You'd think after delivering the baby and the placenta, you could finally rest easy — or at least, "rest" as much as you can with an infant at home. But, no!
Your body's just been through the wringer, and regardless of whether you had a vaginal delivery or a caesarean section, there's still a high chance that you'll experience postpartum constipation after giving birth.
Try not to stress if you do experience a little constipation after birth, it's incredibly common and treatable.
In this guide, we'll break down everything you need to know about what causes postpartum constipation, how to prevent it, how to treat it, and when to see a doctor.
What causes postpartum constipation?
Postpartum constipation is very common as your body and digestive system work to return to normal after giving birth.
Some of the causes include:
- Dehydration - Even when you're eating heaps of fibre, your body needs water for the poop to pass smoothly.
- Not enough fibre - Fibre helps make your stools bigger, which may sound intimidating, but in the process, it makes them easier to pass.
- Pain meds and postpartum vitamins, especially iron supplements
- Stress - With so much going on as you adjust to life as a new parent, it's only natural that you'd be feeling stressed, not only about your first postpartum poop, but about life in general! All of this can spike your cortisol levels, which can cause constipation.
- Pelvic floor changes - If you've had a vaginal birth, your pelvic floor muscles have been stretched, which can also affect the muscles in your rectum, causing more poop than usual to gather in your digestive tract while your body readjusts.
- Haemorrhoids - A vaginal birth can cause haemorrhoids, which are inflamed and swollen veins in the rectum and anus. The pain of haemorrhoids can create anxiety around going to the bathroom, which can cause postpartum constipation.
- Hormones - Your body is adjusting from its pregnancy hormones to life after birth, and the rapid change can slow bowel function.
- All the changes to your routine - Reduced activity, changes in sleep patterns, bed rest and lack of exercise are all completely normal in pregnancy and after birth, and they all contribute to constipation.
Can breastfeeding cause constipation?
While breastfeeding doesn't directly cause postpartum constipation, it can be a contributing factor. Changes to your routine, like cutting out caffeine, can slow everything down.
As your body increases production of breast milk, more of your water intake will go toward that, which means there'll be less left to keep things moving, which is another reason to keep up your water intake.
Because breastfeeding is also time-consuming and disruptive to the routine you once had, this can also affect your bowel movements and contribute to postpartum constipation.
It's important to remember to drink plenty of water and fit as many high fibre foods into your diet as you can!
Preventing postpartum constipation
No one wants to be constipated, and no one wants to deal with postpartum constipation. So how do you prevent it?
We'll level with you. Your first postpartum bowel movement likely won't be the most pleasant experience of your life, but there are ways to make it easier on yourself and get your digestive system working again.
Here are some ways to prevent postpartum constipation, and alleviate some of the stress associated with the idea of pooping ever again.
How can you make your first postpartum poop easier?
Staying hydrated is crucial in avoiding postpartum constipation in the first few days after birth.
Your digestive tract needs a whole bunch of water to function properly, so it's time to get hydrated in order to help your digestive system run smoothly, as this will make your poops easier to pass.
Drinking coconut water, which is high in potassium, can also help. Warm liquids, like herbal tea, in the morning can also do wonders to get things moving.
Before giving birth, it's also a good idea to stock the house with foods that will help you poop. Think prunes, high-fibre foods like green vegetables and whole grain cereals.
You can also add a fibre supplement like Metamucil to your meals to promote healthy digestive system function.
Taking stool softeners (rather than stimulant laxatives) can also ensure that when you need to go, things go smoothly.
Switching up your position to relieve some of the pressure can also help. Try raising your feet with a small stool and hunching over.
It's also important to breathe through it. Rather than holding your breath and trying to force it, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly as you push gently.
Symptoms of postpartum constipation
Because there's so much going on in the postpartum period, it can be tricky to work out whether your body is just adjusting back to normal, or whether you're dealing with postpartum constipation. Here are some tell-tale signs.
- Painful poops
- Small, dry, hard stool
- Incomplete bowel evacuation
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- Feeling the need to strain or push too hard to pass poop
- Infrequent bowel movements
- Taking longer than usual to go
- Fewer than three bowel movements per week
How long does postpartum constipation last?
A lot of the time, postpartum constipation will resolve itself as your body heals and adjusts to life after birth.
Usually lasting somewhere between a few days and a week, some postpartum women may need to spend a little time treating postpartum constipation before things get back to normal.
