Best Methods of Recovery for New Mothers
You’re undoubtedly going to be focused on your beautiful newborn baby above all else. In the midst of all the bustle when welcoming a new member of the family, however, it’s important to take care of yourself too. Even if you had an ideal pregnancy, you’ll likely need a few weeks (or even months!) todo something properly about postpartum recovery. There are also some vaginal changes new mothers face that may require continued care.
What You Can Expect to Change
Pregnancy takes a huge toll on a woman’s body. Did you know that a full-term pregnancy is just as metabolically taxing as running an ultramarathon? Thankfully, the most common changes you’ll face are well-documented, and vaginal delivery veterans openly sharing their experiences helps new mothers to prepare.
Vaginal soreness: this is the first change you can expect, as “postpartum” refers to the period of time after vaginal birth–which by its nature can put your privates through the wringer. This is especially common for women who experience a tear during delivery or require an incision to help the process along. Over-the-counter pain relievers and numbing creams can certainly help, but many women need continuing care.
Dryness, scarring, coloration: after birth, your levels of estrogen lower, thinning the tissue in your vagina. This can make your vagina feel dry, especially if you’re breastfeeding, and further suppress estrogen. If you stay hydrated, take estrogen supplements, and use a vaginal moisturizer or water-based lube you shouldn’t be too bothered. On top of dryness, you may have scar tissue if you had a tear or episiotomy; your doctor will be able to remove this if it doesn’t go away on its own. Childbirth may also darken the color of your perineum and labia, but that’s just evidence that your body underwent an impressive ordeal.
Stretching: after giving birth, your vagina may appear swollen or wider than before your pregnancy. The swelling should recede within a few days, and after a few weeks, your vagina will have contracted to near its previous tightness (which varies from woman to woman). Stretching is a completely natural part of childbirth; caused by estrogen, which increases blood flow to the vagina so that connective tissue is better able to expand while you push, and relaxin, which loosens pelvic ligaments and joints.
Because it can expand–and is meant to expand!–it can also contract, given time. Your partner likely won’t even notice a difference in the meantime, as the only way most women can tell at all is how well a tampon stays in. You might have to bump up a tampon size after recovery.
It’s important to note that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) does not recommend elective plastic surgery, vaginoplasty, or radio-frequency/laser procedures. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any of these for postpartum vaginal laxity. “Vaginal rejuvenation” is a marketing term, not a genuine medical treatment.
Sex after birth: doctors typically advise that you wait 4-6 weeks postpartum before resuming sex, and you may feel tenderness or even pain for a little while after that. A weakened pelvic floor leads to weaker contractions (the pleasure-causing bit) during orgasm, although kegel exercises can help significantly.
Vaginal discharge/bleeding: after delivery, your body will shed the superficial mucous membrane that lined your uterus throughout pregnancy. Known as lochia, this will be mixed with blood and is usually comparable to a heavy period. You might pass large blood clots, but typically don’t need to contact a doctor unless you’re soaking through a pad in under an hour or experiencing additional symptoms such as a severe headache or leg pain. Your period may also change after birth, becoming heavier or even lighter based on the amount of estrogen your body now produces.
Methods for Postpartum Vaginal Care
While we’ve covered the more common changes to your vagina after delivery, every woman is different. It’s good practice to consult with doctors and the mothers in your life to hear their experiences and learn ways they managed recovery.
Home Remedies for Recovery
Many of the difficulties you may face postpartum can be alleviated with some simple healthy practices. For example, perineal massage in the month or so before your due date can help prepare your vagina for childbirth. Perineal massage helps to reduce the risk of tearing or requiring episiotomy. Although current studies are inconclusive, many new moms swear by it.
Kegels strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor and will be a key part of your vaginal recovery. Kegels may help you to avoid tearing during delivery, as well as help resolve postpartum urinary incontinence. Perhaps best of all, Kegels will make sex more pleasurable when you are able to have it again.
You only need to perform kegel exercises for five minutes three times a day, both during late pregnancy and then after giving birth (once you are comfortably able). They’re easy to fit into your day, whenever you’re sitting still–for example while breastfeeding or at your desk. It can help to speak with a pelvic floor physical therapist for proper techniques and exercises.
Besides strengthening your pelvic floor, vaginal soreness will likely be your main focus for relief. Many women like to soak a pad or baby diaper in water and freeze it before adding it to their own underwear, but soon you’ll want to transition from constant ice to a sitz bath. Simply sitting in a few inches of tepid bath water should do the trick. This also helps soothe hemorrhoids as well as clean the area and prevent infection.
As a woman, you are likely quite used to vaginal discharge and the sanitary pads needed to manage it. Just be aware of the times you should consider calling a doctor, and avoid tampons–or anything insertable–until it is safe to start having sex again.
To avoid further irritation after going to the bathroom, use a peri-bottle to clean the perineum–just dab dry after. The last key ingredient in your postpartum toolkit should be witch hazel. Many women swear by lining pads with it, to reduce inflammation and greatly soothe discomfort.
Keeping a Healthy Outlook
While recovering and dealing with all of the life changes that a baby brings, the changes to your body can be distressing. All too often, mothers have to set aside their own well-being; so it's helpful to make a plan for your mental health before giving birth.
Having a support network is the best way to ensure good mental health postpartum. Being able to pass the baby to Grandma or a trusted auntie will give you precious time to focus on what you need–whether that is a moment of self-care pampering, revisiting a favorite hobby, or simply snatching an hour or two for some much-needed sleep.
If home remedies aren’t doing the trick, be sure to talk to your doctor. Telehealth is an accessible option that doesn’t require extra time away from your newborn. Ask your doctor for a referral to a pelvic floor physical therapist who can provide specific kegel exercises and other treatments, as well as give you feedback on your technique.
It’s easy to get swept up in the magic of your newborn, and forget to take care of yourself. However, recovery is important–and will keep you at the top of your game while spending precious moments with your baby.