9It’s extremely common to experience postpartum swelling (edema) for a time after your baby arrives. After giving birth, you may be expecting all that puffiness and swelling you had during pregnancy to immediately go away. This happens because your body retains fluids after birth, especially in your legs, ankles, feet, and face, that it had been storing throughout your pregnancy.
When you’re pregnant, your body increases the production of blood and fluids to help prepare your skin, muscles, and joints for stretching as your baby grows. It also softens the tissues and joints in your pelvis to allow it to stretch during delivery.
These extra body fluids account for around 25% of pregnancy weight gain. After delivery, your body could still hang onto about 6.6 lbs (3 kg) of fluids.
Although postpartum edema is common and natural, there are ways to ease the discomfort. It’s also important to know what signs to watch out for that might indicate a problem or abnormality. So we’ve put together a guide to help you understand how to treat edema and when you may need to consult your doctor if it becomes an issue.
You may notice that you have swollen feet after birth or swollen legs after c section. Whether you had a vaginal delivery or cesarean, it’s normal to experience postpartum swelling.
Most postpartum edema will be in the legs and feet and in the face, however, it’s not uncommon to have swelling in the hands and arms, as well. Every woman is different, so your body may distribute fluids in some areas more than others.
Your skin may appear tight, and even shiny, due to swelling, but other than some normal discomfort from the swelling, you shouldn’t experience any pain.
The swelling should also be even. For example, if you have swollen feet after birth, then both feet should be equally swollen.
Other postpartum swellings can occur at incision sites if you had a c section or you had an episiotomy or perineal tear. You might also experience breast engorgement when your milk comes in, which will be relieved once you start breastfeeding, and you might have hemorrhoids that developed during pregnancy or due to pushing during labor.
Causes of postpartum swelling
When you have a vaginal birth, the pushing and pressure exerted to deliver your baby can force the fluids out of the womb and abdomen area to your face and extremities. If you had an epidural, you would have had an IV with fluids to keep your blood pressure stable during birth.
It might seem strange that you would have swelling after c section, but during a cesarean, you would have also received an IV with fluids, which then linger in your body after delivery.
Swollen feet after c section might last a bit longer than if you’d had a vaginal birth because you likely won’t be able to get up and move around as much while you’re recovering from the cesarean.
Another culprit for those postpartum swollen feet is progesterone. During pregnancy, your progesterone levels go up, which has a side effect of retaining water. Once you give birth, progesterone levels will go back down, but your body will hang onto that extra fluid until it can be flushed out of your system.
Lastly, too much salt and caffeine, and not enough potassium, can increase the likelihood of swollen feet after birth.
Hot, humid weather also causes swelling, so depending on when you have your baby, you may be more prone to postpartum edema in the summer months.
Postpartum swelling treatments
Although you can’t make your postpartum swollen feet instantly return to normal, there are some things you can do to alleviate the discomfort and even help the process go by more quickly.
Drink a lot of water
As counterintuitive as this sounds, water actually helps your body flush the excess fluids out through your sweat and urine. Staying hydrated is the #1 way to reduce the swelling and get your body back to normal.
Elevate your feet and hands to reduce postpartum swelling
When you’re sitting or lying down, prop your legs and feet on some pillows to get them elevated above your heart. This keeps fluids from pooling in your lower limbs and can help alleviate postpartum swollen feet. If your hands or fingers are swollen, elevating them above your head will have the same effect.
Avoid standing on your feet for too long
It’s difficult to not be on your feet when you’re taking care of a newborn, but standing will cause fluids to gravitate more to your legs, ankles, and feet. Whenever you can, try to sit or lie down. However, be sure to not cross your legs when sitting as this restricts blood flow and the flow of fluids trying to leave your body.
Do some light exercise for postpartum swelling
Although you’ll need to rest after giving birth, especially after delivery by cesarean, it’s important to try to get up and move around. Don’t overdo it, but even walking and some gentle yoga and stretching will move fluids around and help your body eliminate them. Specialized postpartum exercises are the best choice!
Reduce salt intake
Salt is one of the biggest causes of fluid retention, and although the lack of it won’t reduce your postpartum swelling any faster, consuming it will definitely prolong it.
Stay away from processed foods
A lot of processed foods contain high levels of sodium and sugar, which cause inflammation and water retention in your body. Stick to natural health foods, especially in the first week or two after childbirth.
Eat foods high in potassium
Your body balances fluids via electrolytes. These electrolytes, including salt and potassium, work together to maintain that balance.
Increasing potassium intake naturally reduces the amount of sodium in your body.
The best foods high in potassium are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Peanut butter
- Baked beans
Supplement with fluid-reducing vitamins and foods
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), found mostly in red meat and brown rice, can help reduce mild fluid retention. Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) helps your body eliminate excess fluids, as does Vitamin D and calcium. You can find these in low-fat dairy and fresh fruits.
