Giving birth to a baby is an incredible accomplishment. Any mother who has given birth can tell you just how challenging it can be to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, all while tending to the needs of a newborn around the clock. The medical system concludes with postpartum care at six weeks following a newborn’s arrival. Yet, many mothers will say that six weeks is not enough time for mothers to recover, and research supports this.
A study at the Salford University in England indicates that mothers need at least one year to recover from childbirth.
Dr. Julie Wray, the study’s lead researcher, interviewed women two to three weeks after giving birth, then again at three months and at six to seven months. Through the interview process, she was able to gain insight into what women truly experience during postpartum recovery.
"The research shows that more realistic and woman-friendly postnatal services are needed. Women feel that it takes much longer than six weeks to recover and they should be supported beyond the current six to eight weeks after birth," Dr. Wray told The Daily Mail.
Further supporting the fact that women need more than six weeks to recover from childbirth, a study of 68 women conducted at the University of Michigan's School of Nursing suggests that pelvic floor recovery can take longer than eight months to fully resolve. The study used MRI imaging to assess healing at seven weeks postpartum, and again at eight months. While some factors like swelling improved by eight months, pelvic floor weakness had not.
The lead researcher, Dr. Miller told The Guardian: "our data shows a wide range of time for women to complete their healing after a very strenuous birth. Women are not given permission to have more time to recover after childbirth."
Further still, a 2000 Australian study investigated the connection between physical recovery after childbirth and maternal depression. The study found that women, even six to seven months following birth, still have high levels of exhaustion, back pain, urinary incontinence, sexual problems, bowel problems and perineal pain. The study confirmed a link between maternal emotional wellbeing and physical recovery, and that women should be in close contact with providers for a year after the birth of a baby.
Not at a year postpartum yet? Here's what childbirth recovery looks like, every step of the way.
What to expect 1 week postpartum.
One week postpartum, people who had vaginal births can expect their vagina to hurt quite a lot, depending on how much they tore. Bleeding is also normal, and you may feel discomfort as your uterus shrinks back to its pre-pregnancy size. A week after a c-section, movement will be difficult and your incision may be painful. However, moving around is suggested to avoid blood clots. Mentally, all new parents may feel exhausted and overwhelmed — as though nothing is going right — as their hormone levels change.
What to expect 2 weeks postpartum.
For most people who had vaginal births, bleeding will begin to taper off during week two. However, for some, it will last until week six. You may begin to feel itchy; this is a sign your vagina is healing. Likewise, people who had c-sections may begin to experience itchiness around their incision site. They will likely still feel sore, but it will be easier to move around. Baby blues are common, with many people citing feelings of sadness. However, overwhelming sadness or anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, should be discussed with a doctor.
What to expect 6 weeks postpartum.
At 6 weeks, people who had vaginal births should no longer be bleeding. They are usually cleared to have sex and exercise, and their uterus is back to its original size. People who had c-sections also have original-sized uteruses and are cleared for lifting, driving, exercising and sexual activity. Your scar may still be numb or even itchy. At this point, exhaustion and high emotions are still normal. However, depressive emotions should be discussed with a doctor.
What to expect 6 months postpartum.
At six months, your hair should stop falling out and full bladder control should return, if this was an issue before. Your period may return around this time, although it may take a full year. Your mental state may be more positive at this point, although lingering feelings of depression should be discussed with a doctor.
What to expect 12 months postpartum.
You will be feeling more back to your old self, although your body (and specifically, your breasts) may appear different. If you had a c-section, your scar may still be a bit numb. You may still be experiencing fatigue.
How long does it take for relaxin to leave the body after childbirth?
Relaxin is the pregnancy hormone that increases the size and elasticity of connective tissues to allow for childbirth, softening the ligaments and muscles. There is not a consensus on how long it takes for relaxin to leave the body, however doctors say it can take up to five months for relaxin to leave the body and for joints to return to their previous stability. As a result, recently pregnant women should be sensitive to their joints and take care when training their muscles.
Is your postpartum recovery normal? 13 reasons to see a doctor.
There are several minor postpartum health issues that are common and can be brought to the attention of a doctor during a routine check up, but do not require emergency care. These common health issues include:
- Postpartum bleeding
- Mood swings
- Soreness in the vaginal area
- Breast engorgement
However, some postpartum health issues require more immediate medical attention. Here's when to see a doctor:
- You have chills or a fever of over 101 degrees Fahrenheit. This may be a sign of endometriosis or infection.
- You have a difficulty urinating. This may be the sign of a urinary tract infection or another infection.
- You are experiencing blurred vision, migraines or dizziness. This may be a sign of postpartum preeclampsia or high blood pressure.
- You have IV-site pain. You may have an infection.
- You have sore breasts with flu-like symptoms or red streaks across your breasts. You may have an infection of the breast tissue.
- You have persistent abdominal pain.
- You have pain in the chest, legs or feet.
- You have drainage from your c-section incision.
- You're vomiting.
- You're experiencing excessive bleeding.
- You're experiencing a shortness of breath.
- You're experiencing a painful perineum.
- You're experiencing overwhelming emotions or mood swings. While being emotional is normal postpartum — this is a big change – excessive crying, frustration, anger or feeling unable to take care of yourself and your child may signal postpartum depression.
15 questions to ask your doctor about your postpartum recovery.
To get a more clear picture of what you should expect at each stage of recovery, ask your medical care provider any (or all) of the following questions:
- What activities are safe for me right now? Which activities should I avoid?
- What should I do to protect myself from infections?
- What are ways I can ease pain and discomfort after childbirth?
- What should I do about soreness?
- How should I take care of my stitches?
- How will I know if my flow is normal or not?
- How long with my vaginal bleeding and discharge last?
- Do I need to take contraceptives?
- What medications can I take?
- When can I resume having sex?
- When can I resume exercising? What should I do?
- Are there any changes to my body I should know about?
- How should I take care of my breasts postpartum, depending on my breastfeeding plan?
- What symptoms indicate an emergency?
- How should I follow up with you?
Jennifer Mayer supports parents through pregnancy, birth, new parenthood and the transition back to work. She's the founder of Baby Caravan, a birth & postpartum doula agency and Baby Caravan at Work, a corporate consulting practice based in New York City. Jennifer lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.