A woman holds her baby, who is not smiling, possibly due to postpartum symptoms.

Postpartum symptoms: What’s normal and what not to ignore

Throughout pregnancy, your body changes to support and nurture the baby growing inside. Your hormones change, your uterus expands and your core muscles expand to make room.

After you give birth, your body begins the process of reverting to its pre-pregnancy condition. How long does this process last? And what can you expect during this process?

Many postpartum symptoms are normal and harmless. However, there are postpartum symptoms not to ignore, too. It’s important to know the difference between them.

Get to know your postpartum body

> Talk to your provider for guidance

Postpartum bleeding

Light bleeding, or spotting, is very common for about four weeks after delivery. This is your body getting rid of the extra blood and tissue that supported your baby in your uterus.

The bleeding is heavier for the first few days but should decrease after that. At first, you may soak an extra thick maxi pad every day.

The blood should resemble menstruation blood in color and odor at first. It starts out as dark red, possibly even with clots. It should get lighter in color until it stops. The bleeding can get a bit heavier after periods of activity.

If the amount of bleeding doesn’t decrease after the first few days, you may have a postpartum hemorrhage. Heavy bleeding – soaking a pad every hour, for instance – could also be a sign of postpartum hemorrhage. These are postpartum symptoms not to ignore. You need immediate medical care.

A postpartum hemorrhage can occur as early as the day after labor or several weeks later.

Postpartum hair loss

Many women experience hair loss after delivery. This is totally normal, according to Vanessa Foster, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at OSF HealthCare.

“What happens when you’re pregnant is that your hair stops shedding so much,” Dr. Foster said. “Then, when you deliver, your hair all sheds at once. You don’t necessarily lose more hair. You’re just catching up with the shedding that you should have been doing when you were pregnant.”

Postpartum cramping

Unfortunately, cramping doesn’t end with the delivery of your baby. It typically continues for a week or two after giving birth as your uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy shape.

“Your uterus has to go from the size of about a watermelon back down to the size of about a pear, and that involves cramping,” Dr. Foster said. “Your muscle cramps back down to its normal, non-pregnant uterine size.”

Postpartum back pain

Your back may hurt after delivery. This is usually lingering soreness from delivery, which is physically demanding.

You may be sore at the spot where you were given an epidural. You may be sore from lying flat on your back for hours during delivery. And the muscle straining of delivery can cause soreness in your back, too.

Postpartum depression

Postpartum depression is the most common pregnancy complication. It’s a mental illness believed to be caused by the drastic change in your hormones when pregnancy ends.

This condition might go away on its own after a few weeks. It could also get much worse or linger forever, so don’t ignore it. Talk to your provider and get treatment.

If you have thoughts of harming your baby or yourself, go to the emergency department and get immediate help. Support groups, talk therapy and medication are all possible treatments.

So, when does postpartum depression start? Basically, it can start right away after delivery, or it can start weeks later. Typically, it starts within one to three weeks.

Postpartum belly

After giving birth, your belly still looks like you’re several months pregnant. It takes several weeks to months for your middle section to return to something like its pre-pregnancy size.

Your uterus takes six to eight weeks to shrink back to its normal size. It also takes time to shed the extra fat your belly added to support and nourish your baby during pregnancy.

Stretch marks are common, too.

Some moms end up with a bulge in their belly due to a condition called diastasis recti. This condition occurs when your abdominal muscles separate due to the stretching caused by pregnancy. It’s a common issue, and it can be treated. 

Other common postpartum symptoms

Your body needs to shed excess fluids once it’s not supporting a growing baby any longer. As a result, you may sweat and urinate more often. Many women also experience swelling, which happens most often in the legs and ankles.

You will also experience breast engorgement once your milk production kicks in. Your breasts may feel tender, as well, particularly if you aren’t breastfeeding.

You may experience shortness of breath more easily than you did before pregnancy, too.

Postpartum exercise

Whether you had a vaginal delivery or a C-section, your body needs to recover and heal after delivery. Your muscles are still stretched out. You may have required an episiotomy or suffered some vaginal tearing. Delivery can be traumatic to your body.

If you had a C-section, you will need to follow certain weight lifting restrictions. This is to allow your surgery incision to heal properly. The restrictions should last for a minimum of six weeks.

“You could put your baby in the carriage and go outside and have a brisk walk immediately after delivery,” Dr. Foster said. “But to engage your core and engage in some intense exercise, you need to wait at least six weeks.”

Speak to your provider for guidelines on how and when it is safe for you to exercise. Physical therapy can be very helpful, too. That’s especially true if you need some help strengthening and stabilizing your pelvic floor muscles.

What is the importance of your postpartum diet?

A well-balanced diet is essential to your postpartum recovery. You need to rebuild your strength and stamina to give your baby your best. Healthy vitamins and minerals help speed up your body’s recovery.

Staying hydrated is important, too. Drink lots of water.

If you’re breastfeeding, a healthy diet stimulates milk production. Those healthy nutrients get passed on to your baby through your milk.

“While you’re nursing, you may notice that your appetite is ravenous,” Dr. Foster said. “It’s because you have a milk-making factory here. You’ve got to put fuel in your factory.”

Last Updated: July 21, 2023

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Birth & Maternity