Ah, the postpartum life.
One minute you're snuggling your baby in a haze of euphoria, the next minute you're straining through constipation and peeing while sneezing.
One moment you're dizzy with love and adoration, next you're sobbing due to your crazy hormone imbalance, wondering if this bundle of joy was all worth it.
It's messy, it's hard, it's glorious and it's all normal.
Then, there's swelling. No one really warns you of the scary surprise that is swollen legs within hours of the birth, but it can be quite confronting.
Constipation, a weak bladder, bleeding, leaking and sore breasts, hair loss, muscle soreness, perineum pain and many other fun postpartum symptoms will rear their ugly heads within the first six to 12 weeks post-birth and they likely won't be dangerous.
Swelling, however, is treated a bit differently — whilst it is considered a normal symptom, you'll need to keep an eye on it for up to two weeks post-birth.
Here is a non-exhaustive guide on the causes, and treatments, of postpartum swelling.
Is postpartum swelling normal?
After your birth, you may look down at your legs, ankles, feet, hands and arms and be surprised by how swollen they are.
Postpartum swelling, also known as postpartum edema or lymphatic swelling, is the buildup of excess fluid in your tissues from pregnancy and the IV drips you may have (i.e. an epidural or a C-section).
The answer is yes, it is completely normal and even expected that you would experience swelling in your legs and other parts of your body after birth.
Postpartum swelling usually shows up in your legs, but it can also travel to your ankles, feet, arms, hands, wrists, face and vulva.
Luckily, there are easy home remedies you can include your postpartum recovery to help reduce swelling.
What causes swelling during pregnancy?
You thought your swelling days were over, right?
During pregnancy, the body retains extra blood and water to support the baby, a whopping 50 per cent more than normal in fact, and this water is gradually released through sweating and urination.
The huge increase in fluids helps to expand your body, readying your pelvic floor for opening up and delivering your baby.
Pregnancy swelling can be exacerbated by heat, standing for long periods and consuming high-sodium foods among other things.
Why am I experiencing postpartum swelling?
Unfortunately, all that extra fluid you've accumulated over the past nine months won't disappear overnight — although some people's swelling will be more noticeable than others.
Some of the reasons include:
- Leftover pregnancy fluid retention: This is the main reason we swell in different areas of the body.
- IV fluid received during labour: If you had a C-section or an epidural during labour, you would have received an intravenous drip. The fluid from your drip is still hanging around your body after the baby has arrived and will take a little while to be flushed out through sweat and urine.
- Pushing: The pushing you did during labour can cause the extra pregnancy fluid to move around your body.
- Being sedentary: After delivery, you are encouraged to relax and rest as much as possible. Being sedentary does, however, make it more difficult for your body to remove its retained fluid.
What does postpartum swelling look like?
Postpartum swelling is characterised by, quite literally, enlarged, bloated parts of your body.
Your swollen areas might be tight, red and tender to touch as it stretches to accommodate all your redistributed fluid.
You might also experience pain as you move your swollen limbs around; walking around on swollen legs can be difficult, which is even more of a reason you should be waited on hand and foot once you're home from the hospital.
How to reduce postpartum swelling
Swelling is certainly one of the more annoying aspects of postpartum life, but there are easy ways to help reduce swelling that you can incorporate into your healing journey once you're home from the hospital.
1. Stay hydrated
You will be drinking much more water than usual if you're breastfeeding as you establish milk supply, but drinking water also helps shift your retained fluid.
Sure, it sounds counterproductive to drink water while trying to get rid of water, but dehydration actually encourages the body to hold onto water.
Drinking water will keep everything moving, flushing out waste through the kidneys and turning it into urine and sweat.
2. Light exercise
We cannot stress this enough: This does not mean hitting the gym within days of birth.
Some easy walking around in your home will be enough — movement will stop your fluids from pooling.
A little walking around, some light yoga or even some gentle swimming will be hugely beneficial for swelling.
3. Elevate your legs and feet
It's simply gravity! Elevating your legs while sitting for up to 20 minutes a day will encourage the water in these body parts to move around to other parts of your body.
