The postdelivery (postpartum) period is the 6 weeks after delivery of a baby, when the mother's body returns to its prepregnancy state.
After delivery, the mother can expect to have some symptoms, but they are usually mild and temporary. Complications are rare. Nonetheless, the doctor, hospital staff members, or health care plan usually sets up a program of follow-up office or home visits.
The most common complications are the following:
Postpartum hemorrhage may occur soon after delivery but may occur up to 6 weeks later.
Hospital (What to Expect)
Immediately after delivery of a baby, the mother is monitored. If a general anesthetic was used during delivery, she is monitored for 2 to 3 hours after delivery, usually in a well-equipped recovery room with access to oxygen, intravenous fluids, and resuscitation equipment.
Staff members check the mother's pulse rate and temperature. Normally, within the first 24 hours, the mother's pulse rate (which increased during pregnancy) begins to decline toward normal and her temperature may increase slightly, usually returning to normal by the second day. After the first 24 hours, recovery is rapid.
Hospital staff members make every effort to minimize the new mother's pain and the risk of bleeding and infection.
Minimizing bleeding is the first priority. After delivery of the placenta (afterbirth), a nurse may periodically massage the mother's abdomen to help the uterus contract and remain contracted, thus preventing excessive bleeding. If needed, oxytocin is given to stimulate contraction of the uterus. The drug is injected into a muscle or given intravenously as a continuous infusion until the uterus is contracted.
Urination and Defecation:
Urine production often increases greatly, but temporarily, after delivery. Because bladder sensation may be decreased after delivery, hospital staff members encourage a new mother to try to urinate regularly, at least every 4 hours. Doing so avoids overfilling the bladder and helps prevent bladder infections. Staff members may gently press on the mother's abdomen to check the bladder and determine whether it is being emptied. Occasionally, if the new mother cannot urinate on her own, a catheter must be inserted into the bladder to empty the urine. Hospital staff members try to avoid using a catheter, which increases the risk of bladder and kidney infections.
The new mother is also encouraged to defecate before leaving the hospital. But because hospital stays are so short, this expectation may not be practical. Doctors may recommend that if she has not defecated within 3 days, she take laxatives to avoid constipation, which can cause or worsen hemorrhoids. If the rectum or muscles around the anus were torn during delivery, doctors may prescribe stool softeners.
Diet and Exercise:
A new mother can have a regular diet as soon as she wants it, sometimes shortly after delivery. She should get up and walk as soon as possible.
A new mother can start exercises to strengthen abdominal muscles, often after 1 day if delivery was vaginal and later if it was cesarean. Sit-ups with bent knees, done in bed, are effective. However, most women are too tired to start exercising so soon after delivery. Cesarean delivery is a major surgery and women should not begin exercising until they have had time to fully recover and allow healing, which typically takes about 6 weeks. Women can resume their prepregnancy exercise routine after approval from their doctor at their postpartum visit.
Vaccines and Immune Globulin:
Before the mother leaves the hospital, she is given the German measles (rubella) vaccine if she has never had rubella or never been given this vaccine. If the mother has never received the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine and her last tetanus booster was at least 2 years ago, she should be given a Tdap vaccine before she is discharged.
If a new mother has Rh-negative blood and the baby has Rh-positive blood, she is usually given Rh0(D) immune globulin within 3 days of delivery. This drug masks any of the baby's red blood cells that may have passed to the mother so that they do not trigger the production of antibodies by the mother. Such antibodies may endanger subsequent pregnancies (see Complications of Pregnancy: Rh Incompatibility).
Before a new mother leaves the hospital, she is examined. If mother and baby are healthy, they commonly leave the hospital within 24 to 48 hours after vaginal delivery and within 96 hours after a cesarean delivery. Sometimes discharge is even earlier than 24 hours if no general anesthetic was used and no problems occurred.
The mother is given information about changes to expect in her body and measures to take as her body recovers from having a baby. Regular follow-up visits are scheduled.
Continuing From Hospital to Home
Coping with some changes begins in the hospital, depending on how soon hospital discharge occurs, and continues at home.
Discharge From the Vagina:
New mothers have a discharge from the vagina. Staff members give them pads to absorb it. Staff members also check the amount and color of the discharge. Usually, it appears bloody for 3 or 4 days. Then it becomes pale brown for about 10 to 12 days, then yellowish white. The discharge may continue for up to about 6 weeks after delivery.
About a week or two after delivery, part of the remaining placenta may separate, causing vaginal bleeding of up to about a cup. Sanitary pads, changed frequently, may be used to absorb this discharge. Comfortably fitting tampons, changed frequently, can also be used unless they interfere with healing of an episiotomy incision or of tears in the area between the vaginal opening and the anus (perineum).
Mothers who are not breastfeeding may safely take drugs to help them sleep or to relieve pain. For women who are breastfeeding, acetaminophen and ibuprofen are relatively safe pain relievers. Many other drugs appear in breast milk (see see Taking Drugs While Breastfeeding).
The area around the vaginal opening is usually sore, and the area may sting during urination. Tears in the perineum or episiotomy repairs can contribute to the soreness and cause swelling.
Immediately after delivery and for the first 24 hours, ice or cold packs may be used to relieve the pain and swelling. Anesthetics can be applied to the skin. Washing the area around the vagina with warm water 2 or 3 times a day helps reduce tenderness. Warm sitz baths can help relieve pain. Sitz baths are taken in a sitting position with water covering only the perineum and buttocks. Women should be careful when sitting down and, if sitting is painful, use a doughnut-shaped pillow.
