Understanding Postpartum Body Changes and Hormonal Shifts: A Comprehensive Guide
Postpartum body changes can have a similar rollercoaster-like feeling to the transformation you experienced during pregnancy. Some moments of pregnancy are awe-inspiring, like feeling baby kick and embracing your baby bump, while others, like pregnancy insomnia and heartburn, are downright miserable. And the physical metamorphosis continues for six months after you give birth. While there is no linear postpartum body change timeline, many women find the two to six weeks immediately after birth to be the most holistically transformative as they juggle the tasks of caring for a newborn, dealing with sleep deprivation and managing the swings of postpartum hormonal changes.
Societal pressures to feel like your pre-baby self and physically “bounce back” might creep into your mind—especially as your abdomen might still have a “baby bump" as your uterus shrinks back to its pre-pregnancy size. Be patient with yourself and give your body and mind the time it needs to heal and adjust to motherhood. Below, we’ll dive into the postpartum body changes you should know about.
Postpartum Body Changes: The Physical Transformation
- Bleeding Did you know it’s likely that your baby isn’t the only one who will leave the hospital in diapers? That’s because many new moms find adult diapers to be more comfortable and supportive in the immediate week postpartum than bulky pads. Most women will experience heavy, period-like bleeding that may include the passing of clots for a few days after giving birth, even if they have had a c-section. A moderate blood flow will typically continue for the first two weeks and slowly taper off, ending sometime around six weeks postpartum.
- Pelvic floor issues From frequent urges to urinate to peeing a little when you laugh, sneeze or jump, many women will experience some sort of postpartum pelvic floor dysfunction. That's because childbirth can significantly impact your pelvic floor muscles and abdominal muscles. Once you’re cleared by a doctor, incorporating gentle exercises can aid in strengthening these areas over time. Ask your doctor about postpartum pelvic floor physical therapy at your post-birth checkup.
- Hair loss For many, pregnancy hormone changes often result in faster hair growth. Perceived postpartum hair loss comes from a resting phase lasting between one and five months. Don’t worry: Normal hair growth patterns typically return six to 15 months after delivery.
- Breast changes Whether you plan to breastfeed or not, your breasts will likely become engorged post-birth as your body prepares for breastfeeding. This fullness can be painful for some women; however, most find their breast size returns to normal once their breastfeeding journey ends.
Postpartum Hormonal Changes
Hormonal shifts after birth start immediately, with estrogen and progesterone dropping—a common link to the “baby blues”—while the hormone oxytocin increases. Oxytocin helps the uterus contract, which helps prevent excessive postpartum bleeding. This hormone (which is sometimes called “the love hormone”) also helps the mother and baby bond. The hormone prolactin, which stimulates lactation, increases as well.
Emotional and Psychological Impact
No matter how many classes you took before delivery or how excited you are to meet your little one, the first few weeks with baby will include noticeable highs and lows. You might question your abilities, worry about your baby's well-being and experience moments of doubt. Remember: You’re not alone. In fact, eight in 10 women report feeling the “baby blues” after giving birth. For most, this tearful and irritable feeling is coupled with postpartum anxiety and starts a few days after baby arrives but tends to resolve itself within two weeks.
The lack of sleep can exasperate these feelings, so try to catch short naps, lean on your immediate support system and seek out local communities where you can connect with other moms who understand what you're going through.
Baby Blues Versus Postpartum Depression
When the baby blues linger or symptoms progress, it might be a sign of postpartum depression, known as PPD. If you find yourself experiencing prolonged feelings of sadness, guilt, hopelessness, anxiety or disinterest in activities you once enjoyed, you might be dealing with PPD. Severe cases might present with thoughts of harming yourself or your child.
If you suspect you might have postpartum depression, please know that you're not alone, and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss your symptoms openly and honestly. They can provide guidance, support and recommend appropriate treatment options, which might include therapy, support groups or medication.
In the summer of 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever oral treatment for postpartum depression.
To learn more about PPD, read Mylicon’s guide to postpartum depression.
Managing Postpartum Changes
As you embark on your postpartum journey, incorporating exercise into your routine can be a game-changer for your physical and emotional well-being. Exercise not only helps your body regain its strength and vitality after childbirth but—equally important—can have a profound impact on your mood and mental health.
- Mood booster Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, often referred to as "feel-good" hormones. These natural mood enhancers can help alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety and even symptoms of postpartum depression.
- Increased energy It might seem counterintuitive, but expending energy through exercise can actually help increase your overall energy levels. Engaging in physical activity can combat feelings of fatigue and improve your overall stamina.
- Feeling like yourself Embracing your post-birth body can sometimes be challenging. Regular exercise can help improve body image and self-confidence as you notice positive changes in your strength and physical health.
- Stress relief The demands of caring for a newborn can be stressful, and exercise provides a healthy outlet for relieving stress. Even a short workout or walk can help you clear your mind and make self-care a priority.
- Social connection Participating in postpartum exercise classes, whether in-person or online, can offer an opportunity to connect with other new mothers who are on a similar journey. Sharing experiences and forming bonds can contribute to a sense of community and support.
Safe Postpartum Exercise Tips
Before beginning any exercise routine, consult your healthcare provider to ensure you're physically ready and there are no underlying health concerns. Once you have the all-clear, here are a few tips.
- Start slow Your body needs time to recover after childbirth, so start with gentle exercises like walking, pelvic floor strengthening and light stretches. Gradually increase the intensity as you regain strength and stamina.
- Listen to your body Pay attention to how your body responds to exercise. If you feel discomfort, pain or excessive fatigue, it's essential to dial back, modify or rest as needed.
- Hydrate and nourish Stay hydrated and consume a balanced diet to support your body's energy levels and recovery process.
- Include baby Try activities like parent-child exercise classes, stroller walks, gentle yoga stretches or baby-wearing workouts to promote bonding as well as the physical benefits.
Up next: Prepare to go back to work after baby, an important part of the postpartum transition known as the fifth trimester.