How to Deal with Swelling After Pregnancy

By: Bambi Turner

Swollen fingers and ankles can cause discomfort and keep you from enjoying time with your newborn. See more parenting pictures.
Swollen fingers and ankles can cause discomfort and keep you from enjoying time with your newborn. See more parenting pictures.
©iStockphoto.com/molka

Most women are familiar with swelling during pregnancy. Whether or not you've ever been pregnant, you've likely heard about the swollen fingers, ankles, legs and feet that can add to the discomfort of pregnancy. On the other hand, many people are unaware that women are just as likely to experience swelling after pregnancy has ended, and this swelling often lasts as long as a week after delivery [source: Kitzinger].

A woman's body produces about 50 percent more blood during pregnancy, which helps to nourish and protect both baby and mother [source: Kitzinger]. But not all of this excess blood leaves the body during delivery. Combine this extra blood volume with normal fluid build-up and hormonal changes, and it's easy to see why pregnancy swelling is such a common occurrence.

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While familiar areas like the ankles, hands and legs are likely to swell after delivery, women must also deal with swelling from incision sites, including C-sections and episiotomy incisions. All of this swelling can sometimes lead to pain or tenderness for the mom, but it's mostly just a source of general discomfort or inconvenience.

If all this swelling is making you worried or anxious, relax. Some general swelling is normal for pregnant women, and it's rare that swelling completely goes away at the moment of delivery [source: Davis]. Even if you're getting fed up with shoes that no longer fit or rings that seem to be permanently stuck on your swollen fingers, take comfort in the fact that this, too, shall pass. The majority of postpartum swelling subsides within a week of delivery, allowing new moms to focus on what's most important: caring for a new baby and getting the right postpartum care for themselves.

So, what exactly causes this swelling, and is there a way to minimize its effects? Read on to learn more about the causes and remedies for swelling after pregnancy.

What Causes Swelling After Pregnancy?

After giving birth, many new mothers expect that the hard part of pregnancy is over, or, at least, that the body will return to its pre-pregnancy state. Many women are surprised to find that the swelling in their body actually increases postpartum, leading to general discomfort or even pain which can interfere with the tasks of motherhood. Even women who experience no swelling during pregnancy may find themselves with swollen feet or hands after delivery.

But what causes swelling after pregnancy? It's partially due to changes that take place during pregnancy and partially due to the delivery process itself. The body produces higher-than-normal levels of the hormone progesterone during pregnancy, which causes the body to retain both sodium and water [source: Baby Partner]. At the same time, the expanding uterus presses against the veins in the legs, restricting blood flow to the legs, feet and ankles, which leads to fluid build-up in the lower part of the body [source: Curtis and Schuler]. With all the fluid that can build up over the nine months of pregnancy, it's no surprise that this swelling doesn't automatically go away after the baby is born.

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To further add to the problem, the physical process of pushing during a vaginal birth also sends excess blood and fluid toward the body's extremities, which leads to swelling in the hands, feet, legs and even the face [source Parents.com].

While general swelling can be uncomfortable, some of the most painful swelling may be found at incision sites. Swelling around a C-section incision is normal for the first few days after delivery, and this painful swelling can make it difficult to care for a baby. Additional swelling and bruising is often found at the perineum, especially when the mom has undergone an episiotomy or experienced vaginal tearing.

Finally, new moms should expect some general swelling all over due to the effects of IV fluids. Those who have undergone a C-section normally receive anesthesia and other medications through an IV, while mothers who experienced a vaginal birth are often administered medications, such as Pitocin, through an IV. These excess fluids can add to the high levels of blood and fluid that are already present in the body -- and it may take several days for them to exit the body [source: Palo Alto Medical Foundation].

With so many different things that can contribute to swelling after pregnancy, what's a new mom to do to reduce it? Read on to learn about some possible remedies for swelling after pregnancy and how to fit these remedies into your postpartum care plan.

Remedies for Swelling After Pregnancy

Finding a remedy for swelling is essential so that you can tend to your little one.
Finding a remedy for swelling is essential so that you can tend to your little one.
©iStockphoto.com/KimRuoff

So, how do you deal with swelling after pregnancy while trying to balance the tremendous responsibilities and joys of motherhood? It turns out that while some swelling is inevitable for most women, there are some potential remedies for swelling after pregnancy that may help alleviate or eliminate this problem.

