What Is Postpartum Constipation?

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What Is Postpartum Constipation?

Constipation is common after giving birth. Characterized by difficult or infrequent bowel movements, many people experience constipation during pregnancy, and it can continue after delivery, or it may occur for the first time after delivery. Generally, constipation is defined as fewer than three bowel movements a week and/or less often than your normal bathroom habits. This condition may persist for a week or longer until your body's elimination system gets back on track.

People who did not have an issue with constipation during their pregnancy might be surprised to develop it after. On the other hand, for someone who has had bowel woes in the past or dealt with them while they were pregnant, constipation may continue or worsen right after giving birth.

Whether the experience is new to you or not, constipation is uncomfortable—especially when your body is still trying to heal from labor and delivery. Postpartum constipation can happen for several reasons. Understanding them can help you find the best treatment and get relief.

Causes

Constipation is often a normal, yet annoying, discomfort that can be caused by several factors related to what's happening to your body before, during, and after you give birth.

Common causes of constipation after childbirth include:

  • C-section: It can take up to 3 to 4 days for your digestive system to start working normally again following major surgery, including a c-section.
  • Damage to the anal sphincter or pelvic floor muscles: The stretching that occurs during labor and delivery can make it more difficult for your body to efficiently move your bowels
  • Dehydration or lack of fluids: Lack of water in the body (and the stool), which might happen due to not drinking water during labor and/or if you were vomiting or experienced blood loss, slows down the body's elimination process.
  • Hormonal changes: Hormonal changes, which begin while you are pregnant and adjust rapidly right after delivery, can slow bowel function.
  • Iron supplementation: Taking iron, which might be given if you are anemic, also slows the passage of stool.
  • Not eating: In response to not eating (at all or as much) during labor and delivery, the body's normal rhythms become sluggish.
  • Perineal pain: If you have pain in your perineal area, for example, after getting an episiotomy or because of postpartum hemorrhoids or from stretching (or tearing) during childbirth, constipation might not be as much a physical problem as a mental one. If you are afraid of tearing your stitches or having more pain, the fear may cause you to retain stool.
  • Using pain medication or epidural during labor: Medications, particularly systemic narcotics, are known to slow down the digestive tract.

Treatment

Depending on the cause and the steps you take to treat it, constipation is likely to resolve within a few days to a week after giving birth. In most cases, you can successfully treat postpartum constipation at home. The best thing you can do is be proactive about prevention and treatment.

Typically, you'll be given stool softeners after delivery while in the hospital and to take home with you after discharge to prevent and/or treat constipation, particularly if you've had a severe tear (third or fourth degree), if you have hemorrhoids, are taking iron supplements for anemia, or are on narcotic pain medicine. If not, or if constipation is a particular concern for you, talk to your doctor or midwife about taking a stool softener.

A mild laxative or fiber supplement might be necessary if other measures don't work. Reach out to your health provider for personalized recommendations or with any questions you may have.

Coping

In addition to medications, there are other at-home remedies that can help you find relief.

  • Drink plenty of water: Aim to drink 8 to 10 glasses a day. Warm liquids such as herbal tea might be helpful as well. The fiber-filled foods you add to your diet will absorb the water you drink. This makes your stools softer and easier to pass.
  • Don't ignore the urge: As much as you might fear more pain, holding on to a bowel movement will only make the stool harder. Try to go (but don't push intensely as that can cause hemorrhoids) when you sense you need to go.
  • Eat well: High fiber foods can be your best defense. Foods such as whole-grain cereals and whole-grain bread, brown rice, beans, and fresh fruits and veggies are excellent fiber-rich foods that get the digestive system moving.
  • Walk: It might seem intimidating—particularly if you are recovering from a c-section—but a little bit of walking (at a slow pace) can help move your bowels. Note that, if you had a c-section, you'll need to get medical clearance from your doctor before resuming any form of exercise.

Constipation and hemorrhoids often go hand-in-hand. If you had a vaginal delivery, you might be more likely to develop hemorrhoids. Straining to pass a bowel movement and having hard stool can make hemorrhoids worse.

When to Call Your Doctor

Postpartum constipation is very common and usually resolves with proper lifestyle coping measures, but sometimes it can be a sign of a bigger problem. There are several "red flag" symptoms that you should be on the lookout for.

Call your doctor if you are constipated and have other concerning symptoms, including:

  • Blood or mucus in your stool
  • Constipation alternating with diarrhea
  • Excessive rectal bleeding
  • Severe, painful bulging in the vagina, vulva, and/or perineum
  • Severe rectal pain
  • Severe stomach pain
  • You do not have a bowel movement by the 3rd day after having your baby
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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. What can help with constipation in pregnancy? October 2020.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Constipation. Updated November 17, 2019.

  3. Turawa EB, Musekiwa A, Rohwer AC. Interventions for treating postpartum constipation. Cochrane. September 23, 2014.

  4. Trottier M, Erebara A, Bozzo P. Treating constipation during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58(8):836-838. PMID: 22893333

  5. Verghese TS, Futaba K, Latthe P. Constipation in pregnancyObstet Gynecol. 2015;17(2):111-115. doi:10.1111/tog.12179