April 10th 2019
Sex & Gynae
What really happens to your body when you give birth
From the dreaded first poo when you’ve had stitches, to suddenly having nipples the size of dinner plates and wondering whether you’ll ever have sex again, Anna Williamson has been there - and wants you to know you're not alone
It's fair to say that your first baby leaves you in bewildered wonder and shock. For the new mother, the focus on the baby can make the days after birth, when your body is making monumental adjustments, a confusing time. Let's face it, the stitches, the piles, the hormonal sweats and exhaustion aren't easy to bring up when you're surrounded by well wishes and flowers. Even going to the loo can feel like climbing a mountain.
TV presenter, life coach and podcaster Anna Williamson knows this better than anyone. She described the birth of her first child Vincenzo in 2016 as “hands down the hardest thing” she’d ever done. “It’s called labour for a reason." It was the hours, days, weeks and months after her baby arrived that challenged her beyond anything she could have imagined, “not just physically, but emotionally and mentally.”
She had already suffered what she called "mental health blips", which she’d documented in her book Breaking Mad, The Insider’s Guide To Conquering Anxiety but pregnancy, birth and parenthood opened up a new world of worry, particularly as some of the issues she encountered, such as exactly what does happen to your undercarriage or why you might gain weight after birth not lose it - were still not widely shared, leaving women feeling overwhelmed and alone.
Here, in an extract from her witty and honest guide to parenting anxiety Breaking Mum and Dad, written in conjunction with Clinical Psychologist Dr Reetta Newell, Anna shares her own post-birth experience, her tips on staying sane and how to brave the post-birth poo.
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Perhaps with the exception of a C-section, our private parts are likely to feel a little battered and bruised after birth – after all, they say it’s like pooing a melon. Ouch!
For all the physical wear and tear of childbirth, it really is a testament to Mother Nature how the body eventually heals itself. Despite this, there’s no doubt that the early days and weeks of anxiety, worry and stress that I felt, and I know countless others endure, weren’t helped by all the physical stuff happening.
Childbirth and what it leaves behind can have a huge impact mentally, causing feelings of anxiety and low mood. This is completely normal – if you weren’t just the teensiest bit worried about your tender fanny, or your suddenly engorged leaky boobs, it’d be a bit odd right?
My boobs, in particular, scared the bejeezus out of me. Having suddenly developed nipples the size of dinner plates and a rather disturbing shade of ‘bruise’ purple and leaking yellow honey-like liquid (the magic colostrum) and then, later, spurting milk all over the shop - I was more than a little irked.
Then there’s what I call the post-birth ‘puff’. The best way I can tastefully describe my undercarriage after all the pushing and shoving, is that it felt like an inflatable lilo. Putting my hand ‘ down below ’ to assess the damage and feel my stitches was more than a little distressing – I worried whether I would ever have nookie again (not that I wanted it, mind!).
It’s true your dignity is left at the door when you give birth. I’d gone from going bright red in embarrassment during a smear test to not giving a flying toss who looked ‘ down there’, so desperate was I to be reassured that it was OK and going to be normal again. It was, thankfully.
A major anxiety trigger for me was the post-birth bleed - lochia. My NCT teacher warned us not to buy a cream sofa or even THINK about sitting on a light -coloured chair after giving birth! This put the fear into me big time at the thought of leaks through my massive maternity pads (what an unsexy bit of kit!) and ruining other people’s upholstery. In reality, it wasn’t half as bad, although many people do experience heavy bleeding and passing of clots for weeks after birth. If you’ve had a C-section, this is less likely since the docs manually remove as much ‘debris’ as possible while you are on the operating table. The bleeding does eventually end, and if you are well prepared it isn’t something to be too freaked out by.
With all the water retention and bloating I honestly looked like a Michelin Man. I puffed up four dress sizes the minute I gave birth. I was a size eight before I was pregnant, a 12 by the end of pregnancy and then blew up to a size 16 straight after birth. I thought you were supposed to LOSE weight the minute you pop a baby and placenta out, not gain it?! Added to that the general bruised and delicate feeling, it’s safe to say I definitely knew I’d just gone through a major life moment and hadn’t just sneezed a baby out Hollywood-style.
There’s no topic that I talk about on social media that gets quite as much traction as Pooing in Peace. If you’re the partner, friend or relative of a new mum, offer to babysit while they pop off for a number two. With a baby in the mix, you can kiss goodbye to being able to go to the toilet alone and for as long you need - and if you’ve been put on those dreaded constipating iron tablets, may the force be with you.
A poignant moment was when I had to take my crying 10-day-old son into the loo strapped in a sling on my chest to soothe him and then artfully contort myself to ‘ do my business ’ without gassing the poor mite. I howled with laughter swapping poo stories with a work pal who was fed up with getting her knees bashed by the occupied baby walker following her as she squats on the loo!
And then there’s even being able to GO to the loo. Is there a more terrifying moment than going for your first poo after giving birth? 24 hours post-partum I waddled along the hospital corridor, open-backed gown exposing my massive Primark knickers, clutching a brick-sized sanitary pad and NHS cardboard poo container (deemed easier to sit on and aim into than the actual lavatory). Not since I was potty trained have so many people been so obsessed with me doing a poo, “to check that it’s all working” said the midwives.
This was a new form of anxiety to add to my already wide range. What if I can’t poo? Will they keep me in another night? Will my stitches hold? It wasn’t actually that bad and the elation at being able to produce what the midwives wanted me to and still be intact, was worthy of a little whoop to myself.
Toilet anxiety becomes a whole new ball game once you’ re a parent. What with keeping the wretched pelvic floor intact, timing your motorway service-station stops to accommodate pelvic-floor accidents, and finding more than a 60-second window in which to have a poo between feeds without giving yourself piles or an anal fissure by rushing it (I’ve done both), going to the loo is a big deal.
How to have a successful post-birth poo and pee
1. If you’re on iron tablets, drink lots and lots of water.
2. Eat lots of poo-inducing foods that are high in fibre, such as dried fruits (prunes are best).
3. Don’t rush. It’s only going to cause more damage. Breathe your poo out rhythmically. Get someone to watch the baby so you can take your time.
4. Don’t be alarmed if blood clots come out as you do a poo. Straining, even gently, is likely to cause your lochia to increase in the early days.
5. If you need to, poo in the bath! The warm water can help the act feel less painful, and the water also helps dilute the stingy acidity of a wee.
6. If you are concerned that you may have burst your stitches while on the loo or that everything is more painful than it should be, seek help.
7. Pour warm water over your front bits as you wee to help with the stinging.
This is an edited extract from Breaking Mum and Dad, the Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety by Anna Williamson (Bloomsbury £12.99).