6 Unexpected Ways Your Body Changes After Pregnancy
It's no surprise that for many women, muscles in their abdomen separate to accommodate the baby. The thing is, it can stay that way after birth. When the bands of muscles, which run parallel down your belly, separate, they leave behind a space in between, a condition called diastasis recti. Without the ab muscles in the middle of your belly to hold everything in, you might see a bulge or ridge of soft tissue there, aka a pooch that just won't go away. In fact, one-third of women still had it even one year postpartum, reported a 2016 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. "Some women are alarmed that they can lean forward or do a sit-up and see this bulge in between these muscles," explains Jonathan Schaffir, MD, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Though weak ab muscles can lead to back pain, in general they don't cause medical issues. Exercise is often recommended—some studies show that moves targeting deep ab muscles called the transverse abdominal muscles (like bird-dogs and pelvic tilts) may help—however, the jury is still out on exactly what you need to do or how much it speeds healing, suggests a 2014 review analyzing eight studies. Unfortunately, there's no slam-dunk treatment, hence why in severe cases some women correct the condition with surgery.
Traditionally, six weeks is the benchmark docs suggest waiting postpartum before having sex. However, 26 percent of women are ready sooner and engage in sexual activity before being cleared by their docs, reports a University of Michigan study. The researchers acknowledge that one reason may be to please their partner (since more than half gave their partner oral sex), but it's also because the desire is there. In fact, 40 percent said they masturbated. The researchers suggest that it's okay for a woman to rely on her own self-knowledge about her body and sexual needs. For that reason, Christine Curry, MD, PhD, ob-gyn at the University of Miami Health System, recommends having the conversation about contraception with your doc while you're still pregnant, to avoid any surprises.
Pregnant women everywhere know that when they're growing a baby, gas happens. But what you might not be prepared for is that the gas can stick around for a long time. Injury to a pelvic nerve, called the pudendal nerve, during labor can lead to "flatal incontinence" (the med term for an inability to control farting). During an episode, you may also lose some stool. "Up to 15 percent of women experience at least one episode of this in the year after delivery," says Curry. If this happens more often and is a problem for you, research suggests the embarrassing nature of the topic may mean you are keeping your symptoms mum—even though they may be negatively affecting your quality of life. So, try to talk to your doc. If it helps, use doctor-speak, saying something like "Sometimes a fart comes out without my permission, or by surprise,"—that can get the ball rolling on dialogue, says Curry.
If you had a vaginal birth, it's no news to you that your vagina went through quite the change. What you might not think about is what else is going on in your pelvic area. "The uterus does tend to be more loosely attached and the bladder sits lower. That's normal and shouldn't really affect you," says Schaffir. The problem occurs when things get stretched further—like if you birthed a large baby—and the uterus and bladder fall down into your vagina lower than they should. This can cause pelvic discomfort and pain or problems putting in a tampon, he says. You may also notice a bulge coming out of your vagina when you cough (called prolapse). While this may be common right after delivery, if it sticks around for longer than two months, see your doctor.
The act of growing a tiny human forever changes your immune system in ways that aren't fully understood, says Curry. One example of those lingering effects: five to 10 percent of women experience temporary thyroid problems; the gland may become underactive (hypothyroid) or overactive (hyperthyroid). It's easy for some of these symptoms (fatigue, weight changes, mood problems) to go missed since they sound an awful like the demands of caring for a newborn. Happily, most women's thyroids will return to normal in about a year, and your doc can prescribe thyroid medication, if necessary.
There's an awful lot of attention paid to stretch marks, but there's another mark that can come with pregnancy: more prominent veins. When you're pregnant, the veins in your legs stretch and get wider, says Schaffir. "For some women, they get spider veins or bulging varicose veins, which can appear after pregnancy," he adds. (It can happen on your vulva, too.) Once the veins have stretched, they may diminish a bit postpartum, but they won't go back to normal. If they're especially bothersome, you can ask your dermatologist for nonsurgical options, such as laser treatments.
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