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Postpartum Recovery: 8 Ways to Help Your Body Heal

Learn about some of the common physical effects of birth, and how to manage these changes to your body for your postpartum recovery.
black women postpartum depression

The following blog post has been created by mater mea as part of “Overdue.” This post reflects the opinions and recommendations of mater mea only and does not reflect that of Gerber or an endorsement by Gerber of any of the organizations or tips mentioned with this post.

We’ve talked about how birth plans can help you have an empowered birth. Well, having a postpartum plan is a part of that, too. Being prepared for what happens during your Fourth Trimester—or the three months after you give birth—can help make your postpartum recovery and the transition into new parenthood a little less bumpy.

In “Overdue,” our maternal health series made in partnership with Un-ruly and Gerber, registered nurse and doula Ebony Harvey offers a few ways you can prepare for your postpartum recovery both physically and mentally.

Even though your new baby will take up a lot of your time and attention, try not to let your health and self-care take a back seat. 

“You can help yourself heal,” says Ruth Gordon-Martin, a postpartum doula. (She’s also the founder of Coddle, a platform that provides education, products, and support for the Fourth Trimester and beyond.)

“You don’t have to sit in pain and wait for your body.”

Ruth talked to us about some of the ways you can aid your postpartum healing.

1. Plan to see your doctor often and sooner than six weeks for postpartum recovery support.

In 2013, the World Health Organization advised that new moms have four postpartum care visits. The first would be within 24 hours of giving birth, then one on day 3, another between days 7 and 14, and the last “six weeks after birth.”

Then in 2018, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) decreed that postpartum care should be “an ongoing process, rather than a single encounter, with services and support tailored to each woman’s individual needs.”

But for many, the “six-week checkup” is the only postpartum recovery care they’ll get. And according to ACOG, “currently, as many as 40% of women do not attend a postpartum visit.”

Talk to your healthcare provider about seeing them more than once after giving birth, advises Ruth.

If you see something doesn’t feel good, sound the alarm.

“[During our] pregnancy visits, we start asking those questions,” she says. “Are you following this guideline? The ACOG says maternal care should be ‘ongoing.’ Can I see you in two weeks? Can I call you in two weeks? What’s that follow up?”

Ongoing postpartum care can make sure any chronic conditions or childbirth-related complications are well-managed. This is especially important since more than half of “pregnancy-related deaths” happen postpartum: 18.6% during days 1-6 and 21.4% between days 7-42, according to a 2022 report in the journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. And we’ve talked a lot about how we as Black birthing folks are put at a higher risk of these types of complications.

Once you’ve given birth, don’t stay quiet if something feels off, Ruth adds. 

“It’s incumbent upon you,” she says. “If you see something doesn’t feel good, sound the alarm. If that doctor is acting a fool, find the next best person who you can talk to.”

2. Create shifts for rest and chores in your postpartum plan. 

If you’re partnered, parental leave should be one of your first pre-baby discussions, Ruth says. How much time off will both of you have? Two weeks? Three months? Six? 

Whatever the amount of time, talk about it in advance, “because it’s gonna be a team effort,” she says. The same is true if you’re not partnered. Who will be your support person? Will your mom, sister, or best friend be able to stay with you for a few weeks to help?

You’re also going to want to know who is doing what and when, advises Ruth—and that includes making plans for chores and sleep.

“[Ask yourself,] ‘Who’s gonna be doing this work while I’m resting?’” she says. “’When my partner’s resting, what will I be doing?’”

Ruth tells her clients to break the work up into shifts. Her husband, a night owl until their first was born she jokes, took the night shift of 7 p.m. to midnight. Then Ruth would take the following shift, from midnight until the early morning.

3. Build your postpartum support team. 

Many cultures around the world have created traditions around the postpartum period. These rituals often take a communal approach to caring for both the birthing person and their baby, with everyone from grandparents to neighbors stepping in to lend a helping hand.

We can all stand to take a page from these postpartum recovery playbooks, and lean on our community for support. 

“Your partner’s there,” Ruth says, “but is there anybody else [who] you can have?”

Your postpartum support team can include members of your birth team [link to blog 4], like your doula, family members, and friends. (If you have older children, their daycare providers, nannies, and teachers are low-key a part of your postpartum support team, too.)

That said, “you don’t want anyone judgmental,” Ruth says. “You don’t want anyone telling you, ‘When I breastfed…’ or ‘No, you shouldn’t do it that way.’”

If you’re planning on breastfeeding, make sure you have someone who supports that and won’t push formula on you. Think about cultural and perspective fit, too. Some cultures in the diaspora have thoughts about parenting and taking care of babies that may run contrary to your own. So make sure that you’re clear with your support squad about what you want from them, and about what they can and cannot do. 

Setting expectations and defining roles before you’re calling on them in the Fourth Trimester can lower the risk of confusion and/or disappointment. 