What can you do for postpartum constipation relief?
Luckily, there are lots of ways to go about relieving constipation, from natural remedies to stool softeners and mild laxatives.
Although you may have fear and anxiety around pooping, it's important to not ignore the urge to go when you need to.
The longer you avoid it, the harder it will be (literally).
How do you treat postpartum constipation?
Usually, treating postpartum constipation can be done at home with a number of natural remedies.
- Drink plenty of water: 8-10 glasses a day will help ensure that your gut has enough liquid to form poops that pass more easily.
- Eat high fibre foods: Think whole grain cereals and breads, green vegetables, bran, lentils, beans, prunes
- Add a fibre supplement to your diet, like Metamucil
- Elevate your feet on a stool while you poop
- Try breathing and relaxation techniques, and calming exercises to help alleviate stress around pooping
- Go for a short walk, even if it's just around the house or slow, gentle walk around the block. If you've had a c-section, ask your doctor what's appropriate for you.
- Try some gentle squats (if you can!) or some gentle dancing with your baby at home.
- Try a stool softener, or ask your doctor if stool softeners or a mild laxative would be a good option for you
- Don't force it. Straining can make haemorrhoids worse, which is the last thing you need.
Making things more comfortable
If you're dealing with perineal pain or haemorrhoids, there are some ways you can promote healing and make everything downstairs a little more comfortable while you're treating postpartum constipation.
Some things you can try are sitz baths, which help to relieve tender and sensitive skin during pregnancy and postpartum.
At Kin, our sitz bath sits easily in your toilet, so all you have to do is pop in some sitz salts and warm water, and then sit back and let soothing relief wash over your bits.
You can also use soft, medicated wipes to cleanse after pooping.
If you're dealing with perineal pain, our Soothing Padsicles are the way to go. They'll help soothe some of the pain and tenderness down there, which will help alleviate some of the anxiety around pooping.
Complications of Constipation
If you haven't had a bowel movement four days after the birth, or if you're dealing with very infrequent bowel movements (less than three per week) in the postpartum period, it's time to speak to your doctor, who will provide medical advice on what to do next.
Chronic constipation can lead to complications, so it's important to make sure you're treating postpartum constipation before it gets to that. Some of the complications, according:
- Rectal prolapse - This is where the rectal lining comes out of the anus as a result of repeated straining.
- Faecal incontinence - If you haven't been able to fully evacuate your bowels for a long time, you can become backed up to the point where the poop will come out by itself.
- Urinary incontinence - The pressure of repeated straining on your pelvic floor muscles can cause urinary incontinence.
- Faecal impaction - Alternately to incontinence, if you're too backed up, the muscles of your bowel may become unable to push any poop out
It's time to talk to your doctor if:
- You see blood or mucus in your stools
- You're alternating between constipation and diarrhoea
- You're experiencing excessive rectal bleeding
- You don't have a bowel movement after four days post-birth
- You're having severe rectal or stomach pain
- You're experiencing severe, painful bulging in the vagina, vulva, and/or perineum
Postpartum constipation and haemorrhoids
Haemorrhoids are a common postpartum problem that can be exacerbated by postpartum constipation.
According to What to Expect, these swollen, painful veins around your rectum can be caused by "the weight of your growing uterus during pregnancy and pushing during delivery". Straining through a bowel movement can then irritate haemorrhoids and cause them to take longer to heal.
Treating postpartum constipation and haemorrhoids go hand-in-hand. Straining and forcing bowel movements can make things worse, which can then create anxiety around pooping, which can make the postpartum constipation worse.
Likewise, soothing the haemorrhoids can make it less stressful to poop, which can help get your bowels back to normal.
However, haemorrhoids can be healed. Some ways to treat them include:
- Regular sitz baths
- Sitting on donut pillows
- Witch Hazel pads, which can also be cooled in the fridge
- Healing foam, used either on padsicles or with a peri bottle
- Covered ice packs or cold compresses
- Over-the-counter creams
- Using flushable, fragrance-free wipes, rather than toilet paper.
At Kin, we're all about making your postpartum life easier. We designed a complete Postpartum Recovery Kit with Australian OBGYNs designed to address all the aches and pains new mums experience most after birth.
Including The Peri Bottle, The Mesh Panties, The Soothing Padsicles, and The Healing Foam, it’s the all-in-one regimen designed to clean, soothe, restore, and help you feel like yourself again.