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Postpartum swelling, or edema, occurs because a woman's body has retained fluids during her pregnancy. A number of factors can cause swelling, including consuming too much sodium during pregnancy, hot weather, and being overly active. A woman can also suffer from postpartum swelling as a result of intravenous fluids she received during the delivery. In many cases, postpartum swelling occurs in the ankles and fingers. Some women may have swollen breasts as well. Usually postpartum swelling clears up on its own.
Postpartum swelling in the ankles or fingers can be treated by holding the feet and hands in an elevated position. A new mother can rest with her feet propped up for at least half an hour in an attempt to reduce the swelling. The feet need to be held above the level of the heart.
After birth, a new mother's body will also attempt to rid itself of the excess fluid. The kidneys do their best to rid the body of fluid, so a new mother may need to urinate frequently. Excess fluid can leave the body through the pores too, so women may find that they sweat a lot after birth.
Women usually also experience swollen breasts after birth. The swelling can be from excess milk or a result of edema. Postpartum edema in the breasts can block a woman's milk production so that she doesn't make enough to feed her baby. Massaging the breasts while feeding or pumping can help lessen the edema as it forces milk out.
To reduce the swelling and force milk out, a woman with edema can apply cold, such as an ice pack, to the breast for 20 minutes before pumping or feeding. She can also try a heat pad to reduce swelling and release milk. A heat pad should be applied for no more than five minutes.
A compression bra may be a good option to reduce swelling for a woman who does not plan on breastfeeding. The compression will reduce edema and convince the body to stop producing milk. Women with edema in the legs and ankles may wish to wear compression stockings as well.
In some cases, postpartum swelling can be a sign of a more serious problem, such as high blood pressure or deep vein thrombosis. If the swelling does not go away within a week, a woman should call her doctor. Swelling accompanied by pain in the legs or head can also point to a serious health problem.