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Postpartum Incontinence After Childbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Research shows 1 in 3 women experience bowel and/or bladder incontinence during postpartum. Here’s what you need to know. 

7 min read
Postpartum Incontinence After Childbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
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Postpartum Incontinence After Childbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Research shows 1 in 3 women experience bowel and/or bladder incontinence during postpartum. Here’s what you need to know.

Postpartum Incontinence After Childbirth: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Research shows 1 in 3 women experience bowel and/or bladder incontinence during postpartum. Here’s what you need to know.

After giving birth to a child, it’s safe to say one of the last things on a mother’s mind is themself. However, after childbirth, there are a number of significant changes to a woman’s body, one of which can be the ability to control bladder and/or bowel movements.

Now, while postpartum incontinence is quite common and can in some cases resolve relatively quickly following birth, it is essential as a new mum to know how to identify, manage and treat it to maintain your overall health and well-being. Remember, you can’t give from an empty cup, so ensuring your health is at its best will ensure you have the time and energy to give your baby the best care possible.

There are several ways to manage incontinence during postpartum, so read on to find out what you can do to live more comfortably and confidently as you recover from birth.

What causes incontinence during postpartum?

Research states that there’s no single event found to be responsible for postpartum incontinence, but rather a combination of factors that can cause the condition [1].

According to Professor Marlene Corton, M.D., from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, these factors can include:

  • As your baby grows and the uterus expands, there is more pressure put on the bladder, urethra and pelvic floor which can lead to leakage - both during pregnancy and postpartum.

  • Levels of the hormone progesterone change during pregnancy and can weaken the pelvic floor and make it harder for the mother to hold urine.

  • Vaginal delivery can stretch and weaken the pelvic floor muscles and may lead to pelvic organ prolapse, whereby the bladder, uterus or rectum sag into the vaginal canal. This can then lead to urinary incontinence.

  • Vaginal delivery can also result in injury or damage to nerves and muscles in the pelvic floor which may result in bladder control issues.

Out of the types of urinary incontinence, here we’re referring to stress incontinence. This occurs when there is an increase in abdominal pressure which therefore puts pressure on the bladder and can result in urine leaks.

When it comes to faecal incontinence, this can occur in the event of vaginal delivery as the pushing can damage anal nerves and a circle of muscles known as the anal sphincter, which helps you open and close your bowels.

Postpartum women may be more likely to have faecal incontinence if they experience the below before and/or during their pregnancy:

  • Frequent constipation and/or feelings of not completely emptying bowels

  • An inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis

  • A fistula or haemorrhoids

  • A rectal prolapse

  • A condition that affects your brain-bowel communication, such as Parkinson’s or Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

How common is postpartum incontinence?

A review of women one-year postpartum found that in total approximately 30% experience urinary incontinence within the first 3 months following childbirth [2]. Stress incontinence was also found to be the most common type of incontinence.

Research also shows that a woman’s first vaginal birth is likely to induce urinary incontinence [3], and more than 80% of postpartum women who experience stress incontinence symptoms during their pregnancy, can continue to experience it in postpartum if they do not seek treatment [4].

Meanwhile, another study found that at 3 months postpartum, faecal incontinence occurred in 29 out of 948 women (3.1%) [5]. It was more prevalent in women who gave birth vaginally (2.9%) than in those who underwent a cesarean section (1.8%) [6].

pospartum incontinence exercises

Pospartum incontinence treatments

First things first, if you’re experiencing any form of incontinence postpartum, see your doctor for personalised advice on how to manage it. Everybody is different, so it’s important to get the support that’s tailored to your individual needs to ensure you get the most effective treatment.

1. Pospartum incontinence exercises

Pelvic floor exercises are a great way to regain the strength of your pelvic floor muscles, which can also help you better control the release of urine, faeces and wind until it is convenient.

Seeing a pelvic physio is a great way to decipher your level of need and which kinds of exercises will be best for your body and recovery postpartum.

We have some simple pelvic floor exercises for beginners you can try at home. You can also find really helpful pelvic floor exercises and other resources on the Continence Foundation of Australia website.

Timed voiding is a bladder training technique whereby you extend the time between bathroom visits. Starting with only going to the toilet every 30 minutes to an hour (or when you have the urge) and then extending as you can day-by-day to train your bladder into only emptying when you’re ready to.

Remember that you should speak to your doctor before trying this technique. They may also prescribe you medication that can help relax bladder muscles to safely reduce the number of times you’re needing to urinate.

2. Lifestyle changes to manage postpartum incontinence

Maintaining a healthy weight is one lifestyle change that can help manage postpartum incontinence. Carrying excess weight can put pressure on the bladder and pelvic floor muscles, increasing the likelihood of leaks. It is also important to limit consumption of bladder irritants such as caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods.

Other ways you can manage your incontinence include:

  • Stay hydrated with at least 6-8 cups of water a day, unless advised otherwise by your doctor

  • Eat a high-fibre diet with fruits, vegetables and whole grains

  • Avoid constipation and/or straining on the toilet as it also strains your pelvic floor muscles

  • Don’t go to the toilet ‘just in case’, only when you need to

  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, this can include gentle exercises such as walking or yoga, for example

By taking these steps, you can reduce the frequency and severity of urine leaks and improve your overall well-being.

3. Products for postpartum incontinence

Continence management products are great to maintain your comfort and confidence while healing postpartum. For urinary leaks, our European-made incontinence pads are a great option. Unlike menstrual pads which have little to no urine absorbency, these are specifically designed for urinary incontinence and come in four absorbency levels. The range is ultra-thin and discreet, and all boast an innovative ultra-dry core for fast-acting absorbency. Their anatomical shape moulds to your body and the adhesive strips on the pads’ base ensure they stay securely in place.

If you’re experiencing complete urine loss or faecal incontinence, you can opt for pull-up pants. Our range of pull-up pants, also European-made, cater to a range of incontinence levels and provide a higher level of protection for those who need it. Their slimline, anti-leak design means you can live more comfortably and confidently while managing your incontinence.

If you need assistance with choosing what continence management product is right for you, don’t hesitate to call our team of friendly product specialists on 1800 86 11 99 or email them at hello@confidenceclub.com.au. If you prefer, you can also take our online Help Me Choose quiz.

Once you’ve purchased the products you need, they’ll be delivered discreetly to your door. And if for any reason they’re not quite right for you, our It Fits or It’s Free guarantee means you can send them back to us free of charge and get 100% of your money back.

Will postpartum incontinence go away?

While it’s said the six-week mark is the recovery time for postpartum mums, in reality, it can take the body six to 12 months to completely recover. During this time your hormones are still getting back to their pre-natal state, which can affect incontinence. Plus, the uterus contracting back to its original size can place extra pressure on the bladder.

Most cases do resolve within 12 months, however, there is a percentage of women - between 10% and 20% - that can still experience incontinence issues for up to five years after giving birth [7].

You do not have to face the journey of incontinence alone. Keep your doctor updated at each of your postpartum check-ups to ensure you’re getting the treatment needed.