Giving birth is a beautiful, miraculous thing, but the physical aspects of what happens to your body after birth are often whitewashed by the media. I can barely think of any Hollywood movies that accurately depict a woman's body, pre- and post-baby; instead they look exactly the same on both sides — impossibly put together and rail-thin. After living in close quarters with a friend of mine who gave birth seven weeks ago, I've learned a lot about what happens physically to new moms while they take care of their newborn. The fact of the matter is a mother's body will never be exactly the same as it was before — but that is completely, 100 percent OK. That doesn't mean it will never be perfect and beautiful; the terrain is just a bit altered, maybe a tad more stretched out in certain places.
Fortunately, there have been a lot more everyday women stepping forward who are brave enough to be honest about their bodily changes post-baby. They post pictures and blog posts, reminding females everywhere that whatever transformations you might endure shouldn't have to be hidden.
It's inspired us all to ask the uncomfortable questions and get to the bottom of the mysteries. How does the vagina recover? Why do my nipples look weird? You'll be happy to know that throughout the following answers, the majority of the changes aren't permanent. Our bodies, and especially our vaginas, are made to bounce back from pregnancy.
Here are the changes you can expect in the post-pregnancy body.
You guessed it — this stretchy portal to life and pleasure sees more physical changes post-pregnancy than any other part of the body. During childbirth, there is a chance that the skin between the vagina and the anus will tear or have to be cut (after all, there's a big-headed baby coming out). This is called an episiotomy, and almost 50 percent of women mid-childbirth are subject to it. Regardless of whether you fall ito this category, though, the vagina will feel much looser than before pregnancy.
Dr. Suzy Elneil, consultant in gynecology at University College Hospital in London, doesn't sugar coat it; she says everything down there is softer and wider, and it won't ever return to its exact pre-baby shape. It might take a few months before it starts to feel anywhere as snug again — but this is normal. She recommends pelvic floor muscle exercises, otherwise known to us as Kegels, which tone the vaginal wall. The vagina is an expanding muscle, so there's no need to panic if you feel like the progress isn't happening as quickly as you'd like.
After the birth, it's also completely normal to experience vaginal dryness, which is linked to lower levels of estrogen in the body. If you're breastfeeding, you've got even less estrogen in your body, but it should all balance out after the breastfeeding period is over. If you are at the point where you're having sex again with your partner and the dryness is an issue, you can use a water-based lubricant to help get things going.
There's no doubt you'll face soreness in the vagina and perineum post-pregnancy. Your uterus is working hard to shrink back to a smaller size; give it some time to safely do this. Expect bleeding up to several weeks afterwards (referred to as lochia in the medical community) and if it doesn't let up within that time frame, have a visit with your gynecologist.
Decreased Sex Drive
Now, the big question: What is sex like after giving birth? Because there is lower vaginal pressure than you've ever experienced, a tryst will take some getting used to, regardless of whether you gave birth naturally or through a C-section.
Julie Sachs wrote frankly for xoJane about her first encounter with intercourse after childbirth, noting that it was painful. It wasn't a particulaly magical romp — no foreplay, classic missionary position — and she was nervous about anything entering her tender vagina after a 6 lb baby had just used it as a pathway to enter the world.
Of course, sex can also be an empowering way to discover your new body, and, in your own time, you'll find a way to enjoy sex once again.
Changes In Breast Size & Shape
The size and shape of your breasts are bound to morph more than once during pregnancy and childbirth. As you're gearing up to give birth, the body produces much higher levels of progesteron and estrogen, so you might have to run to the closest department store and shop around for a new bra.
Once you do, the breastmilk you'll produce affects the density of fatty tissues, which determines the size of your chest yet again, and every woman responds differently to this process. Some end up with an even larger cup, others shrink, and then there are those who have to deal with sagging breasts. Other factors play a big role in which direction they grow. For example, genetics from both sides of the family influence level of hormones, which shapes breast tissue, and your weight affects the amount of fat tissue. Age matters as well — the older you are when you start breastfeeding, the more likely gravity will pull down those delicate bands of tissue.
