Before having a baby, you can do everything possible to plan for childbirth — attend a class, read all the books, and ask all your mama friends for their stories — but still experience a “WTF, nobody told me this would happen” moment during labor and delivery. From bathroom issues to sweating to bleeding, your body is basically put through the ringer before, during, and after childbirth, but many women don’t talk about what actually happens. Which is too bad, because the more you know, the more you can at least be a tiny bit prepared for what’s to come. Here are nine things you may not realize happen before, during, and after childbirth.
1. Going to the bathroom becomes…difficult.
We’ll just cut to the chase right away: once you get pregnant, going to the bathroom can become an entire ordeal. You might pee when you sneeze or have to pee literally every 15 minutes in general; on the other hand, you may experience constipation due to a consistent wave of hormones front-loading your body or taking prenatal vitamins, which are high in iron. Unsurprisingly, if you have a vaginal birth, then it becomes even more difficult from there. You’ll likely feel a burning sensation when you urinate, especially if you’re healing from a vaginal or perineal tear. And going number two is, um, a bit terrifying without the help of stool softeners, gentle walking, and plenty of fiber and liquids.
All of that might completely freak you out, but it is actually pretty common. “During pregnancy, the growing fetus and additional body weight add stress,” explains Cynthia E. Neville, a pelvic health and wellness expert. “During vaginal delivery, the pelvic floor structures and muscles undergo a tremendous amount of strain when the baby is delivered.”
The upside? Within a couple of weeks, your body will slowly return to normal. In the meantime, Neville recommends doing exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor before and after pregnancy. Practice contracting your pelvic floor muscles strongly, like a Kegel, but try not to overuse the abdominal or gluteal (buttock) muscles at the same time. Neville says you can either hold the contraction for 10 full seconds, and repeat that 10 times in a row, or practice quick and strong 2-3 second contractions, at least 10 in a row. And if you’re experiencing continuous bathroom issues pre- or post-childbirth, talk to your healthcare provider or seek out a physical therapist who provides pelvic floor rehabilitation.
2. Your childbirth “plan” may go out the window, but you’ll survive.
If you’re pregnant, then you’re probably envisioning the perfect labor and delivery—and while being prepared is wonderful, know that things can change on a dime. Maybe you wanted a natural birth, and all of a sudden you need an emergency C-section, or you wanted to breastfeed right away, but the baby won’t latch, or you planned on an epidural and ended up going drug-free. Or, once contractions start, perhaps you worry if you can even handle giving birth.
“Many first-time moms have a birth plan all set, but so many things can change within minutes,” advises Dr. Mitzner. “Be prepared to go with the flow, and trust that however your baby is delivered will be the best for you and your baby, even if it wasn’t as you planned.”
3. You have to deliver your placenta, but it’s not that big of a deal.
After giving birth, it seems like you should be D-O-N-E. And you are, kind of, except you still have to deliver your placenta. I remember being confused by this with my first child; I knew I had a placenta, of course, but didn’t really think about the fact that it, too, needed to come out at some point. Here’s why: your placenta is home base for your babe throughout pregnancy, and provides crucial nutrients and oxygen. During delivery, contractions help it separate from your uterine wall to move through the birth canal. If you have a C-section delivery, then the placenta is removed through your incision, just like your baby.
However, you can rest assured—this part of childbirth is usually a non-event. “I was surprised how not a big deal the placenta was, since I heard delivering it was the fourth stage of labor,” says Texas-based mom Casey D. “I didn’t even notice it come out, and in fact, when they gave me my baby I actually (embarrassingly) asked, ‘Don’t I need to deliver the placenta now?’”
4. Increased blood supply leads to, well, more bleeding.
“Before childbirth, pregnant moms may experience nose bleeds and gum bleeding,” says New York City-based mom and pediatrician Dr. Alison Mitzner. “For first time pregnant moms, this can be quite concerning, but it is common and due to increased blood supply on these small vessels that can rupture more easily. As long as there are no other symptoms, these are typically not a concern. If there is pain, redness or persistent symptoms, follow up with your OB/GYN.”
