Emergency room doctors blamed Jackie Wright's stomach cramps on a uterine clot, which was not unusual for a woman who had recently given birth. However, Wright, who had undergone an emergency cesarean section less 10 days before, knew better.
“I told them this was not uterine pain…. I knew something was up,” said Wright, the president of a marketing and public relations agency in Scottsdale, Arizona.
After Wright's second trip to the emergency room and a lot of testing, doctors determined she suffered a potentially fatal intestinal staff infection resulting from the surgery. They prescribed antibiotics, and within six hours, Wright was feeling exponentially better and could focus on her son, now 2.
Today, Wright is in great shape. But if she didn’t react quickly and demand answers, the story might have been different.
It’s easy to keep track of your health when responsible for the growing new life inside you. But it’s even easier to forget to pay attention to your body and dismiss changes as par for the postpartum course. Your newborn isn’t the only one who requires proper nutrition, rest and monitoring.
Listen to those essential pieces that you followed so well during pregnancy. You get so wrapped up in how your baby is doing, you have to remember to take care of yourself.
Adrianna Alvarado Parsons, new mother and public relations specialist
What to Expect
While Wright’s frightening scenario is not common, she also experienced typical issues like hair loss, itchy skin and difficulty losing weight. Still, she felt something wasn’t right. When her OB-GYN didn’t have answers, she sought a second opinion from her regular physician, who determined that an underactive thyroid was the cause. This was triggered by pregnancy.
Before getting pregnant, Wright had near perfect vision. But the pregnancy triggered an astigmatism that had been dormant and ever since, she’s worn glasses.
“Pregnancy throws your body out of whack,” Wright says. “Some women mistake it for postpartum depression, but trust your gut. Deep down, you know something’s up.”
Before giving birth to her daughter in August, Adrianna Alvarado Parsons only occasionally experienced minor headaches. But the week after her baby was born, Parsons, a public relations specialist in Phoenix, endured painful migraines that brought her to tears. She says it was likely because of medication wearing off and hormonal changes.
One night she awoke with a high fever, chills and her breast was inflamed and hot to the touch. Parsons had mastitis, usually caused by clogged milk ducts in breastfeeding mothers. She went through two rounds of antibiotics to clear it up.
The fact that she was the first woman in her group of close friends to have a baby didn’t make dealing with these issues easier.
“All the books, they walk you through pregnancy, but they don’t walk you though what to expect during recovery,” Parsons says. “Recovery was a shock.”
Maintaining the Routine
Doing too much on too little sleep, food and energy contributes to the emotionally draining roller coaster on which new mothers find themselves. Sticking with the routine that produced a healthy baby will yield stability.
“Listen to those essential pieces that you followed so well during pregnancy,” Parsons said. “You get so wrapped up in how your baby is doing, you have to remember to take care of yourself.”
Neglecting hydration is common and contributes to headaches, constipation and other discomforts, explains Robin Shepherd, registered nurse and the director for women and infant services at Arrowhead Hospital in Glendale, Arizona. Shepherd recommends water and noncaffeinated, noncarbonated beverages. Fruit juices are OK if consumed sparingly because of their high calorie and sugar levels.
Perhaps most critical is sleep: A little nap or periods of brief shut-eye goes a long way.
“Fatigue is a major issue for moms who try to be super moms the moment they go home,” Shepherd says. “Returning to activity too soon also affects bonding time with their baby and interaction with their partner.”
Continuing with prenatal vitamins after delivery helps maintain nutrient levels, as does a healthy diet, says Dr. Pooja J. Shah, an OB-GYN at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa, Arizona.
“Moms forget to eat normal meals because they worry about their baby. But their diet is just as important [as their baby's],” she said.
Mothers who undergo a vaginal delivery typically have a shorter recovery period and are able to return to their usual level of activity sooner than those who had a cesarean section, Shah says. In general, older mothers and mothers in their teens tend to have a longer recovery time.
When it comes to weight, Shah emphasizes health over a number on a scale. Low-impact workouts such as walking or yoga are perfect for the first month after giving birth. Shah doesn’t recommend diet restrictions that reduce nutrient intake.
“Exercise that’s not too strenuous increases energy and helps to make their emotional state more positive,” Shah said.
And, hormone levels can take a good month or two to get back to where they were pre-pregnancy, she says.
Night sweats triggered by hormone changes are a common side effect Shepherd sees with patients. The fluctuation also can make a new mother prone to slips and falls because of the shifting of weight on the pelvis.
Shepherd advises paying attention to pre-existing health problems, such as high-blood pressure or diabetes, that seem to improve during pregnancy.
Pregnant women "really need to stay on top of their health condition as the body’s response to that condition changes,” she said.
Any symptom serious enough to seek medical attention before you had your baby requires the same response now. A fever greater than 100.4 degrees, breast pain or redness, foul-smelling discharge or increasing pain in the weeks after birth require medical help, Shepherd says. Rare yet significant symptoms include tenderness in the lower leg muscles or redness and swelling anywhere from the hips down, which could indicate a blood clot.
Hormones also set off the “baby blues,” which generally lasts three to seven days after delivery and cause mothers to cry easily and get upset without knowing why, Shepherd says. If these feelings last, however, professional assistance is recommended.
“It can turn into true postpartum depression. If she has thoughts of hurting herself or her baby or hears voices, she needs to seek help,” Shepherd said.
Mood changes are expected, but 15 to 20 percent of new mothers experience more significant signs of depression or anxiety, according to Postpartum Support International.
If postpartum depression isn’t identified and taken care of, it could affect a mother’s ability to bond with her newborn, Shah says. Not sleeping, lacking appetite and inability to enjoy the things that she once loved can be worrisome if this pattern continues beyond a few weeks after delivery.
“These are subtle changes they pass off because they just had a baby,” Shah said. “Often, these are most noticed by family members instead of the patient. But it’s always better to bring those up to the doctor.”