You think you are ready. You’ve counted down the days, tracked your baby’s progress, and researched every detail about delivery. Your tribe has prepped you with advice about the best baby products and how to take care of baby’s every need. But what about mom’s needs, more specifically postpartum care and speeding postpartum recovery?
Postpartum definition: the period just after delivery for the mother. Postpartum care for mom goes beyond postpartum depression, which is often discussed. Your pelvic floor takes a beating during pregnancy and childbirth, and a weakened pelvic floor can lead to incontinence. In fact, 1 in 3 women experiences incontinence, often starting after childbirth. In addition to your age, you can’t control many factors that contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction, including fetal position, length of delivery, fetal head circumference, and physical damage. But there are ways to prevent incontinence and even correct it if you’re already leaking. Here’s all you need to know about speeding recovery for a healthy pelvic floor.
What is my pelvic floor?
A woman’s pelvic floor is a vital part of her core strength. This network of layered muscles is like a hammock-type sling that supports the bladder, uterus, and rectum. A healthy pelvic floor controls your urinary and fecal urges, and contributes to a healthy sex life (stronger muscles = better orgasms). Most people don’t notice their pelvic floor when it’s working properly. But when it’s not, it can mean bladder or even fecal incontinence.
How does childbirth affect my pelvic floor?
There’s no way around it—giving birth is traumatic for your body. Of course, the season of pregnancy and childbirth is full of wonder, but it also takes a physical toll, with your pelvic floor bearing the brunt. For nine months, your pelvic floor muscles stretch and relax to make room for your growing bundle of joy. This loosening also makes it easier to deliver your baby. And part of that delivery may include an episiotomy and even potential nerve damage, resulting in losing some sensation in the pelvic area.
How long is postpartum recovery? Well, studies show that a longer second stage of labor often means a longer postpartum recovery timeline. Slack and damaged muscles can result in more difficulty holding your pee or controlling bowel movements because the muscles that manage these functions aren’t reacting as quickly or strongly as before pregnancy.
How can I help my body heal?
Just as your body stretches and adapts to accommodate a new life, it’s also built to heal. And strengthening your pelvic floor muscles is an essential part of postpartum recovery. Jackie Giannelli, a Family Nurse Practitioner outside of New York City, says there’s a gap in educating women about the importance of a healthy pelvic floor. She wants to prepare and empower women to take control of their postpartum healing.
The benefits of a strong pelvic floor are innumerable, and when weakened (say, after childbirth), women can experience urinary incontinence, painful sex, constipation and even vaginal prolapse [a condition where the bladder or uterus drops down into or below the vagina]. However, women are not taught about this as a part of the continuum of childbearing, and are therefore unprepared to deal with these issues when they surface. Another problem I find is that most women don’t really understand the proper technique with which to perform Kegels. And if they are able to demonstrate good technique, they tell me they really don’t have the time to do them regularly.
–Jackie Giannelli, Family Nurse Practitioner
Restoring strength to your pelvic floor muscles begins with gentle training. And although “training” seems like a dirty word when you may have stitches and are still feeling postpartum aches, there are safe and comfortable ways to promote healing. In addition to rest, proper nutrition, and hydration, one of the best ways to get your pelvic floor back into shape is to practice Kegels.
How do Kegels help and what if you can’t do them?
Kegel exercises help speed postpartum recovery by strengthening the pelvic floor. These exercises involve repeatedly contracting and relaxing pelvic floor muscles, but many people find it hard to zone in on which muscles to contract. One way to identify pelvic floor muscles is to imagine gripping something with your vagina. The movement is internal, so you shouldn’t see any movement in your abdomen or buttocks. Hold the contraction for 3–5 seconds, and repeat 3 times. Physicians recommend doing this 3 times a day. But with a new baby, leaky boobs, and possibly stitches, it’s challenging to focus on your Kegel form, especially if you haven’t learned how to do them correctly before delivery, or even remembering to do them at all.
But where there’s a challenge, there’s a solution. Specifically designed tools can actually do your Kegels for you, targeting the correct muscles for the right amount of time. Not only does this strengthen your pelvic floor and better support your pelvic organs, but it also tightens up the vaginal area, which can lead to better sex and a decreased risk of bladder leakage.
However, most of these tools require vaginal insertion, which is a postpartum no-no. Fortunately, there’s an effective device you can use externally. ELITONE is the only device cleared by the FDA for use as early as 6 weeks postpartum. Designed by a woman, ELITONE is worn under your clothes, much like a pad, and uses disposable GelPads to deliver gentle stimulation to contract your pelvic floor muscles. Just put it on, get dressed, and go about your day; ELITONE turns off automatically after a short session. You don’t need a prescription, and ELITONE is covered by some insurance plans.
What to expect at your 6-week postpartum checkup?
If 6 weeks after birth, you are not feeling back to normal, your postpartum 6-week checkup is mom’s opportunity to get answers. For new moms, this postpartum checkup can be reassuring or make you anxious if you are still store and recovering from giving birth. Knowing what to expect can help ease your fears.
- Can I bring baby? As with most appointments, usually you may bring baby, but it might be distracting if your baby is fussy or needs changing/feeding. You might want to make a list of concerns before your appointment, so you don’t forget anything.
- Will there be an internal exam? Your obstetrician most likely will do a gentle pelvic exam, as well as examine your breasts and any incisions or stitches. You’ll also be asked about sleep habits (or lack thereof), contraception, and emotional health.
- Will I get time to ask questions? Now is the time to whip out your list of questions. Be honest with any difficulties you’re experiencing, physically or emotionally, so you can get advice that specifically addresses your needs. Some common concerns include: Can I exercise? How long until my vagina feels normal?
- When can I start having sex, and will it feel the same? The general recommendation for postpartum intercourse is 4–6 weeks. However, each new mother heals at a different rate, so the main factor in deciding when sex works for you is your recovery progress and comfort level. Some common concerns are: Will sex 6 weeks postpartum be painful? Will sex feel different after having a baby? If intercourse is uncomfortable, you may need to heal longer or enlist the help of a lubricant or over-the-counter pain relief.
Do take the opportunity to ask your doctor about your pelvic floor and why it’s important. The muscles that constitute your pelvic floor support the uterus, bladder, and rectum. When these muscles are stretched during pregnancy and childbirth, they can become slack, sometimes resulting in a leaky bladder, fecal incontinence, or even painful sexual intercourse.
- Why do I have a leaky bladder? One common complaint for women 6 weeks postpartum is urinary incontinence. You might notice a small leak when you sneeze, laugh, or exert yourself.
- Am I doing Kegel exercises correctly? As mentioned above, Kegels build up strength in your pelvic floor and speeds recovery, and reverses damage. However, 1/4 of women do Kegels incorrectly, so use the 6-week postpartum visit to ask your doctor if you are doing them correctly.