4. Talk to your support team about what postpartum recovery is really like.

Your postpartum support team doesn’t have to only be the people you can call on to hold the baby while you shower or help you meal prep. It can include the (again, nonjudgmental!) people you can rely on to tell you exactly how new parenthood is really like. 

Sometimes your friends who’ve given birth don’t want to scare you, so they only share the highlight reel version of postpartum. And while those positive stories will definitely help, tell them you want to know about the things they wished someone would’ve told them about postpartum so you can prepare for them.

After all, there’s a difference between reading about it and hearing the real real from those you trust.

Same goes with talking to your doctor about what you can expect after giving birth. A 2010 Obstetrics and Gynecology study found that out of 724 postpartum women surveyed, “many women were not prepared to expect common postpartum physical and emotional symptoms.” Make postpartum recovery and preparation part of your conversations with your doctor.

The same study reported that postpartum women who felt their provider adequately prepared them for what to expect were more likely to rate their clinician as “excellent” and to “return for postpartum visit within three months of delivery.”

5. Stock up on some things that can make your postpartum recovery easier.

No matter how you deliver your baby, your body will have been 👏🏿 through 👏🏿 it 👏🏿.

And because of that, it will take some time to recover. 

Thankfully, there are a lot of products and afterbirth care kits out there made specifically for postpartum recovery. 

You can create your own kit (and bring it with your in your hospital bag) with the following items: 

overnight maxi pads: for vaginal discharge and bleeding (called lochia) that happens weeks after giving birth, no matter what type of delivery you have

postpartum underwear: breathable, high-waisted underwear that can hold large maxi pads and liners for incontinence

stool softener: for the first poop after delivery, which, we’ve heard is far from pleasant

peri bottle: rinses your perineum, which may be sore, have torn during delivery, and/or been cut via an episiotomy 

sitz bath: a shallow basin to use with your peri bottle when rinsing your perineum (“[Use] Epsom salt, sage, and lavender, lots of healing herbs,” Ruth advises. “It’s a double whammy: It’s not only healing your perineal tissue, it’s also giving you that self-care time to yourself. [link to blog 10]”)

padsicle: a pad that provides cooling relief. It is made by putting a maxi pad covered in witch hazel, aloe vera gel, and lavender essential oil in the freezer. 

nipple balm: to help moisturize cracked, dry, and bleeding nipples. (You can also use breastmilk to help with sore, cracked nipples.)

breast / chest pads: to soak up leaking milk

belly band: supports your uterus in contracting back to its normal size

6. Ask for the support you need so you can focus on rest and healing.

We’ve talked about getting support throughout Overdue for good reason. And we’ve already talked about it in this very article. But it bears repeating again: Don’t be a hero, friend. Ask. For. Help.

What good was all that planning and preparing if you don’t actually put it into action? 

‘We’re always sent home and told, ‘Don’t lift anything heavier than your baby’…. But we’re not told all these other things that can help us move us along.’

You may feel like you don’t want to inconvenience anyway, or you have to do everything on your own, but neither of those things are true. The people you’ve identified as part of your support team want to help you—you just need to tell them how. And you definitely shouldn’t be doing every single thing by yourself, either. In fact, trying to do the most during this period can delay or complicate your recovery.

So whenever someone asks what they can do to help, let them know instead of responding with “I’m fine.” They can come over to watch the baby while you sleep or take a shower! In a previous article we did on fourth-trimester care, writer Graeme Seabrook suggested having a go-to list of things you need.

“That way,” Graeme wrote, “when Aunt Gladys says she’s coming over and asks do you need anything, you can say, ‘Yes, we’re out of toilet paper, Auntie, thank you so much!’”

You can outsource the list to your partner or support people, too. Do whatever you can to decrease your mental and physical load during this time.

7. Drink water and eat foods that help your postpartum healing.

During your postpartum recovery, your body is taking the time it needs to heal from all that it did to support you and your baby through pregnancy and delivery. You can help your body mend itself by staying hydrated and eating foods that support tissue repair and nutrient recovery.

“When you’re reaching for meals,” Ruth says, “you want to make sure that they’re good, they’re healthy, [and that] they have a lot of vitamins.”

Ruth recommends eating warm foods (to help with digestion) and foods that are rich in protein, vitamin C, and zinc. 

Protein helps with tissue development and can be found in a variety of places, according to Mind Body Green: “meats, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds.” (The site recommends aiming “for 21 grams of protein in your postpartum days.”)

Vitamin C also supports tissue development by helping your body make collagen. It also helps your body absorb iron better, which is especially important for people recovering from C-sections. (They’ve lost more blood in their delivery process.) As we mentioned in our pregnancy nutrition [link to blog 2], it’s better to get vitamins through food rather than supplements. You can get vitamin C through fruits and vegetables like strawberries, any type of citrus, bell peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower to name a few. 