As the milk starts to flow in, it causes the skin and tissue in the area to stretch. This isn't a medical concern, but it certainly makes some women worry about appearing to have empty-looking breasts. With all the extra baggage, you could face loss in perkiness, particularly if this isn't your first time at the rodeo. Each time you give birth, hormones fluctuate and skin stretches, and Dr. Richard Bleicher, a surgical oncologist in Philadelphia tells Shape magazine that the breasts may never fully reduce back to their pre-baby firmness.
There's also a chance you will see asymmetry the next time you look in the mirror, as it's common for one breast to be more enlarged than the other. Whatever you do, try not to compare yourself to any other moms out there, especially those who appear to bounce back like a boomerang, because each female will respond to these changes in their own ways.
Darker, Bigger Nipples
As early as your first trimester of pregnancy, the tiny bumps around the areola, known officially as the Montgomery glands, will become more prominent to prepare you for nursing. Because of the hard-working hormones, your nipples will turn a few shades darker, especially if you naturally have a darker skin tone.
Within a few months after giving birth, the nipples tend to go back to their normal shape and color, even if you are still breastfeeding.
Stretch marks might end up being your lifelong companion. Dermatologist Barbara Reed, founder of Denver Skin Clinic, tells Parents.com that your fate is in the hands of your genetics, and there's not much else you can do about it. Stretch marks take place when the collagen and elastin in the skin stretch to the point of no bouncing back. While there are creams out there you can purchase — or even make yourself at home — there is no guarantee they will completely prevent stretch marks from decorating your breasts. And plenty of women are owning that.
Changes In Feet & Hand Size
We've all heard about how swollen the feet and ankles get during pregnancy, but there is a chance that your shoe size will never be the same again. Marilyn Glenville, a women's health specialist, tells Huffington Post that the changes in your hormone levels cause muscles and ligaments to become more relaxed in order to prepare you for labor. This destabilizes the pelvis, resulting in inflammation in your lower extremities; what a lot of women don't know is that these changes continue after childbirth. Even when your kid is a toddler, you could experience restlessness in the feet, as well as aches and pains.
Some women say the sizes of their hands changed as well, even though they lost all their extra pregnancy weight. The fingers were bigger and they had to get their rings resized. You could develop carpal tunnel syndrome, a loss of sensation in the hands caused by pressure on the median nerve in the wrist. Chat with your doc immediately if you start to feel the strange tingling sensations.
During pregnancy, you'll be running in and out of the bathroom like crazy, but it has been said that this bladder control issue might follow you long after birth as well. A weak bladder occurs when the muscles in the pelvic floor are damaged, and this happens during pregnancy and childbirth due to the hormonal changes and extra weight. Don't be surprised if you find yourself peeing more often after your baby is born. This condition is also referred to as stress urinary incontinence (SUI), and it could cause sudden loss of urine from simple things like laughing or sneezing.
No need to worry, though, unless you experience sharp pain on the toilet bowl — in the event that happens, contact your doctor immediately.
It seems that the trick to having a baby is, well, having a baby. Glenville says you are much more fertile right after giving birth, especially if you are breastfeeding minimally or not at all; the ovaries were just chilling for nine whole months, without any work to do, but they're suddenly thrust into action within weeks after the baby is out and about. Because you may not get your period for a while after giving birth, you won't have a concrete way to track your ovulation cycle, so be sure you're taking precautions if you don't want to run to your OBGYN with a positive pregnancy test in your hands only a few weeks after childbirth. If you're wondering how long after pregnancy your fertility will even out again, there's no general rule, as every woman's hormone levels will fluctuate differently.
No matter what happens to our bodies after childbirth, remember that every single phase of it is natural, perfect, and deserving of celebration. We're so conditioned to believe that things like stretch marks and not-as-firm breasts equal less beauty, but this couldn't be farther from the truth; let's keep this dialogue open so the next generation can embrace our collective femininity with acceptance and openness.