After all the anticipation, you’ll be excited to bring your little one home. Your new bundle of joy is sure to be the center of attention—and rightly so! However, it’s important to take care of yourself too during the postpartum period.
It takes time to recover from labor and birth, with all the physical, hormonal, and emotional changes that happen to your body. It’s likely you’ll have some pain and discomfort in the weeks after you give birth, and you may feel tired and sore.
But a number of health complications can happen in the postpartum period, some of them very serious. Life-threatening conditions include infections, blood clots, postpartum depression, and postpartum hemorrhage, according to the March of Dimes.
“Unfortunately, numbers for both pregnancy-related morbidity and mortality are on the rise,” says Dr. Nicole Calloway Rankins, a board-certified ob/gyn. “Many people don’t realize that 60% of maternal deaths occur after birth, and about half of them are thought to be preventable.”
That’s why it’s crucial to monitor your health for any postpartum complications.
What to watch for
The list of postpartum signs to watch for may seem scary and overwhelming. Chances are, you’ll have an uneventful pregnancy and birth, and you’ll recover just fine too.
But knowledge is power, right? By learning what’s normal and what isn’t, you can go into the postpartum phase feeling confident and informed—and prepared to act, just in case.
All mamas should watch out for these signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath when you’re resting or lying down, or that wakes you up at night
- Chest pain
- Pain or swelling in one of your legs, especially the calf
- Coughing up blood
- A temperature greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius
- Chills or flu-like symptoms
- New or worsening pain in your vaginal area
- New or worsening abdominal pain
- Heavy vaginal bleeding that soaks one pad per hour for two hours, or that contains blood clots larger than a plum
- Pain or burning when you urinate
- New or worsening pain or redness in your breast or breasts
- Feeling like you want to harm yourself or your baby
- Just generally not feeling well or right
Headaches are another postpartum sign to watch for, especially if they are accompanied by confusion, memory loss, vision changes, a fever, or vomiting. If your headache is so severe that it awakens you from sleep or can’t be relieved by pain medication, that’s a definite sign something isn’t right.
If you have a cesarean birth, you’ll want to pay attention to how your incision heals. Look out for postpartum complications, such as:
- redness around your incision
- significant drainage from the incision
- pus coming from the incision (this can be green or yellow)
- new or worsening pain in your incision
- or pain not relieved by pain medication
This list isn’t exhaustive, and if you experience any of the above symptoms, or something just doesn’t feel right, call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency department right away. It’s best to go to a hospital with a labor and delivery unit, ideally the hospital where you gave birth. However, if you can’t make it there, head to the closest place. What matters is that you get effective treatment quickly.
It’s not always easy to tell if something is a true emergency, so use your best judgement—even if your concern isn’t on this list. If you're unsure, don’t brush it off.
“Speak up and be persistent about getting your concerns addressed,” Dr. Rankins advises. “Err on the side of caution and call or go in if needed.”
New mom Emily was diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia just a few days after she gave birth.
She experienced only one telltale symptom: high blood pressure. The reading was so high “it looked like a fake number” on the at-home blood pressure monitor she had been using. At first she chalked it up to being tired and overwhelmed and using the monitor incorrectly, but her midwife encouraged her to go to the hospital. “She said, ‘It could be one of a lot of things, but why don’t you just go back to L&D and get it checked out.’”
Emily spent two nights in the hospital, where she was diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia. Not only did she not know preeclampsia could happen after birth, but “I learned that it can happen a really long way out after delivery,” (up to 6 weeks).
Monitoring your body’s signals and listening to your instincts can help ensure your safety during the postpartum period.
Advocating for yourself
Postpartum complications can occur up to 12 months after birth. Here are five ways to keep your health top of mind during this time:
- Stay on top of your postpartum visits with your healthcare provider, even if you feel fine.
- Tell any healthcare provider you see that you were recently pregnant, for up to one year after birth.
- If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts. Call your healthcare provider, any time of day.
- When in doubt, seek help.
- Be persistent. Keep asking questions until your concerns are addressed.
Again, some discomfort is to be expected after you give birth (and it does get better!). But as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) puts it, this discomfort shouldn’t get in the way of being able to care for yourself and your baby.
Keep this information handy so it’s there when you need it. Consider sharing it with your partner, family members, and close friends so they can look out for you as well.
Your postpartum period is an important time to be in tune with your body and practice self-care. Stay safe and stay healthy, so you can enjoy your role as a new mom.
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