Lastly, zinc helps you heal your wounds. (A 2022 study published in Medicina also found that zinc supplementation may reduce the risk of developing postpartum depression!) You can get your zinc fix through foods like shellfish (oysters are incredibly high in zinc), meat, legumes, and seeds.

8. Be active in your postpartum recovery.

As Ruth mentioned earlier, you don’t have to sit and wait for your body to regain its strength.

“We’re always sent home and [told], ‘Don’t lift anything heavier than your baby,’ and that’s it,” Ruth says. “But we’re not told all these other things that can help us move us along.”

Make sure you’re eating. 

We just talked about some of the foods that can support your healing. But it’s easy to forget to eat if you don’t make a plan for it, Ruth says.

“Half of the time, you’re home breastfeeding,” she says. “Sometimes we feel booby trapped. You’ll be sitting in one spot, so you won’t think of food. But [when you’re] breastfeeding, definitely you’re famished.”

Meal prepping in advance and/or having your support team create a meal train of healthy and nutrient-dense foods is one way to have a plan for postpartum meals.

Ruth also suggests having “finger foods [and] one-handed snacks” at the ready. She recommends things like:

  • sandwiches,
  • veggies with dips,
  • smoothies,
  • fruits,
  • muffins,
  • cheese sticks, and
  • beef jerky.

Do pelvic floor exercises on your own or work with an expert.

Pelvic floor and perineal area disorders are among the most common pregnancy-related disorders, according to the Journal of Prenatal Medicine. This can look like urinary and anal incontinence, nerve injury, or pelvic prolapse, to name a few.

Some people may think of these issues as the cost of having a baby. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek treatment for them.

Once you’re cleared by your doctor, consider doing kegels after childbirth to strengthen and rebuild your pelvic floor and your bladder and bowel control. 

Depending on the state of your pelvic floor and perineal area, your provider may suggest that you work with a pelvic floor physical therapy. Certain cases may require medicine, implants, therapy, or surgical intervention.

Whatever the diagnosis and treatment, if you learn that you have an issue in this sensitive area, know that you’re not alone: nearly one in four women in America have pelvic floor disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Walk around. 

Doing light exercise like walking can help you keep your muscle tone, build cardiovascular health, and improve your mental health. 

“We take walking for granted,” Ruth says. “You can walk inside of your home, around your neighborhood.”

This may take some time if you’ve had a C-section, but once you’re up to it, walking by yourself or with your baby can help you get back into your body.

Make your home postpartum-recovery friendly.

Your body is recovering and you may not be able to move, lift, or reach for things the way you used to. So just like you childproofed your home before the baby’s even crawling, make sure your home is suited to accommodate your new mobility and accessibility needs.

“Keep things at shoulder height so there’s not too much reaching across,” Ruth advises. “If you want to cough, put a pillow across your belly and brace yourself.”

Get (and/or give yourself) massages.

Massages. They not only feel good—they’re great for your postpartum recovery.

According to WebMD, postpartum massages (once cleared by your doctor, of course) has a lot of benefits, including:

  • relieves pain in achy muscles after pregnancy and childbirth;
  • increase milk supply, thanks to increasing prolactin, the lactation hormone;
  • decreases stress hormones; and
  • reduces swelling by helping your body absorb the excess fluid your body needs to support a pregnancy.

If you’ve had a C-section, Ruth recommends massaging your C- section scar. It can help improve the scar’s appearance as well as relieve any numbness.

“You’re not going to be comfortable in the first couple of days because you’re transitioning into recovery,” she says. “But as soon as you’re comfortable, you know, wash your hands and start doing circular motion around your scar. The light massages actually frees up your skin so that your body can heal faster.”

You can learn more about C-section massages on My Expert Midwife.

Do breath work.

Every part of your body and the way it functions was affected by your pregnancy. And that includes your lungs and breathing capacity. Your baby calling the neighborhood right under your ribcage home for 9 months, put a lot of pressure on your core and breathing and threw it out of whack.

To fix it, Ruth recommends practicing breathwork and diaphragmatic breathing as part of your postpartum recovery.

Seek treatment and support for any lingering issues. 

Hopefully you’ve set up more than one postpartum visit with your provider. (If you haven’t, let this be your nudge to get on their calendar.) But postpartum lasts longer than six weeks.

“Six weeks is tied to our benefits, the insurance, and all that,” Ruth says. “Our bodies take a lot longer than that to come back.”

With that in mind, know that you may have concerns or complications that arise after the six-week mark.

There is no statute of limitations when it comes to getting the care you need. If you’re experiencing any new or lingering issues, reach out to your provider and postpartum support team to address it. 

Because it’s not enough that your baby is healthy, friend. You need to be, too.

Continue your journey with Ebony

The following content is for informational and educational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained in this video and blog post is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. Nothing in the content or products should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. The author(s) of these materials have made considerable effort to ensure that the information is accurate, up to date, and easy to understand. We accept no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any regimen detailed in this video and blog post.