That same logic applies to post-delivery bleeding, too. Not only is your body healing, but your uterus needs to discharge blood and tissue from your body for about 4-6 weeks after childbirth. Called lochia, it’s like a serious period, and it occurs for women who have either vaginal or C-section deliveries. You can wear sanitary pads, and once the bleeding stops, many women are then cleared for light physical activity or a return to gentle exercise. If you have questions, definitely (again) talk to your doctor.
5. Labor can cause serious shaking and shivering, but you’re not dying.
Within five minutes of my son being born, I started shaking violently, and I couldn’t stop. I panicked and told the nurse, who calmly reassured me that such a reaction to labor was typical. Think of it this way: an intense amount of hormones are shifting through your body after delivery, as well as endorphins from the stress and euphoria of labor. It makes sense that physically, your body is reacting under the pressure, but experts say this goes away over the course of a couple hours, if not sooner.
6. You will be SO thirsty and hungry.
After delivery, I basically felt like I had run a marathon — which is no surprise, because your body goes through a lot to bring a baby into this world! One of your primary jobs, then, is to fuel yourself in order to have enough energy for surviving sleepless nights, breastfeeding, and learning how to take care of a helpless little being 24/7. For example, Tara E. felt unprepared for the insane thirst levels triggered by nursing her sons, so now she tells other new moms to keep a water bottle on hand at all times.
“You will be extremely hungry the first week or two, so ask for food,” says Lianos-Carbone. “Now is the time to reach out for help from family and friends and if they can’t be there to help with the baby, ask them to send you healthy, hearty meals.”
7. You might sweat like crazy.
According to Maria Lianos-Carbone, author of Oh Baby! A Mom’s Self-Care Survival Guide for the First Year, profuse sweating becomes the norm in the first week or two after childbirth. The hormones that cause you to retain fluids through pregnancy now make you shed the extra fluid, so expect to run to the bathroom often and sweat a ton during the day and at night.
“No one told me about the sweating you do in the hours after you give birth,” says Tara E., a mom of three. “When I was in the hospital after having my first, the sweat just poured out of me, which I wasn’t expecting. I wish I’d thought to pack extra clothing!”
8. You’ll still look pregnant, and that’s okay.
Despite the onslaught of famous women whipping their post-baby bodies back into shape almost immediately after having a baby, the reality is that it takes much longer for the vast majority of women. “It takes some time for your uterus to contract back to normal size,” says Dr. Mitzner. “Nursing may speed this along, and you will feel your uterus contract as it goes down in size as well, which is due to the oxytocin secreted as you breastfeed.”
I personally looked about four months pregnant for probably 2-3 months of maternity leave, which felt a little awkward simply because the narrative is that women “should” bounce back quickly. But again, slow weight loss after pregnancy is super normal. We’ve just forgotten that it is normal. So be kind to yourself after childbirth on the body image front: you just created a human! Own it, mama, instead of adding extra, unnecessary stress to your postpartum experience.
9. Even once you get cleared for sex, you may not feel ready.
“After having the baby, a woman has a follow-up at 8 weeks and the doctor usually says, ‘Everything looks good, you can have sex now,’” says Rachel Gelman, a doctor of physical therapy at Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center. “A majority of women report they don’t feel ready to have sex at that point, and that is totally common and normal.”
When you do finally feel ready, Gelman says to be prepared for intercourse to be painful—regardless of whether you had a vaginal delivery or a C-section—but that doesn’t mean you or your partner are doing something wrong. “A woman’s estrogen levels are diminished after delivery, and this lack of estrogen can lead to vaginal dryness, which can contribute to painful sex,” she explains. “The pelvic floor muscles may be hypertonic or tight due to delivery and these myofascial restrictions can cause pain. There may be scar tissue from an episiotomy or tearing during delivery which can be sensitive and painful, too.”
And here’s one last thing. It all goes by in the blink of an eye. One minute, you’re focused on the fact that you have to deliver your placenta, and the next, you’re home snuggling your newborn baby. It takes a while to feel back to normal (hello maxi pads for weeks) but those snuggles make all the crazy things your body goes through worth it.
What parts of childbirth and postpartum surprised you? Help out the sisterhood and share your experience!