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Postnatal health

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

You can't help but marvel at all your body has endured in the past nine months. Now that the pregnancy is (finally) over, you've been rewarded with a living, breathing wonder.

Coming to terms with your new role, while learning how to care for your baby, can be overwhelming for any woman.

Like just about everything else in your life, your body faces significant changes in the weeks and months following your baby's birth. In this postnatal period, which begins immediately after delivery, your body will heal from childbirth, rebuild its strength and begin to regain its pre-pregnancy shape.

The more you know about what to expect, the better prepared you'll be to cope with the physical and emotional changes that follow a pregnancy and birth.

Common problems

Women may experience a wide range of postnatal problems, some more serious than others and each with its own symptoms. Some of the more common problems include:

Postpartum haemorrhage

Some bleeding is normal immediately after delivery, while heavy bleeding or haemorrhage occurs in just 2% of births, most often after long labours, multiple births or when the uterus has become infected.

Postpartum haemorrhage is one of the commonest causes maternal death in childbirth. It usually happens because the uterus fails to properly contract after the placenta has been delivered, or because of a tear in the uterus, cervix or vagina. Soon after the baby and placenta have been delivered, you will be monitored to make sure the uterus is contracting as it should. If bleeding is severe, your midwife or doctor may massage your uterus to help it contract, or you may be given a synthetic hormone called oxytocin to help stimulate contractions. You will have a pelvic examination to find the cause of the haemorrhage, and your blood may be tested for infection and anaemia. If the blood loss is excessive, a blood transfusion may be recommended.

If haemorrhaging begins a week or two after delivery, it may be caused by a piece of the placenta that has remained in the uterus. If so, the tissue will be removed surgically. Once you are home, seek medical advice about any heavy bleeding immediately.

Uterine infections

Normally, the placenta separates from the uterine wall during delivery and is expelled from the vagina within 20 minutes of giving birth. If pieces of the placenta remain in the uterus (called retained placenta), it can lead to infection.

An infection of the amniotic sac (the bag of water surrounding the baby) during labour may lead to a postpartum infection of the uterus. Flu-like symptoms accompanied by a high fever; rapid heart rate; abnormally high white blood-cell count; swollen, tender uterus and foul-smelling discharge usually indicate uterine infection. When the tissues surrounding the uterus are also infected, pain and fever can be severe. Uterine infections can usually be treated with a course of intravenous antibiotics, which are used to prevent potentially dangerous complications such as toxic shock.

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