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Postpartum Definition: What does postpartum even mean?

If you run in circles where the term postpartum is relevant, you may hear it a lot, but also not really know its meaning. What exactly does postpartum mean anyway?

Here are a few definitions:

Merriam-Webster defines it as “occurring in or being the period following childbirth” and describes it similarly: “of or noting the period of time following childbirth.” Other sources say more narrowly 6-8 weeks, including this description from “What's known as the postpartum period starts the moment your baby is born and lasts for about six weeks. Sometimes referred to as the puerperium or the “fourth trimester”.”

6-8 weeks? Whew, that is way too short. What I think is meant by that is your uterus has contracted back to its normal size and maybe some people start to feel more like themselves then. But what we miss by defining “postpartum” so narrowly is that we forget to care for the many moms who are still recovering from the major changes of pregnancy and childbirth. Your body goes through so many changes, not just in the uterus, that do not recover quite so quickly. It took many months to grow the baby, and your body adjusted during that time, not just to feed and grow the baby, but also to carry the extra weight in the front of the body…which has impacts on breathing, your back and shoulder muscles, your pelvic floor (even before labor and delivery), and your core. As a society, we don’t talk about these changes much and we certainly aren’t routinely screened for the common physical recovery issues of postpartum.

A Washington Post article from a couple of years ago gets to this point by stating, “Despite the fact that in 2018, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that, to optimize women’s health, postpartum care should become more of a rolling process rather than a single encounter, for many new moms, the six-week postpartum appointment remains the only touch point with the health-care system that birthed her baby.” We take babies to their pediatrician appointments many times during the first year, and often the moms are screened for postpartum depression (which is very important). But there needs to be more screening for the other challenges moms may be experiencing, like neck/shoulder/back pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, core strength, glute weakness, and a lot more.

So, if these challenges are going somewhat unnoticed, how long should we anticipate they persist? In other words, how long is postpartum or what does postpartum mean to me? You’re going to think I'm being a little vague, but hang with me. I say that postpartum is the period of time after having a baby. That’s it. Forever changed in becoming a mom, in more ways than one.

This means that postpartum is the period of weeks, months, and many years after having a baby. When our bodies change to make room for a baby, our muscles adapt to support us. They don’t immediately get back to normal when we have trained them to hold the weight in front of us. That can cause challenges in breathing, back pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, and more – when these aren’t addressed, your body naturally will work to adapt using the muscles that it has grown accustomed to using (instead of your core, which weakens during pregnancy). For example, if you learned to compensate for the weight in the front of your body (i.e., your baby!) by using your back muscles, those will tighten and will need work releasing after having the baby. They won’t release until you re-build core strength. Or, maybe you compensate by clenching your glutes when you stand, possibly even leaning backwards from your hips/low back. Until you restore your core muscles (and even those need to be balanced, because some can take over more than others), and lessen tension and control elsewhere in your body, you could go years and years with challenges produced during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Now I don’t want to go too much further without pausing to say, this doesn’t need to be as ominous as it sounds. I like this definition because it means that we are appropriately recognizing the feat that our bodies underwent in growing and birthing a human. Because there is no defined end time, there is grace in allowing your body the time it needs to heal and strengthen, not comparing it to anyone else’s experience. What I hope it does NOT leave you with is a feeling of being stuck with your symptoms or challenges forever and ever. Rather, if you are struggling years after having a baby, and maybe didn’t realize it was connected to having a baby, you CAN still heal.

When I read some of those definitions above that say postpartum means 6 weeks, I feel discouraged and shocked that we seem (as a society) to expect moms to be “normal” after going through such a feat as creating a human. Becoming a parent (and even becoming a parent for the second, third, etc. time) forever changes us as people, and it changes our bodies too. Let’s give ourselves grace, respect, and time to recover, and, in doing so, honor our bodies that have served us so well.

Because there is a lot that happens physically and emotionally in the postpartum period, I want to include a few links as resources during this time. There are so many more out there, so depending on what you need, please know that it exists! Some of these are very local to Dallas, so use them as an idea for what to find in your community if you’re based elsewhere. And, let me know what else you find so I can add to this list!

Resources for postpartum:

  • My Postpartum Healing and Strength Sessions - geared toward helping you figure out what muscles to strengthen and release, working with you to practice exercises properly, and heal your body after having a baby. More on this page of my site.

  • Healthcare practitioners can examine you and diagnose what you are experiencing, as well as help you understand any related side effects from medication. OBGYNs may be a great start since you likely have one from being pregnant. Pelvic floor physical therapists can help diagnose where you have tightness or weakness and give you exercises to help. One that I hear great reviews about in the Dallas area is Genesis.

  • Breastfeeding resources include nutritionists (who can inform on where your diet can be supplemented to support production) and lactation consultants (who can often inform on supplements but also latching advice, feeding schedules, and stimulating production). Along these lines are lactation cookies which can help stimulate production through the ingredients they use. Among my favorites in Dallas are Oh Baby Bakery and Miracle Milkookies (which also ships nationally).

  • Individual support is also important, and I love when people find a therapist that fits them well. Therapists can help you process the challenges of motherhood, parenting, balancing life, and a ton more.

  • Group support: Something I’ve found really interesting is the idea of group therapy. In Dallas, there are some therapy groups meeting specifically with moms in the early postpartum period. Guided by a therapist, you have conversation with them and group members to process common and shared experiences of motherhood. One I’ve seen recently is with Mend Counseling. Another form of support that isn’t therapy but still a valuable way to connect and relate over shared experiences are moms groups like MOPs (Mothers of Preschoolers) or Early Childhood PTAs (here’s one local to Dallas). These groups meet as moms, for playdates, with/without speakers…just a great way to meet people in a similar life stage, which is awesome for support.

I hope you’ll check these out and share with me anything I can add!

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