Pushing during delivery can cause or worsen hemorrhoids. Pain caused by hemorrhoids can by relieved by warm sitz baths and applying a gel containing a local anesthetic.
The breasts may be enlarged, tight, and sore because they are engorged with milk. Engorgement occurs during the early stages of milk production (lactation).
For mothers who are not going to breastfeed, the following can help:
For mothers who are breastfeeding, the following can help until milk production adjusts to the baby's needs:
If the breasts are very swollen, the mother may have to express her milk just before breastfeeding to enable the baby's mouth to fit around the areola (the pigmented area of skin around the nipple).
Sadness is common during the days after delivery. New mothers should not be too concerned unless sadness is extreme or lasts more than 2 weeks.
Home (What to Expect)
A new mother may resume normal daily activities when she feels ready. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help a new mother return to her prepregnancy weight.
She may resume sexual intercourse as soon as she desires it and it is comfortable. If delivery caused tearing or an episiotomy was done, sexual intercourse should be delayed until the area heals. A new mother may take showers or baths shortly after delivery, unless delivery was by cesarean.
If delivery was cesarean, nothing, including tampons and douches, should be put in the vagina for at least 2 weeks. Strenuous activity and heavy lifting should be avoided for about 6 weeks. Intercourse should also be avoided for 6 weeks. The incision site should be cared for in the same way as other surgical incisions. Showering can typically be resumed 24 hours after surgery. Care should be taken not to scrub the incision site. Baths should be avoided until the wound is completely closed and any staples or sutures have been removed. The incision site should be kept clean and dry. Any evidence of increasing redness or drainage from the incision should be brought to the doctor's attention. Pain around the incision site can last for a few months, and numbness can last even longer.
The uterus, still enlarged, continues to contract for some time, becoming progressively smaller during the next 2 weeks. These contractions are irregular and often painful. Contractions are intensified by breastfeeding. Breastfeeding triggers the production of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin stimulates the flow of milk (called the let-down reflex) and uterine contractions.
Normally, after 5 to 7 days, the uterus is firm and no longer tender but is still somewhat enlarged, extending to halfway between the pubic bone and the navel. By 2 weeks after delivery, the uterus returns close to its normal size. However, the new mother's abdomen does not become as flat as it was before the pregnancy for several months, even if she exercises.
Stretch marks do not go away, but they may fade, but sometimes not for a year.
Doctors recommend breastfeeding for at least 6 months, but some mothers cannot breastfeed or may not want to for various reasons. Bottle-feeding can be done instead (see Newborns and Infants: Feeding of Newborns and Infants).
Mothers who are breastfeeding need to learn how to position the baby during feeding (see Newborns and Infants: Positioning a Baby to Breastfeed). If the baby is not positioned well, the mother's nipples may become sore and cracked. Sometimes the baby draws in its lower lip and sucks it, irritating the nipple. In such cases, the mother can ease the baby's lip out of its mouth with her thumb. After a feeding, she should let the milk dry naturally on the nipples rather than wipe or wash them. If she wishes, she can dry her nipples with a hair dryer set on low. In very dry climates, hypoallergenic lanolin or ointment can be applied to the nipples.
When a mother breastfeeds, the breasts may leak milk. Pads can be worn to absorb the milk, but plastic bra liners can irritate the nipples and should be not be used.
While breastfeeding, mothers need to increase their caloric intake by about 500 calories per day. They should also increase their intake of most vitamins and minerals. Usually, eating a well-balanced diet (including enough dairy products and green, leafy vegetables) and continuing to take prenatal vitamin with additional folate (1 milligram) are all mothers need to do. They should drink enough fluids to ensure an adequate milk supply. Mothers on special diets should consult their doctor about the need for other vitamin and mineral supplements, such as vitamin B12 for vegetarians.
Use of contraceptives is recommended when intercourse resumes because pregnancy is possible as soon as the mother begins to release an egg from the ovary (ovulate) again. Mothers who are not breastfeeding usually begin to ovulate again about 4 to 6 weeks after delivery, before their first period. However, ovulation can occur earlier. Mothers who are solely breastfeeding tend to start ovulating and menstruating somewhat later, closer to 6 months after delivery. The interval depends on how much food other than breast milk the baby consumes. If more than four fifths of the baby's food is breast milk, ovulation is unlikely to occur. Occasionally, a mother who is breastfeeding ovulates, menstruates, and becomes pregnant as quickly as a mother who is not breastfeeding.
Full recovery after pregnancy takes about 1 to 2 years. So doctors usually advise a new mother to wait at least one year and optimally 18 months before becoming pregnant again (although she may choose not to follow that advice). At her first doctor's appointment after delivery, a new mother can discuss contraceptive options (see Family Planning: Contraception) with her doctor and choose one that suits her situation. Whether a mother is breastfeeding affects the method of contraception used. Oral contraceptives that contain estrogen and progesterone can interfere with milk production and should not be used until milk production is well established. Progesterone-only contraceptives can be used, but methods that do not use drugs (such as barrier contraceptives) are even better. A diaphragm can be fitted only after the uterus has returned to normal, usually after about 6 to 8 weeks. Before that, foams, jellies, and condoms can be used. Intrauterine devices can be inserted about 6 weeks after pregnancy.
A new mother (or any woman) who has just been vaccinated against German measles (rubella) must wait at least 1 month before becoming pregnant again to avoid endangering the fetus.
Last full review/revision November 2008 by Julie S. Moldenhauer, MD