What is the Postpartum Period?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The postpartum period begins immediately after a woman gives birth and lasts for approximately six weeks. During this time, great changes occur as the body adjusts to being “not pregnant” and the uterus returns to its normal size. Many other changes occur during this time, including the decline of pregnancy hormones, beginning of lactation, and gradual recovery from pregnancy and from the trauma of a vaginal or c-section delivery. Certain problems may arise during the postpartum period and need swift attention.

The postpartum period lasts for six weeks after giving birth.
The postpartum period lasts for six weeks after giving birth.

The uterus is designed to expand during pregnancy and return to a normal size once it no longer accommodates a fetus. In the first few weeks of the postpartum period, women may experience cramping, and most have bleeding comparable to a very heavy menstrual period. Bleeding tends to continue if women are very active during this time, but it also gets lighter. Bright red, extremely heavy bleeding is not normal and could be indication of uterine hemorrhage; it should be reported right away to a doctor. Generally, within the first six weeks, bleeding will get lighter and then cease altogether.

Postpartum depression may occur during the postpartum period.
Postpartum depression may occur during the postpartum period.

A big change occurs during the postpartum period as lactation begins. In the first few days, women have a thin secretion called colostrum from the breasts that is full of immune properties from which the baby can benefit. About three to four days after a baby’s birth or earlier, the milk lets down, which at first can be a very uncomfortable sensation, with the breasts being prone to sudden leakiness or spraying. This feeling passes as supply and demand is worked out between mother and child, or if a woman is not breastfeeding.

Postpartum bleeding can be heavy, and may last for up to six weeks.
Postpartum bleeding can be heavy, and may last for up to six weeks.

Another bodily change in the postpartum period is the decline of pregnancy hormones, which tends to cause some mood disturbance. Most women will experience a few days of discouragement, depression or moodiness, often called the baby blues. For some women, this condition becomes more severe, and their mood doesn’t improve, which is called postpartum depression. Because it can be potentially serious, women should get help for it right away. A very rare complication is postpartum psychosis, and anyone with severe mood disturbance who thinks of harming oneself or the child needs medical care.

Women who menstruate while breastfeeding may notice irregular periods until the child is weaned.
Women who menstruate while breastfeeding may notice irregular periods until the child is weaned.

In the first few weeks of the postpartum period, women experience soreness, especially if they’re recovering from episiotomies or tears of perineal tissue. Constipation is common, which can cause additional discomfort and is best handled by drinking plenty of fluids and eating high fiber foods. Recovery from surgery takes even longer, and most women need to refrain from most physical activities for several weeks if they had a c-section. Doctors ask women to refrain from sexual activity too, until the postpartum period is over.

A woman who has just given birth will likely have the condition of her uterus monitored by her team of health care providers.
A woman who has just given birth will likely have the condition of her uterus monitored by her team of health care providers.

Physicians generally schedule an appointment with new moms for six weeks after birth. This gives them an opportunity to assess moms for any additional problems and to determine uterine size. In the majority of cases, the body has recovered from pregnancy and the postpartum period is considered concluded.

The decline of pregnancy hormones occurs during the postpartum period.
The decline of pregnancy hormones occurs during the postpartum period.
A new mother who experiences chronic mood changes and depression should contact her physician immediately.
A new mother who experiences chronic mood changes and depression should contact her physician immediately.
During the postpartum period, the uterus returns to normal size.
During the postpartum period, the uterus returns to normal size.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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