Bowel Problems After Childbirth

Why They Occur and What You Can Do

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Bowel problems are common after childbirth. During pregnancy, the organs in your abdominal cavity shift to accommodate the growing baby. It can take some time for your bowel movements to return to normal.

Postpartum diarrhea and constipation are frequent concerns in the weeks and months after childbirth. Roughly 10% of postpartum women also deal with bowel control problems. This includes bowel urgency and fecal incontinence, which describes the inability to control bowel movements.

Mother holding newborn baby.

Chris Ryan / Getty Images

This article discusses the symptoms associated with postpartum bowel urgency and fecal incontinence. It also covers possible causes, treatment options, and prevention tips.

Possible Symptoms

Following pregnancy and childbirth, some individuals may experience the following symptoms:

  • Bowel urgency: This describes the strong urge to defecate, with a feeling of an immediate need to get to a bathroom.
  • Passive fecal incontinence: When this occurs, stool leaks out without you knowing.
  • Urge fecal incontinence: This describes awareness of the urge to defecate, but stool leaks out before you are able to get to the bathroom.
  • Post-defecation leakage: When this happens, stool leaks out after a bowel movement.

How Often Does Fecal Incontinence Happen?

Bowel urgency and fecal incontinence are common the first few months after a vaginal delivery. While less frequently, those who deliver via C-section can also experience these symptoms. In some individuals symptoms go away after months, but for others, symptoms may worsen, and/or return with later pregnancies.

Research suggests that sphincter injuries due to birthing significantly increase the risk of fecal incontinence. About 12% of individuals experience fecal incontinence without having a sphincter injury, while 24% experience this symptom after one injury. The prevalence jumps to 36% if the individual has had two sphincter injuries due to childbirth.

The sphincter is a ring of muscle that helps control the opening and closing of the anus.

Causes

Childbirth can cause bowel problems for a variety of reasons. Factors that increase your risk of experiencing urgency and incontinence issues postpartum include:

  • Forceps: This medical instrument is sometimes used to help guide a baby's head out of the vagina. It is done if labor isn't progressing, or to help the baby get out quickly for medical reasons.
  • Episiotomy: This surgical cut is made in the tissue between the vaginal opening and the anus. While originally thought to help prevent delivery-related damage, it is linked to sphincter injury and fecal incontinence.
  • Anal sphincter injury: During delivery, if the anal sphincter experiences trauma, your risk increases for bowel issues, such as fecal incontinence.
  • Vaginal delivery: When compared to individuals who have a C-section, those who give birth vaginally have an increased risk of postpartum fecal incontinence.
  • Age: Individuals who are 35 and older have a higher risk of delivery complications and associated bowel issues.
  • Obesity: Pregnant individuals who are considered obese have an increased risk of postpartum fecal incontinence.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnancy alone increases your risk of fecal incontinence, even without the factors listed above.

Treatment

Be sure to tell your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you are experiencing bowel urgency and fecal incontinence. Remember, your healthcare provider is there to help you manage your condition.

Treatment will vary depending on your specific needs. Options may include:

  • Biofeedback therapy: This treatment uses devices that help you sense and control symptoms associated with both passive and urge fecal incontinence. It also helps strengthen your pelvic floor.
  • Sacral nerve stimulation: This method uses painless electric pulses to help stimulate the sacral nerves, which help control the sphincter, rectum, and colon.
  • Vaginal balloons: This medical device is placed in the vagina where it can be inflated to put pressure on your rectum. This prevents a bowel movement. Air can be removed when you are ready to have a bowel movement.
  • Prescription drugs: You may be given a prescription medication to help treat any underlying condition that may be causing the fecal incontinence.
  • Injections: Injections may be given around the anus to help the surrounding tissue enlarge. This helps the sphincter close a bit better.
  • Surgery: If less invasive treatments don't work, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. Surgeries vary depending on the individual's needs, but may focus on repairing any existing damage.

Ways to Manage Fecal Incontinence

To help manage and cope with fecal incontinence, there are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Bathroom use: Use the bathroom before heading out and locate a bathroom you can use when not at home.
  • Consider different underwear: Wear washable incontinence underwear.
  • Be prepared: Keep a change of clothes with you.
  • Keep yourself clean: Keep the anal area clean and change underwear and clothes as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Long-Term Problems

Unfortunately, fecal incontinence problems stemming from pregnancy and childbirth can show up years afterward. However, there are steps that you can take to reduce your chance of long-term problems:

  • Train your bowels: Training your bowels means going to the bathroom at the same time every day and trying to have a bowel movement. This can take months to adjust to, but it can lead to improvement over time.
  • Make diet changes: Eating a high-fiber diet and avoiding foods and drinks that tend to cause fecal incontinence can help reduce symptoms.
  • Practice Kegel exercises: Kegel exercises involve tightening and relaxing your pelvic floor muscles in order to build up strength in your anus and rectum.

Summary

While common within the first few months after delivery, some individuals may continue to experience bowel urgency and fecal incontinence.

There are many factors that may increase your risk of experiencing urgency and incontinence issues.

Treatment may include therapies administered by your healthcare provider, as well as pelvic floor exercises, diet changes, and bowel training. In some cases, surgery may be recommended.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can giving birth cause bowel problems?

    It's common for bowel habits to change after pregnancy. Trauma to pelvic floor muscles from childbirth can lead to urinary or bowel incontinence.

  • Is it normal to have digestive problems after pregnancy?

    Yes, digestive issues, including constipation and incontinence, are common after pregnancy. Be sure to let your healthcare provider know if you are experiencing these.

  • Can you develop IBS after pregnancy?

    You can develop irritable bowel syndrome at any time. There is no evidence that it is more likely to develop or worsen after giving birth, but it does commonly begin before age 35.

  • What helps postpartum diarrhea?

    Drink plenty of fluids and avoid foods that may speed up intestinal contractions, such as greasy or fatty foods. If you also have a fever, seek urgent medical care since this can be a sign of infection.

  • When do bowel movements go back to normal after pregnancy?

    In general, bowel movements can go back to normal around four days after delivery.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.