Physical effects of a stillbirth

Information on how to cope with the physical effects of having a stillborn baby

Most women agree that the emotional trauma of shock and grief are far worse than the physical effects of stillbirth, but your body is recovering after the birth, and this can be very difficult to deal with.

These are some of the common physical changes that women have after giving birth.

Your breasts and breastmilk

Breastmilk is produced when your hormones drop after having a baby. Your breasts will still produce breast milk after giving birth to your stillborn baby. This can be very emotionally distressful and feel very unfair.

Breast engorgement, sometimes referred to as ‘milk coming in’, is the process by which your breasts fill with milk in the first few days after the birth. It can make your breasts feel very large, tight, painful and tender.

Suppressing breastmilk

You can reduce the symptoms of engorgement, and gradually the amount of milk you produce, by following these steps:

  • apply ice packs (or a bag of frozen peas) covered in a light cloth or cabbage leaves to the breasts to get relief from the discomfort
  • use pain relief such as ibuprofen or paracetamol
  • express small amounts by hand, just enough to ease the pain though, otherwise you will encourage the production of more milk
  • try warm showers, which may allow the breasts to leak naturally.

Using medication to suppress milk

You may prefer to explore the possibility of using medication to suppress breastmilk instead of waiting for it to slow down and stop naturally. There are medicines called dopamine agonists, which stop your breasts producing milk (suppressants). You cannot take these if you had pre-eclampsia. Talk to your doctor about the side-effects of these medications.

‘I was given this medication as part of my hospitals protocol of managing stillbirth. I was very grateful to be given it early on and had no symptoms of my milk coming in which I think I would have found very distressing.’ Kathryn

Donating breast milk

There is the option of donating your milk to the UK National Milk Bank. Donated breastmilk helps other babies whose mothers are unable to provide breastmilk. When a mother is unable to provide any or enough of her own breastmilk for premature and sick babies, donor breastmilk is preferred to infant formula as it contains antibodies to fight infection. Tel: 020 838 33559

After-pains/stomach cramps

It’s common to have after-pains after giving birth. They can feel similar to labour contractions, cramps or strong period pains. This is your womb contracting back to its normal size. Painkillers can help with this.

Bleeding (lochia)

After the birth, you will bleed heavily through the vagina. This is called lochia and it is your body getting rid of the lining of your womb and blood from where your placenta was attached. Everyone is different, but for most it will be heavy for around two weeks and then will be lighter until around six weeks after the birth. At the start it may have some lumps in it. It changes colour from red, to pink, to brown.

Initially the bleeding will be heavy and you’ll need very absorbent sanitary pads. It’s best not to use tampons until after your six week postnatal check because they can cause infection.

If you find you’re losing blood in large clots, you may need to let your midwife know.


You may have some painful stitches if you had tearing or an episiotomy during the birth (cut). Bathe in clean, warm water to help you heal. Dry the area carefully afterwards.

  • Some women find it useful to have a jug of water on hand (in the toilet) so you can clean and cool the area after having a wee.
  • Don’t avoid going to the toilet though. Even if it feels like they will, the stitches are very unlikely to break.
  • In the first few days, take care when sitting down and lie on your side rather than on your back.
  • Stitches usually dissolve by the time the cut or tear has healed.
  • Take painkillers according to the instructions on the pack.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with your midwife or GP if you have any concerns.

Going to the toilet

It can be worrying going to the toilet after giving birth because of fear of the pain, worry about the stitches breaking and the lack of sensation, or control. Although you might want to put off having a poo in case it hurts, try not to get constipated. Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and bread.

It might give you confidence to hold a clean pad of tissues over the stitches while you do a poo. But try not to worry, it’s very unlikely that going to the toilet will affect your stitches.

Drink lots of fluids to keep your urine diluted.


Piles (haemorrhoids) are common after any birth and they tend to go after a few days. Make sure you get plenty of fibre by drinking lots of water and eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains. You need to avoid getting constipated and straining.

If you are worried, or very uncomfortable, talk to your midwife or GP about getting some ointment to soothe the area.

Your pelvic floor

Your pelvic floor holds your pelvic organs (bladder, uterus, bowel and vagina) in place . Its muscles give you control when you go for a wee, supporting your bladder and bowel. You might feel like you have little control of your body in the days after giving birth because your pelvic floor has weakened. If you attempt pelvic floor exercises (where you squeeze and hold the muscles like you are holding in a wee), you might find you have no sensation at all. Don’t worry it should come back. It just takes time.

Your tummy will feel baggy and you may struggle to control your bladder, especially when you cough or move suddenly. It will get better with time, especially if you regularly do pelvic floor exercises.

If, after three months, you’re not seeing improvements with bladder control, you may need a referral to a physiotherapist.

For exercise and postural advice after a stillbirth try this page 

Recovering from a caesarean section

If your baby was born with a c-section, you’ll need to stay in hospital for between two and four days, and you may need help at home afterwards.

You’ll feel uncomfortable and be offered painkillers. You may be prescribed daily injections to prevent blood clots (thrombosis).

Staff will encourage you to get mobile by getting out of bed and walking as soon as possible. They can offer advice on postnatal exercises to help you recover.

You might not be able to drive for up to six weeks.

You’ll need to look after your wound by gently cleaning it and drying it everyday. Please get in touch with your GP if you have any concerns about this, or see signs of infection.

Getting a period after a stillbirth

It is hard to say when your first normal period will happen after giving birth.

It’s likely it will be about four to six weeks after giving birth. However, because of the timing, it can be hard to know whether it is the post-birth lochia, or your first period.

Some women find their first period isn’t like their normal period. Everyone is different. You might find your first period particularly difficult to cope with. This is totally understandable.

Read more about postnatal appointments and your six week check.

  • NHS Choices [accessed 01/09/2017] ‘You and your body just after birth’ Page last reviewed: 25/02/2015. Next review due: 01/01/2018
  • NHS Choices [accessed 01/09/2017] ‘Breast pain and breastfeeding’ Page last reviewed: 29/01/2016. Next review due: 31/03/2018
  • NHS Choices [accessed 01/09/2017] ‘Stillbirth - Afterwards’ Page last reviewed: 03/02/2015.
  • Next review due: 01/02/2018
  • NHS Choices [accessed 01/09/2017] ‘Recovering from a Caesarian section’ Page last reviewed: 01/07/2016. Next review due: 01/07/2019
  • NHS Choices [accessed 01/09/2017] ‘What are pelvic floor exercises?’ Page last reviewed: 30/04/2017. Next review due: 30/04/2020