Having a tiny, precious baby, while healing from birth is an extremely trying, yet incredibly rewarding, season of life. It’s filled with so much change, adaptation, intense emotions, new responsibilities, learning, love, and joy. Physical healing during the first several weeks after giving birth is a slow and gradual process. I had prepared for the postpartum period by preparing food and arranging for help, but I didn’t fully anticipate the extent of physical healing that takes place! I want to share some measures that worked well for me in aiding my body through the natural postpartum recovery process, and encourage other mamas to care for their bodies, so they can have their best health and take care of their little ones!
Although postpartum recovery was slower and more gradual than I expected, it was a smooth and uncomplicated process for me. I attribute most of this to the steps I took throughout pregnancy – eating whole & nutrient-dense foods, not eating in excess, exercising, engaging my deep core muscles, doing pelvic floor exercises, and taking certain supplements. Yes – the key to a smooth postpartum recovery is to take these healthy measures during your pregnancy! I’ll also delve into some things that worked well for me just in the postpartum period. While optimal nutrition is the cornerstone of our health, I’ll be focusing more on other measures to promote postpartum healing. I love working with women throughout pregnancy and after birth to customize a healthy and supportive eating plan for them!
Healing of the Birth Canal & Surrounding Areas
After vaginal birth, the birth canal and surround areas can be very delicate, sore, and sensitive. Physical rest is the most important measure we can take to help this area of our body heal.
Postpartum bleeding (lochia) occurs for approximately the first four to six weeks after birth (in both vaginal and C-section births). This is a natural process of the uterus expelling its lining, and contracting to return to its pre-pregnancy size. I recommend using disposable absorbent underwear, along with maxi pads for the first week or so. Once the bleeding becomes lighter, comfortable large underwear with a maxi pad typically work well. It’s important to keep track of bleeding, and inform your doctor or midwife about the amount and pattern. A sudden increase in the amount of bleeding may indicate that you’ve physically exerted your body too much the day prior.
Healing of External Tissues
The external tissues surround the birth canal can be very sore and inflamed after vaginal birth. Soothing measures are highly recommended and can provide comfort. Peri bottles filled with plain water are a great way to rinse the area after using the bathroom, since wiping can be irritating for a few weeks. Another easy way to promote healing of the external tissue is to prepare maxi pads with witch hazel poured over top, re-wrapped, and then frozen in a bag. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is an astringent and anti-inflammatory herb that can soothe and reduce inflammation in the external pelvic area after birth. You can also use witch hazel, along with other healing herbs, in the form of a spray – I recommend Earth Mama Herbal Perineal Spray. After a few weeks, Earth Mama Organic Perineal Balm would be appropriate.
A common symptom after giving birth is the development of new hemorrhoid(s), or worsening of pre-existing hemorrhoid(s). An inexpensive over-the-counter remedy – milk of magnesia – seems to work well in improving hemorrhoids. You can soak cotton rounds in milk of magnesia (put all together in a bag), and store in the refrigerator, and apply to the hemorrhoid(s) as needed.
Pelvic Floor Muscles
It’s important to perform pelvic floor exercises throughout pregnancy, so those muscles that control urination and defecation, among other things, maintain their ‘memory’ of how to contract and relax after they have been stretched during birth. If you’ve been doing pelvic floor exercises through your pregnancy, you should be able to continue them right after birth as well (maybe with a little more focus!).
There are three main ‘layers’ of pelvic floor muscles. A different type of exercise will engage each of the three layers. The most superficial layer controls the tightening and relaxing of the vaginal canal, the middle layer controls urination, and the deepest layer controls defecation. It’s important to consult with a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor therapy, who can give you instructions on how to perform these three distinct exercises.
Reshaping of the Abdomen
The abdomen is another area where a great amount of change takes place through pregnancy and after birth. During pregnancy, I recommend engaging your transversus abdominis (TVA) muscles daily. These are the innermost layer of your abdominal muscles. You can engage them by drawing your belly button towards your spine. Again, I recommend consulting with a prenatal physical therapist who can instruct you how to perform your exercises. Engaging these muscles helps to maintain core strength during pregnancy, and also helps to prevent separation of your rectus abdominis muscle – diastasis recti (DR). DR naturally occurs somewhat during pregnancy, but in some women, this can persist long after pregnancy. Diastasis recti can also contribute to a slight ‘bulge’ in the abdomen after pregnancy. Another tip to prevent DR is to avoid any movement that feels like a ‘crunch.’
A tool I recommend to promote the rectus abdominis muscle to come together after birth is a belly wrap (I used Belly Bandit). I found that wearing a belly wrap immediately after birth and for the first six weeks helped my abdomen return to its pre-pregnancy shape quickly, and also trained me to continue engaging my TVA (deep core) muscles with movement.
One of the most effective ways to help our bodies transition back to their pre-pregnancy state is by breastfeeding. When we breastfeed in the first few days and weeks after our baby’s birth, the oxytocin released causes the uterus to contract and shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size. Breastfeeding also naturally aids us in losing some body fat, since extra calories of energy are required to produce breast milk.
Practical Postpartum Tips
Have Meals & Snacks Prepared
Every couple of days during my last month of pregnancy, I picked one food item to make and spent an hour or so making two or three batches of it, then froze it in a bag with the date. Having healthy, homemade food that didn’t need cooked was extremely helpful in the first few months postpartum. Now with an infant, I think I’m going to continue this batch cooking & freezing! Some of the foods I made were salmon cakes, chicken liver meatballs, chocolate zucchini muffins, grain-free pumpkin ‘oatmeal,‘ chicken tenders coated in egg and almond meal, and raw energy bites (almond butter, ground flax seed, collagen protein powder, and dairy-free & sugar-free chocolate chips). For more prenatal and postpartum nutrition guidance, contact me here.
Arrange for Help
Plan to have someone at home with you for at least the first two weeks. Some postpartum doulas offer this service! It’s so important for new moms to prioritize rest, and you’ll definitely need some extra hands with a newborn, especially while you aren’t very mobile. Having someone there to help with the baby is helpful, but also that they can bring you food and water, and help around the house with laundry, cleaning, other kids, etc. This initial time after birth should be dedicated to only your new little one, and your healing.
Physical rest is what helps our bodies effectively heal from birth. While you may not see much from the outside, there is a lot going on internally in the weeks following birth. Every woman is different in the speed of their recovery, but a good gauge to see where you are at as far as internal healing is if you are still bleeding, and how much. If bleeding increases one day, that’s a good sign that you may have pushed yourself too much the previous day. Be prepared to be in the mindset that you will need to be in bed for a few days, and mostly sitting and laying around your home for the first two weeks or so. As far as getting back into exercise, most healthcare providers recommend waiting for at least six weeks. Listen to your own body, wait until you are no longer bleeding, and follow the guidance of your healthcare provider.
It’s important to stay hydrated with water after birth for many reasons. First, we need to build up our blood volume again after natural blood loss. Second, hydration is extremely important for successful breastfeeding. I recommend adding electrolytes to your water.
It’s beneficial to continue taking a prenatal multivitamin/mineral, a prenatal omega-3 fish oil (higher in DHA), and probiotics in the postpartum period, especially if you are breastfeeding. I recommend working with a Naturopathic Doctor to guide you in taking these supplements and others to facilitate healing and optimal health after birth.
Are you currently pregnant, or looking to become pregnant? I help women achieve their best health prior to, and through their pregnancies. I also address underlying factors in infertility, and help women get to a state of optimal health prior to conceiving. Want to get acquainted? Contact me here for a free ten-minute call!