Your first days and weeks at home with baby will likely be filled with a whole mix of emotions – from excitement to exhaustion, and everything in between. While you’re learning the ropes of new parenthood, you’ll likely also experience some pain or discomfort as you recover from birth.
As with pregnancy symptoms, each new mum’s experience is different. Whether you’ve had a vaginal or caesarean birth, there are ways to find postpartum pain relief.
Your healthcare professional may prescribe or recommend medication to help you manage postpartum pain. But there are non-medication options available, too. Here is a look at what happens to your body after birth, and some of the most common ways to ease pain and discomfort during your recovery.
After birth, your uterus begins to shrink back to its original, pre-pregnancy size. As a result, you may feel some cramping and discomfort in your lower abdominal area. You may hear them called “afterpains,” and they feel like menstrual cramps.
Heat therapy applied to your lower abdomen for twenty minutes at a time may help to relieve the discomfort of the cramping. It’s always good to talk to your midwife or healthcare professional to gain their advice.
For first-time mom Kelsey, heat was essential in managing her pain and discomfort. “Immediately afterwards, the cramping was awful. One of the nurses brought me a heating pad, [and] that helped,” she explains.
Breastfeeding can actually speed up this process. “You may notice more pronounced uterine cramping if you’re breastfeeding, especially in the first few days after birth,” explains Dr. Nicole Calloway Rankins, a board-certified gynecologist. “That’s because nipple stimulation during breastfeeding helps to stimulate the release of oxytocin, your body’s feel-good hormone. The release of oxytocin causes your smooth muscles, including your uterus, to contract.”
Then there is your perineum, the area between the anus and the vaginal opening. During childbirth, the perineum relaxes and stretches to allow your baby’s head to pass through the vagina. This can leave your perineum swollen and tender. You may also have had stitches to repair a perineal tear or episiotomy, which may feel itchy. Sitting, urinating, and using toilet paper may be pretty uncomfortable until this area heals.
Caring for your perineum is twofold: keep it clean and keep it cool. “To begin with, you’ll want to make sure the perineal area stays clean,” says Dr. Rankins. Instead of wiping with toilet paper, she suggests using a wash bottle designed for postpartum care. The bottle will spray a gentle stream of water to clean the area after you use the bathroom, then you can pat dry. This can also reduce the stinging many women experience during urination.
Perineal hygiene such as changing of sanitary pads, washing hands before and after doing this, and daily bathing or showering to keep the perineum clean is essential to help prevent infection and support your overall postpartum recovery.
To reduce perineal pain and swelling, turn to cold therapy. This will also help with haemorrhoids, which can develop from pressure on the perineum during your pregnancy and birth. Apply a cold pack for up to 20 minutes at a time, allowing at least an hour between uses. According to research published in 2020 involving 1,492 women, cold therapy significantly reduced pain the first two days after birth1.
Some mums find that soaking in a sitz bath and applying a pain-relieving or cooling spray help soothe the perineal area, too.
If you have a caesarean birth, you’ll want to keep your incision clean. Follow any directions your healthcare professional gives you about incision care. It’s common for the incision site to feel itchy as it heals. A cold pack or heating pad come in handy here as well. You also may find it more comfortable to choose a breastfeeding position that does not put pressure on your incision, such as lying on your side.
Pay close attention to your caesarean incision site. “If you find the incision is red, swollen, or showing signs of infection, including discharge, call your healthcare professional to get it checked out,” Dr. Rankins advises.
Finally, sudden movements can put pressure on your stomach as you heal from a caesarean birth. When you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, hug a pillow to reduce the pressure on your incision.
Another common occurrence after birth is constipation. The key is to keep your stools soft and regular and to keep things moving through your digestive tract. Drinking plenty of fluids and eating a high-fibre diet – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains2. Taking an over-the-counter stool softener can make bowel movements more comfortable.
For most women, these steps are usually enough to treat constipation. “But if you’re breastfeeding and stool softeners aren’t helping, check with your healthcare provider before taking any new medications,” says Dr. Rankins.
Breast and nipple pain
Finally, if you’re breastfeeding, it’s common to experience a few struggles until you and your baby get the hang of it. For many mums, nipple problems are the worst in the first week after giving birth.
“Struggles with infant positioning and latch are the most common causes of nipple pain during this time,” Dr. Rankins explains. “The hormonal changes in your body can also mean that your breasts and nipples become more sensitive after giving birth, which can add another layer of discomfort.”
As you gain more experience with breastfeeding and latching, nursing should become much more enjoyable for both you and your little one. Until you get the hang of it, use a HPA Lanolin nipple cream for soothing protection. If problems or pain persist, reach out to your healthcare professional or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who can offer one-on-one guidance and support.
First-time mum Bernadette remembers when her daughter was a newborn, “she had to feed often, and it did make [my nipples] sore… It was painful but I used the nipple creams that Lansinoh has and worked through it. It eventually gets better!”
Take care of yourself
Childbirth is one of the most natural things in the world – but it still will put your body through a lot.
Whether you deliver vaginally or via caesarean birth, be sure to attend your postpartum check-ups. Your healthcare professional is there to help, even between scheduled appointments.
“If you have questions or concerns, or if something doesn’t feel right, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider,” Dr. Rankins emphasises. “Always trust your instincts.”
Your health and recovery are a priority, mama! Manage your pain and other symptoms, rest as much as you can, accept help when it’s offered – and you’ll get through it.
Our birth preparation & recovery range has a selection of products to choose from, developed specifically to provide relief to mums before and after birth. You can also find more advice on managing your postpartum lifestyle here.