Recovering with a Newborn Baby – Skin-to-Skin
The nurse laid our newborn baby on my bare chest for our first skin-to-skin contact. It was that much talked about, precious moment of feeling his weight, heat and breath for the first time. As his tiny body rested silently and still against me, his wide eyes gazed at me with my husband gazing down on us both from beside the bed. Time stood still.
Eventually the nurses lifted him from me and gently handed him to my seated husband for his chance to hold his son for the first time. As I was watching this perfect scene from across the delivery room, I noticed an unexpected image in my line of sight: My OB and her resident were still “down there.” It had been nearly an hour since his birth. My OB explained that there had been some tearing that they were repairing with sutures. This was all normal, she said. It was a challenging delivery, but normal and healthy and safe. She said.
Then the epidural wore off. And the game changed. I was in a new phase now: Recovery.
So, what is there to discuss? The recovery discussion is not necessarily to prepare physically. There is no way to know how delivery will unfold and how your body will react. This is not what an about-to-give birth mama should be focused on anyway; the initial focus rightly needs to be on delivering a healthy baby. However, typical talk of a healthy little one presupposes that mom is healthy. The expectation is that mom is fine, ready and able now that the newborn baby is here.
The reality can be much different, and it is a disservice to new mothers to not prepare psychologically for the recovery period. A healthy, happy newborn baby starts with a functioning, present mom. For me, the shock of the recovery period made me a non-functioning, distracted, shadow of a new mom.
I had never heard the word “recovery” and certainly not the word “trauma” until it was spoken in the messy haze after delivery by a surprising voice – my OB. The day after the birth, she sat at the edge of the bed that I had been in now for 48 hours. She said she wanted me to not focus on the trauma of birth and instead on the fact that me and my newborn baby were healthy, and I was experiencing a normal recovery. I do not know what she said after that because I was still stuck on the word “trauma.” She had given a name to what I was feeling – physically but more so psychologically. I had just had a traumatic experience and was completely ill equipped to deal with it.
If “trauma” is one way to describe the birth process and “recovery” is a normal part of that, discussing it more openly would help women and their support system prepare, particularly their partners. My husband’s shock at seeing me in that much pain for that long was nearly as traumatizing to him as the physical discomfort was for me.
Starting a Conversation
It seems this conversation should start with your OB. At a minimum, a conversation about what a “normal” recovery period may entail can be delivered in a way that is empowering rather than alarming. It is this same approach that doctors take every day to discuss labor and delivery, which are also physically and psychologically challenging. The way birth is currently discussed, the implication is that after labor and delivery, the hard part is over. You leave the hospital or birthing center, or your midwife leaves your home, and you and your partner float into parenthood on a cloud of love and cuddles.
But this is where the hard part actually begins. The mother will be managing some level of pain. There likely will be concoctions of pain medications, stool softeners, laxatives, maxi pads, witch hazel, ice packs, heat packs, and the strangely named “sitz” bath. This will be alongside the challenges of beginning to breastfeed or bottle feed, learning to change diapers, understanding sleep patterns, figuring out how to calm the baby, sleep deprivation, and learning to be a parent. (Here are five things to consider having at home after you deliver [link to other article]).
Transitioning to Motherhood
I did not hold my son or change a diaper for about the first 10 days of his life. Managing my pain was my overwhelming priority, and my blessed husband stepped in to fill the void. He did this instinctively and calmly, but in a state of controlled terror. Will my wife ever heal? Will she ever be able to help me? Will she ever sit again?
I had to breastfeed lying on my side and my son lying horizontally against me, for a month. Every time I had to switch breasts, I needed to rotate my entire body and his. It was an awkward, uncomfortable dance of pillows, baby parts, and mom parts. Dad looking on trying to be as helpful as possible, made difficult by me not being able to articulate what I needed. He had to find 24-hour pharmacies in the middle of the night as the pain shifted, and I needed immediate relief. My OB had to endure emails claiming I could not handle the discomfort anymore and needed help. Our parents sat helpless on the sidelines.
A month went by before I was able to breastfeed sitting upright, and by then, my milk production, and that beautiful, delicate conversation between nursing baby and lactating mom, had been irrevocably impacted. Feeding would be yet another struggle for which we were not prepared. (A different article!)
, figuring out how to calm the baby, sleep deprivation, and learning to be a parent. (Here are five things to consider having at home after you deliver [link to other article]).
A Shared, Silent Experience
During this difficult time, there was one piece of solace in an unexpected place: my phone. I got a small jolt of comfort and escape with each text, email, and message from friends who initially offered congratulations then stuck around in the messy weeks after for something much deeper. As I started to share my delivery and recovery story, they started sharing their experiences. And not just sharing, but letting it out, catharsis, listening, and hearing. They offered advice and support that got me through dark days, but many also reconnected with their trauma and gave it that name. One of the strongest, most beautiful moms I know also could not sit for a month. One of the earthiest, most natural moms was still holding guilt from supplementing formula early due to recovery challenges that interfered with feeding. Nearly everyone had tears and sutures and gulped stool softeners at double the prescribed dose. Many, although slow to admit it, still had to concentrate to not pee a little when they laugh or sneeze.
These stories and outpouring of sharing suggest that being more open about the realities of recovery ahead of the experience would help new moms prepare for those crucial early weeks. OBs should have basic discussions on the physical realities of lochia bleeding, pain management, and home remedies. Friends should use judgement but share experiences with upcoming new moms in their friend circles and extend the seemingly endless discussions of labor and delivery to include the critical period after. Sisters and especially moms can take the opportunity to share their experiences and be supportive when those not-so-nice realities are happening and help is needed. This extends to cesarean births as well.
On the day I left the hospital, my OB’s parting advice was that I would have amnesia about the recovery period, and she would look forward to seeing me for the birth of a second child. She may be right; women somehow find the strength to endure labor, delivery and recovery multiple times. But in the present moment of transitioning to motherhood, new moms should not feel silenced, shamed or alone in recovery. Discussions with doctors, sharing among loved ones and readily available advice should sit side by side with information about labor and delivery.