What in the Postpartum?! Part 1, the Physical, Hormonal, and Routine Changes to Anticipate
Updated: Sep 22, 2022
The first days, weeks, even months postpartum can be a whirlwind as a mom. Whether you are a first time mom or just had baby number ten, each postpartum period is different. There are many changes to our bodies, our hormones, and our routines that can throw us through a loop. One of the things I learned when I was studying psychology at Oakland University was that all change causes stress, but that all stress is not bad. Eustress is caused by positive change; for example family vacation, a promotion at work or a new car. Distress is caused by negative change; losing someone close, getting fired from your job, or strain on a relationship all fall into this category. The type of stress as well as how you cope are the two factors that will determine whether the stress will strengthen or weaken your emotional and intellectual capacity. Having a baby will absolutely present both eustress and distress depending on the day, or even depending on the hour. For the postpartum series I am going to first describe the changes that come with this stretch. Come back for future posts on how to prepare and cope as a mom, and how to support and love as someone who cares for a postpartum woman.
Immediately postpartum there will be a sudden drop in progesterone and estrogen with a surge in oxytocin and prolactin. Prolactin increases as your body's way of indicating the need for milk production to begin. The oxytocin surge occurs in order to encourage the uterus to clamp down and stop the bleeding, eventually to return to its place behind the pubic bone. There are 120 arterial feeds pumping into where the placenta detached from the uterine wall so this is an incredibly important physiological response that happens. Oxytocin also promotes positive emotions as you begin the bonding process with your new baby. The increase in oxytocin can almost feel like a blissful haze during the first moments after your baby is born.
While prolactin stimulates the production of milk, your body has already been making colostrum as early as 16 weeks gestation. It is this that feeds the baby those first few days postpartum. It is important to keep in mind that as a newborn your baby's belly is about the size of a grape, or large blueberry. During the time between when the baby is born and when your milk "comes in" they may only be getting a few drops at a time... that is okay! It is okay because the composition of colostrum is so that even with a small amount the baby is getting exactly what they need. It has a high concentration of protein and antibodies, or infection fighting organisms. It is around the third day postpartum that your milk supply will increase and you can start to feel the difference. You may start to feel the letdown of milk as your baby first latches and your breasts will probably start to feel pretty full between feedings. As this change occurs a low grade fever can also be expected but doesn't happen to every woman.
The hormonal changes, along with the physical changes in your body postpartum can result in an abundance of sweating postpartum. While we carry babies inside of us we also carry a large amount of extra fluid throughout our system. In order to get rid of it, our bodies will excrete it through extra urine and sweat output. It is most common to notice extra sweat at night so dressing lightly and using light covers when sleeping can help. Frequent urination might be one of the last things you would hope come with postpartum. The good news is that typically this part of postpartum only lasts a day or two. It is incredibly important that you empty your bladder as much as possible for at least the first 24 hours. The reason being, if the bladder is full, it can get in the way of the uterus clamping down and hinder its ability to decrease bleeding. Once your body is able to get rid of the excess fluid and bleeding isn't as much of a concern, frequent urination decreases dramatically.
Those first three days are really when the biggest hormonal and physical changes happen. As the next few weeks pass your body will continue to recover so that you can return to normal activities. During pregnancy each organ of the thoracic, abdominal, and pelvic cavities are displaced, even our heart. After the baby is born our organs shift back to their natural position. It doesn't happen immediately, it takes some time as the uterus can take up to 6 weeks before returning fully into the pelvic cavity. Your bleeding will decrease, milk supply stabilizes and hormones will return to more consistent levels. As these return to normal focus on listening to your body by resting and nourishing when it is telling you to. Embrace the days of resting and snuggling the newest addition to your family as best as you can. Remember what it sounds like as your baby starts making their first sounds. Spend this season truly bonding and falling in love with your baby while they learn about life outside of the womb as your body recovers from growing them inside of you. Postpartum is filled with all kinds of changes, each to be characterized as eustress or distress. Regardless of the kind of stress you may be experiencing, it is how you respond to it that matters. Try to take one day at a time, celebrate the positive, and acknowledge the negative without dwelling in it. Each postpartum season is different and each only last a short time. These are moments with your baby to cherish as much as you can.