MSD Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Three Keys to Navigating Postpartum Health—Commentary

27/11/17 Lara A. Friel, MD, PhD, University of Texas Health Medical School at Houston, McGovern Medical School;

The moments, days and weeks after a baby is born are generally a wondrous—if exhausting—time for a new mother. Suddenly, everything is different. A mother’s top priority becomes caring for her newborn as the infant grows and changes. But at the same time, the mother is also undergoing significant changes.

Challenges to a mother’s own health are more common than some realize, so it’s important to understand which symptoms and feelings are a natural part of this new reality and which indicate a more serious problem. Let’s take a closer look at three crucial steps to navigating a mother’s health after giving birth.

1. Know the most common risks to maternal health

During pregnancy, many expecting mothers spend a lot of time learning about the health of their coming baby. They’ll read books, take classes, and talk to other mothers about what to expect and what could be a sign of something concerning in their newborn. Yet when it comes to their own health, many mothers don’t learn about the common issues they could face in the days and weeks after birth.

In the six weeks following delivery (the postpartum period), mothers and their loved ones should watch for symptoms of four complications:
  • Excessive bleeding (hemorrhage): Typically, bloody discharge tapers off within 3 to 4 days after delivery. While rare, postpartum hemorrhage does occur and mothers should alert their doctors if they experience heavy (more than a cup), bright red bleeding several days later.
  • Infection: Fever, chills, and muscle aches along with abdominal pain, abnormal vaginal discharge, or frequent or painful urination are all potential signs of infection.
  • Issues with breastfeeding: Mothers should try to be aware of how much milk their baby is getting and watch for breastfeeding complications affecting their health, too. Mastitis, a breast infection that occurs in women who are breastfeeding, is typically caused by a blocked or plugged milk duct. Symptoms include a warm, red, tender area on the breast and sometimes a fever. Doctors may prescribe warm compresses and antibiotics.
  • Depression: Depression just before or after giving birth (postpartum depression) affects as many as 15 percent of women and is more common in women who previously had an episode of depression. Rapidly changing hormones combined with a lack of sleep can often lead to postpartum depression. It can often be difficult to distinguish a normal reaction to the challenges of a newborn from symptoms of depression, such as irritability and mood swings. Here’s a good rule of thumb—with the normal exhaustion that comes with a newborn, a mother should still be eating, getting dressed, and getting out of the house occasionally. If she doesn’t feel up to doing those things, it may be time to speak to a health professional.

If a new mother is showing signs of any of these conditions, she should contact her obstetrician-gynecologist as soon as possible.

For more details, the Manuals page on the postdelivery period also has a useful chart on when to call a doctor after delivery.

2. Rely on your village

If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes one to make sure the mother stays healthy after giving birth. Women are often focused on their newborn to the detriment of their own health, and it may be up to a partner or family member to make sure women are taking care of themselves.

Numerous studies have shown that peer support during pregnancy and after delivery is effective in the prevention and reduction of postpartum depression. That support can come from many places—a partner, parents, friends, neighbors, or a support group. Organizations like Postpartum Support International help mothers find local resources.

Whenever possible, it’s best for a mother to have help caring for her newborn in the first few weeks after delivery. This support network can give the mother a chance to rest, and family and friends may actually be the first to notice a problem with the mother’s health. This is especially true with depression. A partner or close friend may recognize early indicators from past bouts of depression and can encourage the mother to address the problem before it gets more serious.

3. Remember that all pregnancies are different

After giving birth for the first time, a mother learns a lot about her body and her new child. Mothers sometimes assume the postpartum experience will be the same with their second or third child, but each pregnancy and delivery is different.

Mothers with multiple children must maintain vigilance about their own health, just like the first time around. That means paying attention to symptoms and warning signs and staying in close communication with the doctor. But with other little ones at home, making it to follow-up appointments is more challenging.

It’s one more reason for a mother to seek support in caring for her child and herself. After all, a healthier mom makes for a healthier baby.