Calcium, manganese, and magnesium can also help with fluid retention caused by hormones. This happens due to high levels of progesterone during pregnancy and the time after childbirth. Dandelion tea is thought to also help your body excrete extra fluids, and garlic and onions help increase circulation.
Reduce consumption of caffeine and dehydrating drinks
Coffee, caffeinated teas, soft drinks, and alcohol act as diuretics, removing water from your body. However, these can cause you to become dehydrated, which can trigger your body to retain water as a protective response. Instead, stick to herbal teas or water until the postpartum swelling goes down.
One note worth mentioning regarding diuretics is that water pills can reduce fluid retention, but it’s better to stick with natural solutions like adding lemon and other citrus fruits or cucumber to your water. If you do decide to use water pills, consult your doctor first, and don’t use them during pregnancy.
Try to keep yourself cool
Wearing light, loose-fitting clothing and using a fan or air conditioner can help prevent further swelling. It may be difficult to escape the heat during summer, but staying cool will help you feel more comfortable.
Use cold compresses on the swollen areas
If swelling after c section or vaginal birth is too uncomfortable, a cold compress can help. Much like treating a sprained ankle, ice reduces swelling in the area to which it’s applied. Just be sure to wrap the compress in a towel first to protect your skin from the intense cold.
Wear loose, comfortable shoes
Tight shoes constrict your feet and reduce blood circulation, which can prevent your body from moving excess fluids from your feet to be eliminated. Avoid wearing high heels as they can cause fluids to move down to your feet.
Wear compression stockings for postpartum swelling
Compression socks are popular with people with diabetes, varicose veins, poor circulation, and those who fly frequently. This is because compression stockings reduce the size of blood vessels in the legs, which increases blood flow, causing the vessels to circulate more blood in a shorter time.
According to a 2017 study, compression stockings also helped reduce postpartum swelling within 24 hours of childbirth.
Although more research is needed, many women report finding relief and reduction of discomfort by wearing compression socks. Best results were found when the stockings were put on first thing in the morning when getting out of bed.
Use a foam roller
A lot of active people and athletes use foam rollers to ease tight and sore muscles because the roller encourages blood flow to the area. Similarly, a foam roller can be used on swollen legs and ankles to get blood and fluids circulating through your veins more quickly. It may ease some of the tightness and discomfort, too.
Get a postpartum swelling massage
Postpartum massage has a lot of benefits. Not only does it help relieve tension and stress, but it helps your body rebalance hormone levels and lower cortisol, the stress hormone. In addition, massage stimulates blood circulation, which will help your body eliminate fluids more quickly. It can also reduce pain and discomfort caused by swelling and leave you feeling calm and relaxed. Just be sure to find a therapist who is certified or specialized in postpartum massage therapy.
How long does postpartum swelling last?
Postpartum edema usually goes away within the first one or two weeks after giving birth. Your body needs time to flush out the extra fluids through your urine and sweat, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
The recovery mostly depends on:
- The amount of activity you get
- Your water intake
- Food you consume
When to see a doctor
While postpartum swelling is completely normal, there are situations where other symptoms can indicate a more serious problem.
Following are warning signs that you should seek medical attention:
- You experience severe pain, excessive swelling, discoloration, and/or heat, and redness in one leg. This is a sign of a blood clot called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which requires urgent medical care.
- Vomiting, blurred vision, light sensitivity, a recurring or continuous headache, and dizziness are signs of postpartum preeclampsia (high blood pressure and too much protein in the urine). This is a serious, even fatal, condition, so get emergency help if you experience these symptoms.
- Fever, increasing pain, redness, and leaking, and/or foul-smelling discharge from your cesarean or perineal incisions are signs of infection and should be treated by a doctor immediately.
- If you have severe swelling accompanied by chest pain and shortness of breath, this could indicate a heart condition like peripartum cardiomyopathy or a blood clot in your lung. Both are extremely serious and should receive emergency medical attention.
- You should also call your doctor if swelling increases over a few days instead of decreases, swelling comes on suddenly, or your finger leaves an indentation in your skin after pressing the swollen area (pitted edema).
Postpartum swollen feet, legs, hands, and face are a normal part of childbirth. The amount of swelling and how long it lasts depends on multiple factors. These include your own body, your metabolism, sleep, nutrition, and how much movement and exercise you get.
Although it’s rarely serious, it’s good to know which symptoms you should be on the lookout for. For all normal cases, you now have an extensive list of ways you can reduce discomfort and speed up recovery.
If you have any experience with postpartum edema or swelling after c section, share your story in the comments. Additionally, let us know if you have any other remedies that worked for you for treating or reducing postpartum swelling. We can all help each other get through this uncomfortable and inconvenient post-pregnancy phase more quickly and easily.