When you’re pregnant, the excitement around having a baby is huge. Most women read books about how their baby is developing and the changes their own body is going through.
But if you’re pregnant with your first child, you may not know what to expect after your baby is born. Your body doesn’t just bounce back to normal in just a few weeks, and it’s not supposed to.
Dr. Laura Ramsay of Novant Health WomanCare in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and new mom herself, explained what you should expect after you’ve delivered.
“Although it’s by far the best thing a new mom can do for her baby, breast-feeding can be tough for a lot of women in the first days after delivery,” Ramsay said. “You’re already fatigued from delivery, and then you continually have to stimulate the breasts by pumping and feeding. It’s a lot of effort, and certainly worth it considering the multiple benefits for the baby.”
If a woman decides not to breast-feed or cannot breast-feed, milk will still come in. Ramsay said some people describe flu-like symptoms when this happens, including aches, low-grade fevers and tenderness.
The ligaments that hold the breasts up can get stretched out by pregnancy and breast-feeding. This is what women refer to as “sagging.” Ramsay said this is completely normal.
“Your breasts make so many changes while you’re pregnant,” Ramsay said. “They’re sometimes twice the size they are normally if you continue to breast-feed.”
After breast-feeding, most women will notice their breast size diminish, sometimes even to a smaller size than before they were pregnant. Each patient reacts differently, and the benefits of breast feeding far outweigh any physical effect on the mother, she added.
Abdominal muscles are made up of many layers that separate during pregnancy to allow the belly to stretch.
“The muscles that hold everything together get really stretched out,” Ramsay said. “They don’t go back immediately. It can take a woman up to six months to recover. It’s important women know not to expect to walk out after delivery looking like they did before they were pregnant.”
Ramsay noted the layer of muscles themselves get weaker during pregnancy. It’s not as easy to pull in or flex your abdominal muscles.
“When thinking about exercising after delivery, you should treat your body as if you’ve had a sports injury,” Ramsay said. “You have to gradually work your way back.”
The new normal
Hormonal changes can continue for almost six weeks after a woman has delivered her baby. Those changes, combined with the pressure women put on themselves to get their pre-baby body back, can make it easy for women to feel overwhelmed.
“It’s normal for people to break down from sheer exhaustion and from not understanding what’s going on inside their body,” Ramsay said. “A lot of women feel these feelings and can’t explain them, so it’s frustrating – but totally normal.”
However, Ramsay noted postpartum depression is different from normal feelings of tiredness or frustration. She said that any woman who believes she is experiencing symptoms such as mood swings, anxiety, irritability and trouble sleeping should seek help.
“In the end, it’s important for a woman and her partner to understand that every pregnancy and every woman is different,” Ramsay said. “How you handle it is how you handle it, and that’s just fine. But if there’s ever a point where a woman or her partner is concerned, they should seek out an appointment with their doctor.”
An important point for women to remember is that it can take a long time to get back to “normal,” Ramsay said.
“I wouldn’t expect anyone to feel like a switch flipped at six weeks to go back to normal,” Ramsay said. “It takes months or even up to a year for a body to get back to normal. It will never quite be like it was before, but you also have a baby to show for it.”