What is the postpartum period and how long does it last

While there is a lot of discussion around the postpartum period, when it comes to a woman’s recovery from giving birth, these discussions are often missing anything about the postpartum timeline. The postpartum recovery timeframe is completely left out. With more attention being given to women’s recovery and needs in the postpartum period, more research and information has also become available about the amount of time a woman needs to recover and what is “typical” when adjusting to new parenthood.

It is always good to know what to expect so that you can make the best decisions for your family. Here are the two primary postpartum periods and what each means for your recovery and adjustment.

How long after birth is considered postpartum? 

Phase #1: Birth to six weeks

Why this is considered the “primary” postpartum stage: the physical side effects are most noticeable and change most rapidly. Your body is made to give birth and is made to raise children, so it is also made to heal pretty quickly from labor and you will notice!

What’s happening physically

In the first postpartum period, your body is healing from either a vaginal birth or caesarian, both of which require a lot of rest and attention. These are some of the most common physical changes taking place after your baby’s birth to six weeks:

Losing water

You will likely find that you urinate more often than you are used to, even after surviving the third trimester. Sweating during the night will also be something that you (and your partner!) will notice. Sleeping on a soft, large, beach towel will help.

Pain “down there”

Vaginal discomfort and pain will be one of the most significant postpartum period ailments. It will also be one that you will see clear quickest. Expect to be fairly uncomfortable for ten days to two weeks. If you had a c-section allow more time for your incision to heal as well.

Breast engorgement

We told you that you’d notice the changes during this stage! As your body works to produce enough milk for your new baby and then some, those breasts will swell up. This may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it is also temporary.


After pains” occur for the same reason as does cramping in the first two trimesters. That is, your uterus is changing in size and can lead to cramps that feel a lot like menstrual cramps. This should only last about a week after giving birth.


Postpartum bleeding, also known as lochia, is another common, noticeable, and quickly evolving postpartum period symptom. This can last to the end of the initial six-week postpartum period. Your doctor or midwife will tell you what is considered normal.

What’s happening mentally


Once again, hormones come into play in the first postpartum period stage. According to Gwen Dewar, Ph.D, stress hormones, epinephrine and cortisol, rise by 500% during labor. As with the other enormous hormonal fluctuations, this spike can require a period of recovery. Add in inevitable sleep deprivation, a crying baby, and physical pain and stress will be one of the most severe postpartum symptoms you will experience.

Mood swings

The hormones that were already a bit “all over the place” will be joined by a huge dose of adjusting to life with a new baby around, which is fun, touching, and overwhelming all at once. If you find yourself feeling the “baby blues” during the first six weeks it is likely just because your body is trying to hard to keep up. Speak to your partner, to your support network, and give it time. Know which symptoms are considered baby blues and when it is time to seek professional support.

Phase #2: six weeks to six months 

Why this is considered a part of the postpartum period: studies show that after the most noticeable physical recovery takes place that mothers adjust, develop, adapt, and recover in new ways that are crucial to their long-term well being. The attention given to this postpartum period is helping more women to understand that it is okay not to feel like their pre-pregnancy selves for months or to feel like they need more than six weeks to recover. This awareness is encouraging more and more companies to expand their maternity leave benefits.

What’s happening physically

Muscles start to show noticeable repair

Ready for your tummy muscles to return to normal? This isn’t likely to happen in the first six weeks after your baby arrives. Closer to six months is when you will start to see the connective tissue of the abdominal muscles fully repair and for you to feel like you are “getting your body back.” Be patient, your body is doing what it needs to do to heal.

To read more about your post-baby abdominal muscles and how you can be proactive about your recovery check out our interview with postpartum Pilates instructor Charlotte Blake here: Your body after baby: what you don’t learn at the six-week visit.

Milk production will start to shift

If you are breastfeeding you will start to notice a big change in your supply at the six-month mark. This is due to your baby’s eating schedule or your pumping schedule having stabilized by this time and your body not working so hard to produce milk.

You may get your period again

This looks a bit different for everyone, but by the six-month mark, your hormones will have returned to pre-pregnancy levels that are conducive to menstruation.

Hair just isn’t the same

Was your hair more luscious than it has ever been during your pregnancy? That is because pregnancy hormones prevent natural hair loss, causing it to get thicker as your pregnancy progresses. Sadly, as your hormones return to normal, your hair will start to naturally fall out again and may even fall out at a faster rate than you were used to before in order to play a bit of catch up. Taking your prenatal vitamins will help, and you may want to refrain from using your blow dryer or flat iron too frequently from the six to twelve-month postpartum period.

What’s happening mentally

Confidence goes on an upswing and mood stabilizes 

As hormones balance back up so will your mood. This, combined with becoming acclimated to your new life will help you to start to feel like “you” again. Doctors advise that mothers who find symptoms of sadness or depression lingering after the six-month mark speak to a professional about addressing the issue.

Mommy brain

If you still find that you are forgetful, confused, and absent-minded six months after you give birth, remind yourself (if you can remember to!) that mommy brain can last up to an entire year postpartum.

Want to learn more about what causes mommy brain and get some tips on how to cope? Read our article: Pregnancy Brain.