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Postpartum Expectations Versus Reality

Learn about some common postpartum expectations versus the reality of this period, with insight from pediatrician and author Harvey Karp.

Updated April 14, 2024

by Rachel MacPherson

Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Nutrition Coach

Every new mom probably envisions herself swathed in a soft robe, snuggled up with her freshly born baby. Beautiful and glowing, she smiles as she blissfully nurses or feeds a bottle to her beautiful pink-faced baby. These moments are precious, and they do exist, but it’s more the expectation than the reality of what the postpartum experience looks like.

I spoke to pediatrician Harvey Karp, a baby sleep wizard and the author of the popular book “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” about managing postpartum expectations versus reality, including bonding, a lack of sleep, and handling all the new responsibilities of having a newborn.

Expectations Versus Reality: Postpartum

Here, we’ll explore common postpartum expectations and the reality of this period:

1. I’ll Immediately “Bond” With My Baby.

Expectation: I’ll immediately feel a deep and abiding bond with my newborn. I’ll look into their eyes and instantly feel a deep, sacred connection.

Reality: When parents think of bonding, what they often really mean is attachment.1 Many parents feel that an immediate bond will happen when they see their baby for the first time. While this is true for many parents, it’s not always the case.4,6 And when the initial “bonding” feeling seems lacking, you might feel like something is wrong with you.

Attachment is a process.1 The early hours, days, weeks, and months as a parent of a new baby come with many upheaval and adaptations to a new reality. Real attachment forms over time and goes both ways.4 When you’re still pregnant, the profound and life-changing emotions you feel aren’t the same as a genuine attachment. Sincere attachment is a two-way street between you and your child. For that to happen, they need to meet you, too!

Encouraging “bonding” with skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth is excellent.1,4 But many moms miss out on this precious skin-to-skin contact following delivery. If this is the case, don’t feel inadequate or unnecessarily concerned that your relationship with your baby will suffer. It’s simply not true! Attachment forms over time when your baby learns to feel safe, loved, and cared for.5,6 This relationship starts after they’re born and grows over time. So, if you feel like something is “missing,” give it time. The process of attachment is different for everyone.

2. My Body Will Return To Normal After I Give Birth.

Expectation: As soon as I give birth, my belly will go down, and my body will look and feel more like itself again.

Reality: Some women are surprised by what their body looks like after giving birth. They thought once the baby was out, their body would return to normal. But it’s normal for your body to look five or six months pregnant post-delivery.7,8 So, don’t plan on leaving the hospital with pre-pregnancy clothes. Bring something loose to wear or some maternity clothes. Your belly will look a little deflated — not as round as it was with a baby inside — but still swollen. Your body (hands, legs, and feet) might also be swollen from the fluids they gave you during labor. This is normal.9 It takes time for your body to involute and heal after giving birth.10 Remind yourself it took nine months to grow that beautiful baby. Give your body that same time to recover!

Another thing that can come as a shock is postpartum bleeding. You’ll bleed (also known as lochia) for about four to six weeks after giving birth.11,12 This is why you’ll wear large pads or diapers for a while. However, the amount should decrease, and the color should get lighter over time.11,12 Ensure you aren’t on your feet too much to help stop the bleeding.13

Also, your body will be sore no matter how you gave birth — C-section, unmedicated, or epidural.8,15 This is because you did such an incredible thing: giving birth to your child! Your nether regions will be sore, as will your breasts as your milk comes in.9,14 If you’re experiencing a lot of pain, talk to your nurses, doctor, or midwife about what to do and what to take to get through it.

3. Lack of Sleep Won’t Be Too Bad. I’ll Take Naps!

Expectation: I’ll be okay with being tired because I’m used to it. Besides, when the baby naps, I’ll nap!

Reality: All parents expect to be tired after their baby is born. Many people are already used to a lack of sleep. After all, poor sleep habits are rampant in our overworked society as it is.16 But, it seems new parents don’t always expect this next level of exhaustion. As the saying goes, “I wish I was as tired as I thought I was before becoming a parent.” Dr. Karp points out that exhaustion is the number one parent stress.

“On average, new parents get less than 6 hours of total sleep per night, and it’s broken into short stretches. That leads to sleep deprivation, can trigger serious issues like marital stress, anxiety, breastfeeding failure, illness, postpartum depression, car accidents, overweight babies and mothers, and more,” says Karp.

In the early months, you may have to sacrifice other responsibilities. Your house may have to stay messy, the dishes undone, meals ordered in, etc. This is all for the greater good. A lack of sleep is a slippery slope to burnout, which can negatively impact your parenting.17

Surveys of parents show they feel a lot of pressure to do all the “right” things.2 This leads to exhaustion, leading to them doing the wrong things. Then guilt sets in, and they feel more pressure. It’s a cycle you have to let go of, especially if you’re feeling impossibly tired and reaching the end of your rope. (And, hopefully, you seek help before that point.) Contact health and child services professionals and be honest. The more parents reach out and request assistance, the more it will become normalized.

4. My Husband and I Won’t Need Extra Help. It’s a Baby! How Hard Can It Be?

Expectation: My partner and I can handle this on our own. We’re both capable, responsible adults, so we won’t need extra help.

Reality: “Modern parents think that normal moms and dads are supposed to do it all . . . without any help,” says Karp. But this is a new phenomenon, and it’s not how we, as tribal people, are supposed to function. “Historically, nobody ever raised children alone. The proverbial village was literal! Up until a hundred years ago, grandmas, aunties, cousins . . . everyone took turns holding and caring for the baby, so new parents were supported. They need support. Nobody can be awake 24/7 to hold and rock and shush the baby,” says Karp.

According to research, it’s crucial that you keep a picture of yourself as an individual in mind.3 You might feel that all you are is this tired parent struggling to do it all. Balancing expectations is essential in any relationship, including with yourself as a parent. It just isn’t possible to do it all, all of the time. Learn to balance your personal needs with the needs of your child.

Your baby’s needs are probably much less than you think. “You have three main jobs to help your baby thrive: make sure they eat, sleep, and calm their crying,” says Karp. Set some time aside for self-care. Plan a date, even a stay-at-home date, with your partner. Take time for things you used to enjoy pre-baby. Find a support network, and don’t be afraid to lean on it. Dr. Karp recommends groups like La Leche League and local parenting groups.

The Bottom Line

“Be flexible. It’s super helpful to have a plan and expectations, but life — and babies — often throw us curve balls where we have to ditch everything that we ‘thought’ was what we would do and create a new plan without being overly disappointed or self-judging,” says Karp.

The expectation versus reality of the postpartum period is often far different. While it’s good to have goals and aspirations for an easy, happy, blissful “fourth trimester,” don’t forget that this time in any new parent’s life is often more difficult than expected. So, go easy on yourself, moms and dads — you got this!

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Rachel MacPherson
Rachel MacPherson Certified Personal Trainer and Exercise Nutrition Coach
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Rachel MacPherson is a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach who's passion is helping families feel energized to lead vibrant, fit lives. She writes about balancing a healthy lifestyle with… Read more

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