Postnatal Care (Puerperium)

oPatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

The puerperium covers the 6-week period following birth, during which time the various changes that occurred during pregnancy revert to the non-pregnant state. Physiological changes during this time include:

  • The cardiovascular system reverts to normal during the first 2 weeks. The extra load on the heart from extra volume of blood disappears by the second week.
  • The vaginal wall is initially swollen, bluish and pouting but rapidly regains its tone, although remaining fragile for 1-2 weeks. Perineal oedema may persist for some days.
  • After delivery of the placenta, the uterus is at the size of 20-week pregnancy, but reduces in size on abdominal examination by 1 finger-breadth each day, such that on the 12th day it cannot be palpated. By end of puerperium it is only slightly larger than pre-pregnancy.
  • For the first 3-4 days, lochia comprises mainly blood and remnants of trophoblastic tissue. During days 3-12 the colour is reddish-brown but then changes to yellow. Occasionally, lochia may become red again for a few days due to thrombi at end of vessels breaking.
  • Perineum:
    • If the perineum has been damaged and repaired it may cause considerable pain, requiring analgesia, and women may prefer to sit on a rubber ring.
    • If the perineum is painful, it is important to check the sutures and check for any signs of infection. Occasionally, sutures may need to be removed.
  • Micturition:
    • Retention of urine can occur (possible secondary to pudendal nerve bruising) and can occasionally require catheterisation.[1]
    • Approximately 50% of women will develop some urinary incontinence and this usually takes the form of stress incontinence. This may persist after the pregnancy. Pelvic floor exercises should be taught and encouraged.[2] 
  • Bowel problems:
    • Constipation may be a problem for a short time and stool softeners may be useful.
    • Haemorrhoids may be more painful after the birth than before. These can occasionally appear for the first time perinatally and these normally disappear within a few weeks.
  • Mastitis:
    • This may be due to failure to express milk from one part of the breast; it can be treated by ensuring all milk is expressed and with cold compresses.
    • It may be complicated by infection with Staphylococcus aureus and require treatment with flucloxacillin.
    • Very occasionally, a breast abscess develops and requires incision and drainage.
  • Backache:
    • This may persist after the birth and affects approximately a quarter of women.
    • Pain may be considerable and last for several months.
  • Psychological problems:
    • 'Third day blues': on days 3-5, a large proportion of women become temporarily sad and emotional.
    • Approximately 10% of women suffer from postnatal depression which may present at any time during the first year after delivery.
    • The precise cause of this is unknown and may involve hormonal changes, reaction to excitement of childbirth and doubts by the mother about her ability to care for the child.
    • Management consists of reassuring the mother and explaining what is happening.

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  • Postnatal psychosis:
    • This affects 1-2/1,000 women and usually appears as mania or depression but women sometimes present with apparent schizophrenia.[3] 
    • It usually begins abruptly at 5-15 days, initially with confusion, anxiety, restlessness and sadness.
    • There is rapid development of delusions, eg baby has died or is deformed, or hallucinations with deepening melancholia.
    • The woman must be admitted to hospital, preferably with her baby.
    • There is limited evidence for the effectiveness of treatment specifically for puerperal psychosis. Treatments used for affective psychoses in general are also appropriate for puerperal psychosis, eg one or more drugs from the antidepressant, mood-stabilising or neuroleptic groups and, occasionally, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).[3] [4]
  • Postpartum haemorrhage:
    • Primary postpartum haemorrhage is defined as loss of more than 500 ml of blood during the first 24 hours.
      • Normally, 200-600 ml blood are lost before myometrial retraction plus strong uterine contractions stop flow.
      • The majority of cases are associated with either an atonic uterus or placental remnants. The rest of cases are associated with laceration of the genital tract, rarely uterine rupture or blood coagulation defect.
      • Treatment in situations where the placenta is still in the uterus is combining controlled cord traction with fundal pressure. If this fails, manual removal of the placenta under general anaesthetic is carried out.
      • If the placenta has already been expelled, treatment includes massaging the uterus, intravenous (IV) ergometrine or syntocinon, or misoprostol, blood transfusion, correction of coagulation defects, bimanual compression of the uterus; urgent transfer to theatre for surgery may be required.
    • Secondary postpartum haemorrhage is abnormal bleeding after 24 hours up until 6 weeks postpartum.
      • Usual causes are:
        • Poor epithelialisation of placental site.
        • Retained placental fragment and/or blood clots (usually detected by ultrasound).
      • The uterus is often found to be bulky and tender with the cervix open.
      • Initially, it is treated with ergometrine intramuscularly plus antibiotics. Curettage is only necessary if bleeding persists despite this.
  • Postnatal anaemia is common and may easily be overlooked.
  • Puerperal pyrexia:
    • Defined as temperature 38°C or above during the first 14 days after delivery.
    • This now occurs rarely.
    • Most cases are due to anaerobic streptococci that normally inhabit the vagina. Initially, they infect the placental bed and then spread either into the parametrium or via the uterine cavity to the Fallopian tubes and, occasionally, the pelvic peritoneum.
    • Alternatively. there may be breast infection or UTI, or a non-infective cause such as thrombophlebitis or deep vein thrombosis.
  • Thromboembolism:
    • This occurs in <1/1,000 births and is more likely to occur in women who are overweight, over the age of 35 or who have had a caesarean section.[5]
    • Deep vein thrombosis: this is indicated by low-grade fever, raised pulse rate and a feeling of uneasiness. Calf muscles are tender and painful on firm palpation. Clinical signs are unreliable (and D-dimer cannot be used in pregnancy and puerperium), so confirmation is needed with colour Doppler ultrasound. Treatment is with low molecular weight heparin and then oral warfarin continued for 6-12 weeks.[6]
    • Pulmonary embolism: dyspnoea and pleural pain and cyanosis may develop later. Friction rub is heard on the chest. Diagnosis is confirmed by a lung perfusion scan performed urgently, as women may die within 2-4 hours. Treatment is with IV heparin bolus followed by infusion.

