Unfortunately, the uncomfortable physical changes associated with pregnancy don’t stop after you’ve given birth. During the postpartum period, your body goes through a lot as it returns to normal, pre-baby hormonal levels. One side effect that many women experience is postpartum incontinence or bladder leakage. In fact, 1 in 3 women who’ve given birth will experience bladder leakage at some point in their life.
Although it’s common, bladder leakage is one of those side effects that are not commonly talked about. There’s a stigma around incontinence, and many new mothers feel embarrassed if they’re struggling with it. But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed.
Urinary leakage is perfectly normal after childbirth, but your bladder will return to normal as you get stronger after labor. There are also things you can do to speed up the recovery and manage the symptoms of incontinence.
Below, we discuss everything you need to know about bladder leakage, so you can handle this postpartum side effect with ease and effectiveness.
What Causes Postpartum Incontinence
As its name suggests, postpartum incontinence (or bladder leakage) occurs when urine involuntarily leaks following pregnancy and childbirth. You’re more likely to experience leakage when pressure is placed on the abdomen and bladder, like when you’re laughing hard or doing a strenuous activity.
Hormones are responsible for many of the changes experienced in pregnancy and postpartum, including bladder leakage. When you’re expecting, the increase in hormones causes your muscles to relax in preparation for childbirth. This stretches the muscles everywhere in the body, including those that make up the pelvic floor, which is responsible for supporting the bladder, bowel, and uterus. The pelvic floor stretches even further during natural childbirth.
After giving birth, your pelvic floor will remain extended for some time as the body’s hormone levels return to pre-baby levels. But since the muscles are weakened, it makes you more prone to bladder leakage in the interim.
Risk Factors For Bladder Leakage
Not everyone experiences bladder leakage after pregnancy and childbirth, but there is a range of factors that make you more prone to experiencing this uncomfortable side effect.
As per Pregnancy Birth Baby, Risk factors for postpartum incontinence include:
- Long labor
- Vaginal birth
- Pregnant for the first time
- Bladder problems in pregnancy
- Birthing a baby with a high weight
- A history of bladder or bowel problems prior to pregnancy Difficult labor experience (ie tearing, requiring stitches, and/or needing forceps or vacuum)
Women who have a c-section are at a slightly reduced risk for postpartum urinary incontinence – the risk goes down from 10% to 5% during a first pregnancy. However, the likelihood of bladder leakage rises the more pregnancies you experience. A woman who has 3 c-sections is just as likely to have incontinence as one who delivered vaginally.
How To Manage A Weak Bladder
Since bladder leakage is often temporary after childbirth, most women are able to manage it by simply using pads. You can use menstrual pads, but it’s better to opt for a pad made specifically for incontinence. These are often thicker and more absorbent, thus offering you more relief and comfort.
However, there are a host of other things that can be done to manage bladder leakage and speed up your recovery. They range from lifestyle changes to medical interventions. Some solutions and management techniques for postpartum incontinence include the following.
What you eat can contribute to the severity of your postpartum incontinence. Avoid foods and drinks that are known to irritate the bladder, like coffee, soda, citrus fruit, and spicy options. Alternatively, foods that are rich in fiber can help lessen leakage.
Additionally, be sure to drink enough water. Dehydration leads to concentrated urine, which can irritate the bladder and contribute to more frequent urination. Women generally need 11.5 cups of water per day, but you’ll need to increase this if you’re nursing. Eat Right explains that breastfeeding women require an average of 16 cups of water per day to compensate for the extra fluid needed to produce milk.
Even though you’re no longer pregnant, it’s also wise to avoid smoking and alcohol. Nicotine can damage the bladder’s lining and muscles, thus raising the risk of incontinence. Similarly, alcohol can dehydrate the body, may irritate the bladder, and generally increases a person’s need to urinate.
Get the right exercise
There are certain exercises (known as Kegels) you can do to specifically strengthen your pelvic floor after childbirth. These are often low-impact and easy to do in the comfort of your own home. Most women can begin Kegel exercises shortly after giving birth. But check in with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen to ensure your body is ready for it.
Moreover, maintaining a healthy weight can also help manage bladder incontinence. The more weight you carry (especially around your midsection), the more pressure it puts on the bladder, thereby increasing the symptoms of incontinence. You don’t need to rush to lose the baby weight but be aware that your incontinence is likely to improve as you drop some excess pounds from pregnancy.
Aside from Kegels, some women find relief in training their bladder. Try avoiding using the bathroom for as long as possible. Over time, you’ll find that your bladder becomes stronger and more used to holding it in, thus lessening the incontinence symptoms.
Finally, some women require medical intervention to alleviate the symptoms of urinary incontinence. In severe cases, percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS) can be beneficial. This involves inserting a needle into the ankle to stimulate the tibial nerve. With time, this can block the nerve signals in the spine that control the bladder, thereby improving incontinence.
Another treatment option is a pessary – a soft, flexible device that’s inserted into the vagina to provide support for the pelvic floor. The individual is able to insert and remove the pessary as needed.
There’s also medication as well as surgical options that can help bladder incontinence. Your doctor can provide you with more information if they believe you’d benefit from one of these options.
When To See Your Doctor
The good news is that postpartum urinary incontinence usually resolves on its own shortly after childbirth. What to Expect explains that Most women find it goes away within several weeks, as the muscles and tissue that make up the pelvic floor recover from labor.
For some women, bladder leakage can take a few months to resolve. But if you’re still experiencing incontinence at 6 months postpartum, we recommend speaking to your doctor. You may require intervention to manage the leakage, strengthen your pelvic muscles, and to stop it from turning into a long-term problem.
Sources: Pregnancy, Birth, & Baby, What to Expect, Eat Right, Aeroflow Urology, Dedicated to Women,