Childbirth is painful. That’s not generally debatable. Your whole body shifts during pregnancy, and then it has to shift back. Not to mention that you birthed a whole human! Postpartum pain relief mainly involves over-the-counter medications and simple solutions. Ice packs are one simple solution that can be a huge help in relieving postpartum vaginal and perineal pain.
Recovering After Birth
Even people who have had the most serene birthing experience will have pain and discomfort after childbirth. Not only is your body recovering after the actual act of having a baby, but it’s trying to recover after all the changes pregnancy made to your body.
Common postpartum symptoms after a vaginal birth include:
- Contractions. Sometimes called afterpains, these are a way for your body to shrink the uterus back to its original size and prevent excessive bleeding in the uterus by compressing the blood vessels. You may feel these pains more strongly while nursing because your body releases a hormone called oxytocin.
- Hair loss. During pregnancy, extra hormones cause extra hair growth. When these hormone levels drop, you’ll start to shed the excess hair. This can keep going for up to five months after giving birth.
- Hemorrhoids and painful bowel movements.Trying to have a bowel movement can be one of the scariest parts about postpartum life. It’s common to be nervous about aggravating an already sensitive area, especially if you have stitches. You may also experience hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins in your anus or lower rectum.
- Incontinence. Your pelvic floor muscles can become stretched or injured during pregnancy, labor, and vaginal delivery. This can cause urine to leak while you cough, laugh, or sneeze. This usually improves within a few weeks.
- Mood changes. Pregnancy and childbirth cause a major disruption to your hormones. On top of that, you’re likely feeling a lot of emotions from bringing a new life into the world, and you’re also probably not sleeping well. This can result in what’s called the “baby blues” for the first couple of weeks. More severe mood changes, especially ones that don’t go away, can be signs of postpartum depression or anxiety.
- Tender breasts. Whether or not you plan to nurse your baby, your breasts may become engorged. This happens when your breasts fill with milk and become full, firm, and tender.
- Vaginal discharge. After delivery, your body needs to get rid of the membrane that lined your uterus during pregnancy. It does this through vaginal discharge, called lochia, which will be red and heavy for the first few days. This will start to become more watery and change to pinkish brown to yellowish white. Light bleeding and discharge can last up to six weeks after birth.
- Vaginal and perineal soreness. It’s extremely common to feel pain in the vagina and perineum, the area between the vagina and anus, after birth. This area may tear or your doctor may have to make a small cut called an episiotomy to help the baby get out. Even if neither of these things happened, this area can still be sore and swollen after birth.
- Water retention. Also called postpartum edema, this happens when your body retains water due to an excess of a hormone called progesterone. This usually lasts until a week or so after birth.
- Weight loss. Most women lose about 13 pounds after delivering the baby, placenta, and amniotic fluid. You may still look pregnant for a few days after birth as your body continues to get rid of extra fluid.
Cesarean sections, or C-sections, have many of the same postpartum symptoms as vaginal birth. The primary difference is that you likely won’t have vaginal pain, but will have abdominal pain, especially near your incision.
Postpartum Pain Management
The amount of pain you feel after childbirth and the time it lasts can vary greatly depending on your experience. Pain relief after childbirth is usually done with simple methods and over-the-counter products.
Contractions. Contractions may be mild, or they may feel like menstrual cramps or even labor contractions. You can relieve some of this pain with a heating pad and over-the-counter pain reliever. Ibuprofen may work better than acetaminophen, but both are safe to use.
Hemorrhoids and painful bowel movements. You can do a few things to soothe hemorrhoids:
- Apply dry heat, like from a hair dryer on the lowest setting.
- Apply cold witch hazel compress. Witch hazel is an astringent, meaning it helps tighten body tissues, and it can help relieve itching and burning. Many drugstores sell witch hazel wipes or pads.
- Use medicated sprays or topical ointments to help numb the area and relieve itching and pain.
- Take a sitz bath. Sitz baths are excellent for soothing hemorrhoid pain as well as vaginal and perineal pain. To take a sitz bath in a bathtub, make sure the tub is clean and fill it with 3–4 inches of warm water. Add salt or medication to the water as your healthcare provider suggests. Lower yourself into the bathtub, and make sure the painful area is under the water.
Bowel movement will be easier if your stool is softer. Drink plenty of fluids, eat foods high in fiber, and ask your doctor about a stool softener or laxatives.
Tender breasts. Frequent feeding or pumping is the best way to prevent or reduce engorgement. Using a hot compress or taking a warm shower before nursing can help make it easier for your baby to latch while you’re engorged. A cold compress between feedings can help as well.
Vaginal and perineal pain. There are several things you can do to help ease pain in this area:
- Sit on a pillow or a padded ring
- Sit in a sitz bath
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever
- Use a numbing spray or cream
- Use an ice pack or cold witch hazel pad
C-section pain. Most doctors will recommend over-the-counter medication to help with C-section pain. You can also try a warm compress.
Postpartum Ice Packs
Postpartum ice packs are a fantastic way to soothe vaginal and perineal pain after giving birth. Studies have shown that ice packs can significantly reduce pain and can also help reduce swelling.
You can use a regular ice pack so long as it's wrapped in something like a sterile pad. Your hospital may give you ice packs specifically for postpartum use. These are part pad, to absorb lochia, and part ice pack. Don’t worry about stuffing these into your bag before you leave. You can find them online and in some drugstores.
How to use an ice pack after delivery. Your nurses may help you out with the ice pack at first, but it’s nice to know how to do it yourself for when you go home.
The actual steps will depend on the type and brand of ice pack you’re using, so check the instructions before trying them out. If you’re using a regular ice pad, place it into the giant underwear the hospital gives you and cover it with one of the giant pads. If you’re using one of the ice pack/pad combos, they may stick into the underwear just like a menstrual pad would. You can even add a witch hazel pad or some numbing spray on top of the pad to help ease pain and swelling.
Keep in mind that overuse of ice packs could disrupt blood flow and lead to tissue damage. Try to use the ice pack for 15–30 minutes every two hours or so.