen.
And be sure to schedule in time to take care of yourself—it will definitely be worth it.
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