Warning signs of postpartum health problems

Your body goes through many changes after having a baby, so it needs time to recover. In the weeks after childbirth, you can expect to feel certain discomforts, like belly cramps or fatigue, that are a normal part of the healing process. But some women have postpartum complications that can cause serious, life-threatening health problems. If you ever experience pain or discomfort that doesn’t seem “normal,” call your doctor. If you think your life is in danger, call 911 or go to the emergency room. 

Why postpartum care is important

All women need postpartum care after having a baby. Even if you’re feeling fine, go to all your postpartum checkups so your doctor can make sure you’re recovering well from labor and delivery. New moms are at risk of serious and sometimes, life-threatening complications after childbirth, so it’s important to get checked out. Too many new moms die from health problems that could have been prevented by getting the right postpartum care.

Three ways to take an active role in your postpartum health:

  1. Go to all your postpartum checkups.
  2. Take note of any warning signs or unusual symptoms.
  3. Call your doctor right away—or go to the emergency room          

Know the warning signs

Is it a normal part of healing or something else? When you’re busy taking care of a new baby, you might miss the warning signs. Pay attention to the signs below that indicate something could be wrong, as well as signs and symptoms that point to specific health conditions.

Warning signs to look for after giving birth

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Extreme pain

Signs and symptoms of infection

• Fever higher than 100.4 F. When you get a fever, it means your body is trying to kill the virus or bacteria that caused an infection.

• Discharge, pain or redness around an incision site that doesn’t go away or gets worse. This includes around a cesarean birth incision, episiotomy or perineal tear. Cesarean birth (also called a C-section) is a surgery in which your baby is born through a cut your doctor makes in your belly and uterus (womb). An episiotomy is a cut made at the opening of the vagina to help let the baby out during birth. A perineal tear is a tear in the perineum, which is the area between the vagina and the rectum. Your perineum may tear naturally during vaginal birth.

• Pain/burning when you pee, increased urination or pain in your lower back or side. You may have a urinary tract infection (also called UTI), including a bladder infection (cystitis) or a kidney infection (pyelonephritis).

• Red streaks or new, painful lumps in your breasts. You may have a breast infection called mastitis. This can happen when you have a plugged duct, you miss or delay breastfeeding or your breasts become engorged (swollen and full of milk).

• Severe pain in your lower belly. You may have endometritis. This is inflammation (redness or swelling) in the lining of the uterus.

• Vaginal discharge with an odor. You may have endometritis or an infection called bacterial vaginosis (also called BV). BV happens when there’s too much of a certain bacteria in the vagina.

Signs and symptoms of sepsis

Sometimes the body has an extreme response to infection (called sepsis). Sepsis can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and even death. Alert your doctor if you experience any of the signs and symptoms below. 

  • Chills or feeling very cold
  • Clammy or sweaty skin
  • Fast breathing
  • Fast heart rate
  • Feeling confused
  • Fever
  • Having extreme pain or discomfort

Signs and symptoms of other health conditions

Treatment depends on how severe your preeclampsia is and how far along you are in your pregnancy. Most women with mild preeclampsia after 37 weeks of pregnancy don’t have serious health problems. If you have mild preeclampsia before 37 weeks, you need treatment to make sure it doesn’t get worse.

• Bleeding that’s heavier than a normal period or bleeding that gets worse over time. You may have postpartum hemorrhage (also called PPH). PPH is when a woman has heavy bleeding after giving birth. It’s a serious, but rare condition that can happen up to 12 weeks after having a baby.

• Pain, swelling, redness, warmth or tenderness in your legs, especially your calves. You may have deep vein thrombosis (also called DVT). This happens when a blood clot forms deep in the body, usually in the lower leg or thigh.

 • Vision changes, severe headache, pain in the upper right belly or shoulder, trouble breathing, sudden weight gain or swelling in the legs, hands or face. You may have postpartum preeclampsia. This is a serious condition that can develop in women after giving birth. It is marked by high blood pressure and signs that some organs—like the kidneys and liver—may not be working normally.

• Chest pain, coughing or gasping for air. You may have a pulmonary embolism (also called PE). This is when a blood clot moves from where it originally formed to a lung. PE is an emergency that needs immediate attention.

• Feeling sad or hopeless for more than 10 days after giving birth. You may have postpartum depression (also called PPD), which is a form of depression that can develop after having a baby. PPD is marked by strong feelings of sadness, anxiety (worry), fatigue and harmful thoughts. PPD can make it hard for you to take care of yourself and your baby. PPD needs treatment to get better, so talk to your doctor right away.

• Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up. You may have PPH or cardiovascular disease (also called heart disease). Heart disease includes conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. They often affect the heart muscle or involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

If you think your life is in danger, call 911 or go to the emergency room.

Reviewed December 2023