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Your Month-by-Month Guide to Childbirth Recovery

Krystal Rogers-Nelson is a freelance writer with expertise in parenting, safety, tech, healthy living and self-improvement. When she can sneak some free time, you'll most likely find her streaming late night comedy shows, or spending tim...

Childbirth isn't easy — here's your 12-month guide to recovery

We all know that pregnancy and childbirth are hard. But not as many people talk about how hard postpartum recovery can be — physically and emotionally. In the U.S., new parents are often expected to go back to work just six to eight weeks or less after giving birth. But it takes a lot longer to fully recover after childbirth. In fact, most new birth parents need at least a year to get back to feeling a sense of normalcy.

With that in mind, we've put together a month-by-month guide to that very first year of "new normal" — meant to help parents protect their self-esteem, manage expectations and understand the realities involved in letting themselves heal while also caring for a new baby. Keep in mind that while this guide is focused on parents, a lot of what we experience during postpartum recovery is directly tied to what’s happening with our quickly developing baby as they reach their month-by-month milestones.

More:  6 Postpartum Fitness Tips That Won't Scare the Life Out of You

Month 1: Time warp

The first month after childbirth is a whirlwind. You’re basically in survival mode, running on adrenaline from the stress and responsibility you feel from caring for a tiny little human. Time becomes fluid. You, like your newborn, may not be able to distinguish between day and night. Plus, you might forget to shower or brush your teeth, and you will probably stay in pajamas for days or weeks. Hey, no judgment here. You are fully consumed by taking care of yourself and your baby, and that’s OK.

Some first-month things to note: 

  • Lochia can last up to six to eight weeks. It will be like a heavy period at first and then taper off/get lighter over time. Use pads, not tampons.

  • If you had a vaginal birth, Epsom salts for sitz baths are great for recovery, especially if you have stitches.

  • If you had a C-section, it will hurt when you cough or laugh or sit up or walk for a while. Hold a pillow to your belly for support. And take it easy; you just had major surgery.

  • It might be about a week after giving birth before you feel like you can poop quasi-normally. You can take stool softeners to help keep things painless, and if you end up with hemorrhoids (or even if you don't) witch hazel pads, lidocaine spray and suppositories can be helpful.

  • You’ll want to use the peri-bottle the hospital gives you to spray your perineum when you go to the bathroom for the first couple of weeks.

  • Your breasts will likely be engorged and uncomfortable when your milk comes in, and it will take a few weeks to regulate your milk supply. If you’re planning to breastfeed, you may want to pump after feedings to relieve some pressure — and freeze some milk for later.

  • Breastfeeding truly runs the gamut; it can be easy, difficult, pleasant, painful or all of the above. And it can take quite a while to get the hang of it, so be patient — and don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work out. Remember: Fed is best.

  • Make sure you eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies and drink lots of water. This is important to help your body heal (and is essential if you’re breastfeeding), so keep lots of nutritious snacks and a big bottle of water nearby. If you have friends or family who can cook or bring you meals, let them.

What I wish I'd known: You can get serious tears in the vulva/vaginal walls during childbirth that can require stitches and take up to 10 to 12 weeks to heal. Stock up on ice packs and ibuprofen.

Month 2: Overcoming exhaustion

This is when you may experience a new version of tiredness. Your lack of sleep over the past month starts catching up to you, but your baby will most likely still be waking up every three or four hours to eat.

  • You should have your postpartum checkup at six weeks, but don’t be afraid to call your provider before then if you have any questions or concerns.

  • You've probably heard the advice to "sleep when your baby sleeps" — and yes, it's easier said than done, but still important. More advice: Seek help from friends, family or professionals.

  • And speaking of friends and family, don’t feel like you need to welcome them all. Say no to visitors if you need to.

  • If you’re feeling down, don't brush it off. It could be the “baby blues,” or it could be more serious postpartum depression. Talk to your doctor right away.

  • You will most likely still be sore and/or weak — in your vagina or C-section scar as well as your back, neck, arms, abs and joints. But don’t try to jump back into exercise too soon. When you get the OK from your doctor, make sure you start slow. Start with Kegels and deep-core exercises before moving to something low-impact, like walking or swimming.

  • If you’re not breastfeeding, your period could return at six to eight weeks. Some women get cleared for sex at six to eight weeks, but you may not be ready yet. Listen to your body, and communicate with your partner.

  • You should’ve received all of your medical bills by now. Try not to stress out about finances — and ask about payment plans if you can’t pay the balance all at once.

What I wish I'd known: Some women experience a separation between their ab muscles after pregnancy called diastasis recti. Physical therapy as well as doing planks and the aforementioned deep-core exercises can help strengthen the core muscles slowly and safely to get rid of the separation.

Month 3: Taking care of you

You probably have a pretty solid routine by now, but at some point before (or at if you're lucky) the three-month mark, you'll likely have to reintegrate work into that routine. But don't let necessary self-care fall by the wayside once you're back to the daily grind.

  • If you're breastfeeding but are now away from your baby most of the day, pump often to avoid plugged ducts and mastitis.

  • Don't just commute home and pass out; brush and floss those teeth. They might feel extra-sensitive these days since pregnant and postpartum moms are at high risk for gum disease and tooth decay. Also, get your dentist appointment in the books.