If you are swelling in your fingers, hands or wrists, occasionally elevate them over your head too. We totally understand that elevating your swollen vulva over your head will probably be a bit difficult, but rest assured it will still benefit from light walking (and a warm bath).
4. Wear compression stockings
These are tight elastic stockings that work to improve circulation, preventing the pooling of fluid in your legs, therefore helping increase blood flow around your body.
Putting them on in the morning will help reduce swelling throughout the day as you move around.
5. Wear loose-fitting clothing
Again, we know we just told you that tight compression stockings are useful for moving fluid around the body, but it's also just as important you don't cut off circulation and allow the fluid to pool.
This includes tight shirts, tight shoes and even that tight hair tie around your wrist — make sure you let that water move around your body.
6. Gentle postpartum massage
A professional postpartum masseuse can perform an effective and safe massage to promote lymphatic drainage.
7. Reduce your salt intake
Too much sodium is an absolute swelling trigger. Avoid foods like potato chips and salted peanuts (you know, the fun foods).
Be wary of processed foods that are usually high in sodium. Instead, opt for foods rich in potassium, which are great for swelling as they naturally reduce the level of sodium in your body.
Think apricots, bananas, spinach, yoghurt and avocados among many other delicious foods.
8. Avoid caffeine
We know, this seems cruel considering you weren't allowed much coffee during pregnancy, and even more so when you're up all hours with your new baby, but caffeine increases the risk of dehydration and will signal to the body that it needs to hold on to water rather than lose it.
9. Use recovery essentials available to you
If you're experiencing swelling and tenderness in the vulva, your best way of treating this is with a few handy essentials.
Kin's Postpartum Recovery Kit is designed to help heal your vagina and relieve discomfort after birth.
Your vulva can be swollen post-birth, which is why the Postpartum Recovery Kit contains products like The Peri Bottle, which delicately cleanses the vagina, The Mesh Panties, which are soft, stretchy and breathable, The Soothing Padiscles, which combines cold therapy and an absorbent pad in one and helps with swelling.
The final essential is The Healing Foam, which provides relief for pain, itching and tearing thanks to the addition of witch hazel.
The C-Section Recovery Kit by Kin is also super handy for those who have had a C-section, with the Belly Band particularly helpful in reducing post-operation swelling and providing support around your incision and separated abdominal muscles.
When should I be worried about postpartum swelling?
Postpartum swelling will normally last for up to two weeks maximum.
If your swelling isn't subsiding, contact your healthcare provider. Here are some other things to watch out for.
- Postpartum preeclampsia: Many people experience preeclampsia during pregnancy, but postpartum preeclampsia is much rarer and just as dangerous. You also don't need to have had it during pregnancy for it to affect you after your birth.
- Swelling can be a symptom of this condition, along with high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, chest pains, severe headaches and decreased urination. If you suspect you have this, seek medical care immediately, as postpartum preeclampsia left untreated can cause seizures and a stroke among other health problems.
- Deep Vein Thrombosis: DVT refers to a blood clot that forms in a deep vein of the leg, calf or pelvis. While you are at risk of DVT in pregnancy, the greatest risk is just after you have your baby and this condition can be fatal. Symptoms include painful swelling (usually in one leg) that comes on suddenly along with chest pains, difficulty breathing, blurred vision and an irregular heartbeat. All of these symptoms must be investigated so please let your doctor know if you're experiencing any of them. People who have had C-sections, pregnancy preeclampsia or a family history of blood clotting disorders should speak to their doctors about the risk of DVT.
- Swelling in the C-Section incision: If you've had a caesarean delivery, your doctor or midwife will have briefed you on how to manage your incision's recovery. If your scar is swelling, contact your doctor immediately as this may be an infection. You should especially speak with a healthcare provider if the incision is red, sore to touch or if you feel feverish.
Generally, swelling is nothing to worry about and is a part of your postpartum recovery.
It's a stark reminder that you're not only recovering from giving birth, but you're also recovering from pregnancy too.
Whether you've had a vaginal delivery or a C-section, postpartum recovery is a healing process that takes time, and luckily swelling is one of the quicker things to recover from.
Your body has changed on a molecular level, it's been preparing for nine months to bring your baby safely earth-side and now we need to congratulate it, worship it, love it for what its been through, swollen legs and all.