New mama skin; the container for your body but also the container for your soul. What do I mean by soul container? How you identify with yourself, and how you relate the world around you to who you are, who you are becoming or who you used to be. Having a baby is one very large and incredible transition, especially if it's your first time becoming pregnant, growing a baby, birthing it and then breastfeeding- your body does some incredible things.
I wish every single woman could ignore the less desirable changes and embrace the sheer amazement of what our bodies are meant to do. However, I know we aren't perfect women and struggle with our physical "imperfections". I think the idea of perfection is total crap, but I also think we are allowed to discover things about ourselves that aren't most ideal and we shouldn't feel bad for noticing things aren't the way they used to be.
And where does this new mama skin come from? What changes are most common? As a doula, childbirth educator, apprentice midwife, and of course as a mother myself I have seen and heard about a lot of skin transition. Women share acne, pigment darkening, stretch marks, itching/rashes and varicosities during pregnancy (and so much more less common). Some of these items linger into postpartum where we also see nipple soreness take its turn on the transition ride. Everyone is different in their experience, some see it all, or none at all but most of us fall somewhere in between.
Hormones, hormones, hormones. The surge of hormones that help you to get pregnant, give your baby a nice place to grow and then establish lactation are all to blame, and for additional physical changes as well. And since there isn't a lot you can do about that, what CAN you do to help your skin before during and after pregnancy?
I'm a big advocate of nutrition for skin health. I don't think there's any one secret supplement or food that will do it for you. I think a balanced diet of all different types of organic fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and proteins, and plenty of hydration is the most solid foundation of skin health. Some women find their reactions to food to be more sensitive after becoming pregnant and may notice that certain items don't sit as well with them as before. Listen to your body; often its dairy and sugar and processed items that can make your skin breakouts and irritations worse.
Check in with your family tree; see how your mom and aunt's skin did after becoming pregnant. This seems to be the biggest known predictor of stretch marks and pigmentation changes. The good news about stretch marks is that although they start out dark, they often lighten up pretty quickly after birth. And same with darkening of skin on your face or belly. It sure doesn't hurt to keep the skin supple and soft on the outside with a good Shea, coconut, or jojoba oil. The plainer the better, and I am a big fan of food grade items on the skin (our largest absorbing body organ, remember).
Itching on the belly while the skin is stretching out to accommodate a growing baby is the most common reason for itching in pregnancy. Other mild rashes can appear due to food or detergent sensitivities that happen once getting pregnant as well. When an itchy rash is not normal in pregnancy is if it's intense on the palms of hands or soles of feet, or a bumpy and extremely itchy rash that covers the belly and/or most of the body. This may be an indication that something else is going on and you should contact your primary care provider for clinical input. Most of all these irritations resolve to normal again as soon as baby is born.
One of the most uncomfortable skin changes is varicosities. This includes varicose veins on the legs or labia, and hemorrhoids. Although they are extremely common, they can be quite a pain, literally. And these often do not mysteriously disappear with the birth of your baby. They are usually caused by an increase in blood volume mixed with the hormone relaxin (that really does actually relax everything) and they are more difficult to get under control, although do usually start to decrease after birth. If they are on your legs, compression and elevation are the best remedy. If they are hemorrhoids, keeping your bowels moving regularly and stools soft with lots of fiber and hydration will help you to stay as comfortable as possible.
With all the wacky skin things that women go through in pregnancy, the most memorable for women usually comes in the postpartum period with sore nipples. The skin on your nipples has likely never been manipulated this way, and so frequently as when you are nursing. It's normal to have some soreness but excessive cracking or blistering and bleeding can mean a lot more pain than may be necessary. Some of the things you can do to help prevent extremely sore nipples are making sure your baby has a proper latch. Hands down this is the single most important concept to nipple skin health and comfort. Make sure you have access to a breastfeeding professional that can assess your baby's latch with you. A good latch shouldn't give you much more of a sensation than "pulling". But it is difficult to learn all this for the first time along with your new baby.
If you have already reached the point of nipple injury and know that the latch has been corrected, here are a few ideas to get them healed as quickly as possible: After each feeding express a drop of breastmilk onto your nipple, rub it over the nipple with a clean finger and let it air dry. If you need some soothing, check out the cool gel compresses for nipples available where breastfeeding supplies are sold. If you find yourself requiring even more soothing, a dab of coconut oil after the previous suggestions may help speed recovery along.
It's easy to feel a little bit (or a lot) disconnected to your physical self after having a baby. Your body just did some things that have previously been pretty unfamiliar to you. What amazes me more than anything is that none of the incredible things your body does is an intellectual process. You don't have to THINK your body into fertilization, gestation, birthing or breastfeeding; your physiological self takes care of this completely. There is a certain trust, and comfortability in that trust that can help you acknowledge the changes in a healthy way, do what you can to ease the transition and ultimately embrace the new skin you are in.
Tiffany Alblinger is a mom, doula and placenta encapsulation specialist who has long been writing informative articles on women's health surrounding the childbirth year. She serves all of San Diego, but provides the most rapid placenta encapsulation service to the Encinitas, Carlsbad, Poway and Solana Beach areas. Contact her about placenta encapsulation today!