Healing after baby: Postpartum recovery after vaginal delivery


by Kathleen Cammack, MD

May 17, 2023

You just did something amazing—you gave birth to a beautiful baby! Bringing a baby into the world is a wonderful and life-changing experience, but it is certainly no small feat. The physical and emotional changes that happen in the first year postpartum can be difficult to navigate, especially if you’re not sure what to expect.

Keep reading to learn more about what changes you might experience in the 12 months after giving birth vaginally and how your doctor can help you navigate them.

How your body changes after giving birth

As you heal from giving birth, it’s important to try and be kind to yourself through all the changes. Having a baby is a full-body process and the changes you experience, while normal, can still feel overwhelming at times.

For as long as it took to grow and deliver your baby, at least as much time is needed to recover. While physical changes begin during pregnancy, you may start noticing the changes more after delivery.

Changes can include:

  • Weight gain
  • Skin changes such as acne, rashes, stretch marks or dark patches
  • Breast changes like enlargement, tender nipples or changes in shape
  • Shifts in the muscles of the abdomen and pelvis
  • Hair loss

Immediately following giving birth, the uterus is still enlarged, and you may experience a bloated feeling. Your abdominal muscles may have spread a bit farther than they were pre-pregnancy. While these muscles can sometimes return to how they were before pregnancy, it is very common for a small gap to remain. You might also experience some vaginal pressure or looseness.

Throughout your first year postpartum, your body will continue to change as you recover. Know that while this might feel strange, it is completely normal to notice physical changes after your six-week appointment.

If you choose to breastfeed your baby, breast changes will be dynamic and shift depending on milk supply changes and the needs of your child. Menstrual cycles are also often irregular postpartum and while breastfeeding. Some women may notice their cycle regulate quickly after birth, but it could take months for others.

You may also notice bowel and bladder changes like leaking when lifting heavy objects, laughing or coughing. While this may feel embarrassing, this is very common for new moms. Urinary incontinence issues may go away with time, but sometimes they can persist. Be sure to speak with your physician about any concerns—they will be able to help make your recovery easier and help you return to feeling like yourself again with time.

Getting back to “normal”

While you might feel ready to “get back at it” after birth and feel more like you did pre-pregnancy, strenuous exercise is not recommended within the first six weeks postpartum. Taking short casual walks is all you need so that your body can take the time it needs to rest and recover.

Make sure you are eating enough and incorporate plenty of fruits, veggies and protein into your meals. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to recovery. Gradually work up to your goals and pay attention to any pain or signals from your body that you need to slow down or rest.

It is understandable to want to return to your pre-pregnancy weight, but keep in mind that weight gain is expected—and recommended—in pregnancy. It takes much longer than 12 weeks to go back to your baseline weight.

Even if you return to your pre-pregnancy weight, your clothes and body will probably feel different than they did prior to giving birth, and that’s okay. Try to be gentle with yourself through postpartum changes and remember that your body did something incredible.

Changes can, of course, still come with mixed emotions. If you notice lingering anxiety and depression or notice any changes in your mental health, you’re not alone. Your physician is there to help you through physical and mental concerns.

When should you reach out to your doctor?

While you can contact your doctor with any questions, some changes that may need more immediate attention include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Worsening pain or tenderness
  • Heavy bleeding or passage of large clots
  • Breast redness
  • Flu-like feelings
  • Worsening depression or anxiety with uncontrolled thoughts

During your follow-up appointments, you can ask specific questions about your delivery, particularly if things didn’t go as you planned or if you have concerns about recovery. The first year (and beyond!) of having a baby can come with emotional and physical fatigue, so relying on your support team, including your physician, will help make the first year easier than trying to tough it out by yourself.

You’ve got this

Give yourself and the postpartum process grace. It takes nine months to grow a baby, so recovery cannot, and should not, happen overnight. While you’re doing the best you can for your baby, remember to be there for yourself and take care of your body and mind.

Though it can seem tough on some days, embrace the physical changes that may linger and during times when it feels difficult, remember that your body gave you your sweet new little one who is worth it all.

Questions? Talk to your OBGYN or find one near you.

About the Author

Dr. Kathleen Cammack is an obstetrician-gynecologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth. A Fort Worth native, Dr. Cammack loves that her job gives her the perfect balance of every aspect of medicine that she enjoys, including deep relationships through continuity of care, women's health, surgery and the privilege of assisting in some of life's most precious moments.

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