  • You may notice you’re losing a lot of hair. Don’t worry; you’re not going bald. It’s just hormones.

  • Take time for yourself to help boost your mood, even if it's just taking a quick trip to the store or taking a nap or a shower. Try to meet up with friends or other parents when possible to commiserate.

Month 4: Surviving on baby smiles

At this point, fatigue is common. Good thing that baby is so darn cute.

  • If your baby experiences 4-month sleep regression, nights can be rough. If you can nap during the day or go to bed early, do so — you're going to need it. And don’t overbook yourself.

  • Increased stress can lower breast milk production — as can introducing pumping or formula if you haven't already — so just be mindful to keep pumping to maintain supply if you're not planning to wean quite yet; make sure to pump at least twice during an eight-hour workday if you want to keep it up.

  • If you had a C-section, your scar should be healed by now — but it could still be reddish-purple, itchy and/or numb for up to a year or more after birth.

What I wish I'd known: You may still wear some of your maternity clothes, and that's totally fine. Your body may have dropped serious pounds from breastfeeding or it may be holding onto those fat stores for hormone and milk production. Either way, it's all good.

Month 5:  R&R&R

That’s rest, relaxation and reflection. Although your baby may now be able to sleep for longer stretches without needing to eat, they're also likely teething and developing new skills such as rolling — which can mean less sleep for you.

  • Relaxation: Take time for yourself to do something chill, like getting a massage or going to see a movie, for your emotional well-being.

  • Rest: Make sure you continue to prioritize sleep as much as possible.

  • Reflection: Your sense of identity changes when you become a parent. It’s important to take time to reflect. Journaling, collaging or talking to a therapist can help process unconscious emotions and acknowledge some of the life changes you experience throughout parenting.

What I wish I'd known: Listen to your body, and try to be patient. The pregnancy hormone relaxin is still in your system for four to six months postpartum, which means you are more vulnerable to injury, especially in your joints. Don’t overdo it.

More:  The SheKnows Guide to Giving Birth

Month 6: Ch-ch-ch-changes

Just as you feel like you might finally be figuring things out, your baby starts going through a lot more changes.

  • Your baby will likely continue teething and start eating solid foods about this time, which means you’ll be spending more time feeding them — and cleaning up lots of messes.

  • If you don't feel 100 percent physically recovered yet, don't worry. You’re not alone; according to a study by Healthcare Women International, 25 percent of the women interviewed didn’t feel physically recovered from childbirth by six months postpartum.

Month 7: Help! (it’s still OK to ask for help)

Postpartum depression can still happen for up to 12 months after birth, and physical post-birth issues such as exhaustion, back pain, incontinence, sexual problems and perineal pain can all increase your risk of depression, so check in with yourself often — and get help if needed.

What I wish I'd known: If you have scarring around or in your vaginal area or sex is still painful or uncomfortable at this point, ask your health provider for a referral to a women’s health physical therapist.

Month 8: Let it go

Time management can be a challenge these days — and we hate to break it to you, but it might not become easy for years. You likely won’t be able to do everything you hope to do, and that’s completely normal. Prioritize the most important things, and let the other things go for now. Don’t feel guilty for having a messy house or not being a social butterfly; you're doing the important work of baby-raising.

Month 9: Mo’ movement, mo’ problems

Once your baby starts crawling, it takes a lot more attention and vigilance to keep them safe — including keeping tiny objects from entering their tiny mouths. And this means (you guessed it!) more time spent cleaning, organizing and chasing them across the floor.

What I wish I'd known: If you’re breastfeeding, your baby may start to self-wean at some point, which means less demand and therefore less milk supply. But then again, they may not self-wean at all — and you may need to decide when to wean, whether that's in a month or a year.

Month 10: Some more self-care

If you had melasma during pregnancy, it should be getting lighter now. But make sure to continue using sunscreen to protect your skin.

What I wish I'd known: Part of being a good mom is taking care of your own emotional and physical well-being, not just your baby’s. That means consistently scheduling time for yourself, even if it's only an hour. Don’t feel guilty if you need to take a break.

Month 11: Light at the end of the tunnel

With consistent nutrition and movement, you may well be starting to feel like your old self again — and ready for some more vigorous forms of exercise. Or maybe not, and that's fine too as long as you're feeling slowly better over time.

What I wish I'd known: If you got stretch marks during pregnancy, they'll likely be fading about now to slightly lighter than your skin tone — but they probably won’t totally disappear. But would you want them to? You earned those stripes.

Month 12: A new normal

What I wish I'd known: It takes at least a year, if not longer, to start feeling like yourself again. That doesn’t mean you’ll feel or look exactly the same as you did prepregnancy, but that’s OK. In fact, it's great.

Although you may have seen a TV character or celebrity bouncing back to their prepregnancy weight just weeks after giving birth, remember that most of us don’t have personal trainers, nutritionists or full-time nannies at our disposal. And even if you do or even if you lost any pregnancy weight in two months, that doesn’t mean that you have "recovered" from birth. The way the media portrays pregnant and postpartum women (um, sorry, Duchess of Cambridge) is often wildly unrealistic and can even be detrimental to women and their new babies.

Remember, it takes nine months for your body to make a baby; it will take at least that long for your body — let alone your brain — to recover.

Childbirth isn't easy — here's your 12-month guide to recovery
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows
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