A clean diet is an important part of a woman's postpartum care. Eating properly can help flush out excess fluids more quickly. As a bonus, a clean, healthy diet can give you the extra energy you need to adjust to your baby's demands. Focus on foods rich in protein, as well as fresh fruit, vegetables and complex carbs. Skip processed foods, as they're often loaded with bloat-inducing sodium [source: Kitzinger]. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, remember to drink plenty of fluids. Drinking more water will signal your body to release some of the excess fluid it's been holding onto, which can help reduce swelling. To make sure you're drinking enough, make it a priority to empty your bladder every four to six hours [source: California Pacific Medical Center].

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Moderate exercise and activity can also reduce postpartum swelling by improving circulation and helping you to sweat away excess fluid. Even just taking care of your baby can get your heart pumping, but feel free to add in some easy walking or other light exercise if your doctor approves.

If your legs and ankles are swollen, try elevating your feet above the level of your heart. This improves circulation and reduces the fluid build-up in your lower body [source: Kitzinger]. Don't wear tight clothing or jewelry, as this can restrict blood flow to certain areas and increase swelling. If your doctor has given you the go-ahead, feel free to take a relaxing bath. Even the weight of the bathwater can help reduce swelling [source: Mayo Clinic].

For many women, the immediate concern is relieving pain and swelling at incision sites. Try using ice packs to reduce swelling at the perineum and around C-section incisions. Clean both of these sites as directed by your doctor. Take warm baths to reduce discomfort, and don't apply lotions or vitamin E until the area has begun to heal [source: Davis].

While some swelling after pregnancy is normal, certain types of swelling are a sign of danger and shouldn't be ignored. Swelling and pain in only one leg can indicate a severe blood clot known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) [source: Curtis and Schuler]. Sudden or severe swelling at incision sites can indicate an infection or other problem. Immediately consult your doctor if you suspect DVT, or if you notice swelling accompanied by redness, discharge or odor at any delivery-related incision sites [source: California Pacific Medical Center].

Another sign to watch for is the onset of preeclampsia. While many pregnant women know to look out for this disorder during pregnancy, few realize that preeclampsia can occur up to four weeks after delivery [source: Norton]. Look for sudden, excessive swelling in the face or hands, and consult your doctor immediately if you notice these warning signs [source: Cedars-Sinai]. Avoid vitamin supplements, except those prescribed by your doctor, as they can increase your risk for preeclampsia during this period [source: Norton].

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Baby Partner. "Edema(Water Retention)." 2005. (March 10, 2010).http://www.babypartner.com/guides/health-and-fitness/common-complaints/edema.php
  • California Pacific Medical Center. "The New Mother: Physical Changes." 2009. (March 10, 2010).http://www.cpmc.org/services/pregnancy/information/mother-changes.html
  • Cedars-Sinai. "Preeclampsia and Eclampsia." 2008. (March 10, 2010).http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/5828.html
  • Curtis, Glade M.D. and Schuler, Judith M.S."Your Pregnancy: Week by Week." Del Capo Press, Philadelphia. 2008.
  • Davis, Elizabeth. Heart and Hands: A Midwife's Guide to Pregnancy and Birth. Celestial Arts, Berkeley. 1997.
  • Harms, Roger W., M.D.. "Pregnancy Week by Week." Mayo Clinic. Aug. 12, 2009. (March 10, 2010). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/swelling-during-pregnancy/AN01194
  • Kitzinger, Sheila. The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth. Random House, New York. 1996.
  • Norton, Kim M. "The Dangers of Preeclampsia." For the Record. Vol. 19, Num. 3, P. 28. Feb. 19, 2007. (March 10, 2010). http://www.fortherecordmag.com/archives/ftr_02052007p28.shtml
  • Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "Breast Engorgement in the First Week Postpartum." 2010. (March 10, 2010).http://www.pamf.org/children/newborns/feeding/engorgement.html
  • Parents.com. "Post-Pregnancy Body Changes." Date Unknown. (March 10, 2010).http://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/postpartum/post-pregnancy-body-changes/?page=1