After giving birth

Recovery after a vaginal birth

9 min read

Pregnancy and labour put a great strain on your body and it will take time to recover. Find out what to expect in the first days and weeks at home after you’ve given birth.

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Even if you have a straightforward vaginal birth, it will take time for your body to heal. Coping with afterpains, bleeding and even your first toilet visit after the delivery can be daunting. Make sure you have the right help to recover physically and emotionally, and know when to contact your midwife or GP for further advice.

How long will it take to recover from a vaginal birth?

No two births are the same and postpartum recovery is also specific to the individual, so there’s no way of knowing in advance how long it will take your body to heal.

In general, if you have an uncomplicated vaginal birth, you can expect any pain or soreness around your perineum to subside a month after the delivery.

You may find it takes longer to recover if you experience any birth complications, for example:

  • extensive tearing or an episiotomy
  • assisted delivery by ventouse cap or forceps
  • postpartum haemorrhage.

Of course, pain is just one part of recovering after pregnancy and birth. Contrary to images of celebrity mums often seen in the media, your body has a lot of readjusting to do after growing and birthing your baby and that can take months.

So try not to feel discouraged in the early weeks and months if your stomach is still floppy and soft, you lack strength in your core and back muscles, experience some incontinence or have absolutely no desire to have sex again – it’s likely to all get better in time.

If you do have any concerns about your recovery, you can always contact your midwife, health visitor or GP for advice.

Going to the toilet after giving birth

You’ll be forgiven for not feeling excited by the prospect of going for a wee straight after giving birth. In fact, right after the birth you’ll probably be numb and struggle to go even if you want to. To make it easier, and help reduce stinging, you can try:

  • bringing a bottle of warm water with you and pouring it over yourself at the same time as you wee, or
  • having the first wee in the shower.

Many new mums find that putting witch hazel on their maternity pads, or some lavender oil in the water you pour when you wee, really helps with the stinging, so it can be a good idea to pop a couple of bottles of the herbal oils in your hospital bag, ready to be used after the birth when you’re on the postnatal ward.

If you’re planning a home birth, you can use your freezer to cool down herbal-oil-infused wet pads before you put them on, which can also be very soothing.

It’s normal to not have a bowel movement for the first day or two after you’ve given birth, not least because your bowels are often emptied when you’re in the latent phase of labour, and then again when you’re pushing.

However, it’s also very common to get constipated after giving birth, so try to go to the toilet as soon as you feel the need to, as it will only get more difficult if you wait. To make things easier:

  • Walk around, as that will help stimulate your stomach muscles.
  • Drink a lot of water, as dehydration makes stools harder.
  • Eat a lot of fibre-rich food to make your stools looser.

Even if it feels like it, any stitches you’ve had will definitely not open up while you’re going to the toilet, but you may still feel more comfortable holding a wet towel against your perineum when you first go to the toilet.

Your midwife will check that you’re able to pass urine and stools at your postnatal appointments, so if you have any concerns about not being able to go, do mention it when you next see your midwife.

Healing from tears and stitches

Tearing happens when the skin between your perineum and vagina stretches to allow your baby to be born. Most women have some tears and require stitches after a vaginal birth, but the good news is that most new mums only have minor tears and heal well.

If you have a home birth or give birth in a birth centre, you don’t need to be transferred to hospital to have stitches as long as you only have minor tears. Instead, you’ll be given a local anaesthetic and your midwife will do the stitching after you’ve delivered the placenta. The stitches are dissolvable so you won’t need to have them taken out.

It will take between one and two weeks for your tears to heal after the birth, and it’s normal to feel pain during this time and still be sore for some weeks after that.

‘The most difficult part for me was actually after the birth, I thought that the stitching hurt more than the birth of the baby. It’s really tricky when you’re in pain from the stitches and yet you have a brand new baby to look after.’ Read Fiona’s water birth story

You’re likely to be in more pain and take longer to recover if you have more severe tearing that requires stitching in theatre, or an episiotomy. There is pain relief you can take, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice if you find you’re in a lot of pain.

