What is postpartum swelling?

You probably experienced some swelling, also called edema, during pregnancy around your ankles, face, or belly. But it doesn’t seem fair that the swelling would continue after delivery.

Many women experience postpartum swelling of the face and extremities like the hands, feet, and legs. Some will also experience swelling around the incision from a cesarean delivery, or at the perineum if there was an episiotomy or tear.

As you wait for your kidneys to kick into gear, you can manage postpartum swelling with some of the same methods used to treat swelling during pregnancy.

Try these seven ideas to find relief:

1. Avoid standing for too long

If you must be on your feet, try to take frequent breaks when you can rest with your feet elevated to improve circulation. When you’re sitting, try to remember not to cross your legs. It restricts blood flow.

2. Wear comfortable shoes

Try wearing shoes that don’t constrict your feet. Avoid high heels if you can. Avoid clothing that’s tight around the wrists and ankles. Instead, opt for clothing with a looser fit so you’re not taxing your circulation.

3. Drink plenty of water to help flush your system

It may seem counterintuitive when you’re already retaining so much fluid, but drinking water will actually help reduce your body’s water retention.

4. Avoid processed foods

Many processed foods contain high amounts of sodium, which can cause bloating and aggravate postpartum swelling. Instead, eat a healthy, balanced diet with good sources of lean protein and lots of fresh fruits and veggies. Try to keep sugar and table salt to a minimum.

5. Try to stay cool

If it’s a hot day, keep your outside time to a minimum and stick to shady spots. If you have access to a pool, you’ll find that offers comfort to reduce postpartum swelling.

6. Use cold compresses

Use a cold compress on particularly swollen areas, like your hands and feet.

7. Get moving

Even light exercise like an easy walk can offer relief by encouraging circulation. Be sure to speak with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

What causes postpartum swelling?

During pregnancy, your body produces about 50 percent more blood and fluids than it usually does to meet the needs of your growing baby and the placenta.

All of that extra fluid helps soften your body so that it can better accommodate your baby as they grow and develop in the womb. It also prepares the joints and tissues in your pelvis for the stretching that will come with delivery. About 25 percent of the weight gained during your pregnancy comes from these extra fluids.

During labor, all of that pushing can force extra fluids to your face and extremities. If you give birth via cesarean delivery, intravenous (IV) fluids can also cause postpartum swelling.

Other potential causes of swelling during and after pregnancy include:

  • hot weather and humidity
  • standing upright for long stretches at a time
  • long days filled with lots of activity
  • consuming high amounts of sodium
  • consuming high amounts of caffeine
  • a diet low in potassium

When is postpartum swelling a problem?

Minor swelling around your cesarean delivery incision scar or the perineum (the area between the vaginal opening and the anus) is very common. If you had a cesarean delivery, follow your doctor’s directions for keeping your incision clean and comfortable.

While minor swelling is expected, it shouldn’t be accompanied by:

  • leaking discharge
  • redness
  • increasing pain
  • fever
  • foul odor

These symptoms can indicate an infection. Contact your doctor if you’re experiencing them.

While you may find your swollen hands and feet uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be painful.

If you notice that you’re more swollen on one side than the other, experiencing isolated pain, or one of your legs or feet is discolored, this could be an indication of deep vein thrombosis. This is a blood clot, usually in the leg. It can be a very serious problem, so call your doctor right away if you experience these symptoms.

The takeaway

Remember, postpartum swelling is a normal part of the recovery process after labor and delivery. Contact your doctor if you aren’t feeling relief after a few days or if you notice increased swelling or localized pain.