This is based on NICE guidance.[1]

  • Women should be offered information to enable them to promote their own and their baby's health and well-being and to recognise and respond to problems.
  • At the first postnatal contact, women should be advised of the signs and symptoms, and appropriate action for potentially life-threatening conditions.
  • All maternity care providers should encourage breast-feeding.
  • At each postnatal contact, women should be asked about their emotional well-being, what family and social support they have and their usual coping strategies for dealing with day-to-day matters.
  • Women and their families/partners should be encouraged to tell their healthcare professional about any changes in mood, emotional state and behaviour that are outside of the woman's normal pattern.
  • At each postnatal contact, parents should be offered information and advice to enable them to:
    • Assess their baby's general condition.
    • Identify signs and symptoms of common health problems seen in babies.
    • Contact a healthcare professional or emergency service if required.
  • The mother should start walking about as soon as possible, go to the toilet when necessary and rest when she needs to. She may prefer to stay in bed for the first 24 hours or longer if she has an extensive perineal repair.
  • This is an important time for the woman to be encouraged to breast-feed and learn to care for her infant.
  • Uterine contractions continue after birth and some women suffer after-pains, particularly when breast-feeding, and may require analgesics.
  • Women who chose to breast-feed or bottle-feed often need a lot of advice and support, especially with their first baby (but experienced mothers shouldn't be assumed to know everything and support and advice should always be available).
  • Breast-feeding should be strongly encouraged (first-time mothers may need a lot of support and encouragement initially). Breast-feeding has many advantages, including:
    • Boosting the baby's immune system.
    • Reduction of autoimmune disorders later in life.
    • Reducing risk of cot death.
    • Reducing gastrointestinal problems.
    • Promoting bonding between the mother and her baby.
  • Breast engorgement may cause a lot of discomfort but is usually relieved by good bra support and analgesia.
  • Women who are unable to breast-feed or prefer to bottle-feed also need support and advice, including feeding routines and sterilising.

This is covered in detail in our separate article Postpartum Contraception.

  • Contraception is not necessary in the 21 days after childbirth.
  • Methods that are suitable choices for breast-feeding women include the lactation-amenorrhoea method, barrier methods, intrauterine devices (including the levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system), the progestogen-only pill, injectable progesterone contraceptives, the etonogestrel implant and sterilisation. The combined oral contraceptive pill is not recommended, as it interferes with lactation.
  • The lactational amenorrhoea method is 98% if:[7]
    • There is complete amenorrhoea.
    • The woman is fully or very nearly fully breast-feeding.
    • The baby is no more than 6 months old.
  • Methods that are suitable choices for women who are not breast-feeding include all those for breast-feeding women but combined oral contraceptives can also be used.

Further reading & references

  1. Postnatal care: Routine postnatal care of women and their babies; NICE Clinical Guideline (2006)
  2. Urinary incontinence: The management of urinary incontinence in women; NICE Clinical Guideline (Sept 2013)
  3. Management of perinatal mood disorders, Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (March 2012)
  4. Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance; NICE Clinical Guideline (2007)
  5. Tutschek B, Struve S, Goecke T, et al; Clinical risk factors for deep venous thrombosis in pregnancy and the puerperium. J Perinat Med. 2002;30(5):367-70.
  6. Thromboembolic Disease in Pregnancy and the Puerperium: Acute Management; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2007)
  7. Van der Wijden C, Kleijnen J, Van den Berk T; Lactational amenorrhea for family planning. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2003;(4):CD001329.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
2641 (v25)
Last Checked:
05/11/2013
Next Review:
04/11/2018