Talk to your midwife at one of your postnatal appointments if you have any questions or concerns about your tears or stitches, and you can ask your GP to check that you’ve healed as expected at your six-week postnatal check-up

 

Afterpains and bleeding

After the birth, your womb immediately starts to shrink back to its pre-pregnant state through contractions known as afterpains. How painful the contractions are vary from woman to woman, but you’re likely to feel stronger afterpains if:

  • you’ve had a baby before –many women find the pain is worse after each birth; or
  • you’re breastfeeding – the rush of hormones during feeds can bring on contractions.

There is pain relief you can take if you find the contractions too painful, so make sure you talk to someone at the postnatal ward or your community midwife if you’re struggling to cope with the pain.

The contractions are usually worst in the very early days after giving birth, so if you find you’re still in pain after a week you should talk to your midwife to make sure nothing is wrong.

As your womb contracts, you’ll also experience vaginal bleeding known as lochia. It can be very heavy at the start, so stock up on plenty of maternity pads in advance and make sure you put a pack (or two) in your hospital bag ready for after the birth. The bleeding usually lasts for two to six weeks, but can carry on for a bit longer without there being a problem.

Sometimes, heavy bleeding or pain can be signs that you have an infection or retained pieces of placenta in your womb, so it’s important to check your pads every time you go to the toilet and contact your midwife or GP if:

  • your bleeding is still heavy after the first few days
  • you’re passing large clots after the first day
  • there is an unpleasant smell
  • you experience pelvic pain (other than afterpains).

Getting back to normal after a vaginal birth

Incontinence

It’s very common to leak a bit of wee when you laugh, cough or move suddenly, but this usually gets better within a few weeks. To speed up the process, it’s important to do pelvic floor exercises to help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.

For some women, incontinence persists for longer. Make sure you mention it to your GP at your six-week check-up so you can get the help you need.

Piles

Many women get piles after giving birth – thankfully they usually go within a week. To make yourself more comfortable, and not worsen the piles, try to loosen your stools by eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, and avoid pushing or straining on the toilet.

If you’re in a lot of discomfort, your midwife can give you a soothing cream, and if you find you’re still having problems with piles weeks after the birth you can talk to your GP about possible treatment options.

Exercise after a vaginal birth

While you can go for walks and do things around the home as soon as you want to following a vaginal birth, it’s a good idea to wait until your six-week postnatal GP check-up before starting any new exercise regime, just to make sure your body has healed fully.

You should also avoid any high-impact exercise for at least three months after the birth, no matter how well you feel, as your back and core muscles are weaker than usual and your joints and ligaments still soft, so you’re more likely to injure yourself.

Having sex after birth

How soon you’ll feel ready to have sex again after giving birth is very personal, and there isn’t a set amount of time that you should or shouldn’t wait. It’s important to listen to your body and to take things at your own pace.

Medically, you should wait to have vaginal sex until your bleeding has stopped, to minimise the risk of infection. It’s also important to use a method of birth control right from the start if you don’t want to get pregnant again.

The method of birth control you used before pregnancy may not be suitable after birth, particularly if you’re breastfeeding or have had problems with your blood pressure, so it’s important to talk to your midwife or GP about what’s best for your circumstances.

Recovering emotionally

Having a baby doesn’t only affect you physically, there is also a psychological and emotional impact. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed as you process the experience of giving birth, and many women feel anxious or distressed, with some developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read our page on birth trauma and other mental health problems after birth for further advice. You can also find information and support through these organisations:

  • The Birth Trauma Association has peer support groups for people affected by birth trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Make Birth Better has a map of NHS and private practitioners who work with women and their partners after a difficult birth.
  • PANDAS has a helpline and peer support groups for parents with antenatal and postnatal depression.

More from Which?

  • Postnatal care: What can you expect to happen after you’ve given birth at home, in a birth centre or in a labour ward?
  • Maternity options: Compare your options for giving birth to choose the right place for you to have your baby.
  • NHS vs NCT antenatal classes: Discover the differences between NHS and private antenatal classes and how they help to prepare you for labour, birth and parenthood.
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