The first few weeks after having a baby can feel a little bit like a roller coaster. There are the highs, like seeing your baby’s sweet yawns, coos, and even burps, and the lows, like wondering how you’ll make it through the day feeling so tired. One thing that can add to that roller coaster feeling? The shift in hormones that happens postpartum.
After you give birth your body undergoes a massive shift in the chemicals that control just about every part of your physical being. Some hormones, like those associated with pregnancy, fall rapidly. Others, those associated with feeding and caring for your baby, swing upward quickly. And all these super-fast changes can leave you sweaty, weepy, and wondering why you’re feeling like you’re feeling.
Some of the key hormones that impact your postpartum experience are progesterone, estrogen, oxytocin, and prolactin. Let’s take a look first at the hormones that will drop rapidly once you give birth, progesterone, and estrogen.
Progesterone: According to the National Library of Medicine1 , progesterone helps your uterus grow during pregnancy and prevents it from having contractions prematurely. It also helps prepare your body to make milk once the baby is born. Progesterone levels rise rapidly in early pregnancy and then remain high until delivery. After the birth of the placenta (where progesterone is made for most of pregnancy), your levels will fall rapidly, leading to both physical and emotional side effects. Your body won’t begin making progesterone again until your first menstrual cycle, so you’ll have lower-than-normal levels until that point.
Estrogen: Starting in early pregnancy, this vital pregnancy hormone helps the uterus grow and aids in fetal development. Estrogen levels rise rapidly and peak in your third trimester, and once the placenta is born, your estrogen levels will fall rapidly. Estrogen tends to remain lower than your non-pregnant average during breastfeeding though your levels will rise gradually and be close to your normal when your baby is around six months old.
What Happens When Progesterone and Estrogen Levels Fall?
The estrogen and progesterone crash that comes immediately after birth can cause all sorts of surprising and sometimes uncomfortable side effects. Here’s more on what you might experience:
One of the most well-known impacts of this hormone shift is the “baby blues.” The baby blues refers to the moodiness, weepiness, irritability, and emotional ups and downs that happen in the first weeks post-birth. Many birthing parents report crying for no reason, feeling elated, and then, moments later, sad or irritable, and feeling like their emotions are out of control. “The baby blues are normal,” says Mandy Major, a certified postpartum doula and founder of postpartum care company Major Care2 , “But they should not last more than two or three weeks.” At this point, hormone levels should regulate enough to help you feel a little more even-keeled but, if they haven’t, or you find yourself feeling increasingly emotional or moody, it could be a sign of a postpartum mood disorder like postpartum depression or anxiety. If you have concerns, check in with your provider.
Postpartum night sweats
The fall of estrogen and progesterone also results in some physical symptoms that can feel surprising or uncomfortable. “So many moms I work with are surprised by how intense the postpartum night sweats can be,” says Major. “It’s not something we talk a lot about during pregnancy and can really catch people off guard.”
Postpartum hair loss
Postpartum hair loss, which usually occurs around the 3-month mark, but sometimes later when you’re breastfeeding, is another side-effect of your dropping hormone levels and can leave you feeling like your body still isn’t quite your own.
What Hormones Rise After Birth?
It’s not all bad news though. While the rapid fall of estrogen and progesterone levels can make you feel moody, weepy, and sweaty, it turns out that the hormones of labor and birth, most notably oxytocin and prolactin, are designed to help ease your transition into parental caretaking. Here’s how:
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone3 that impacts both the body and brain of all laboring, birthing, and postpartum people. During labor, your body releases oxytocin, which both stimulates uterine contractions and activates the pleasure and reward centers in the brain. This activation means that birthing parents (and babies who are soaked in the same oxytocin) are primed to bond and fall in love without one another when they finally meet at the end of labor.
While the oxytocin peaks of labor can’t be matched postpartum, it continues to be released in significant amounts each time a baby is held skin-to-skin especially when they breastfeed. “Oxytocin has a calming, pleasurable, feel-good impact on the birthing parent,” says Dr. Sarah Buckly4 , a family physician, international expert on the hormones of labor and birth, and author of Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Early Parenting Choice. “It also has a physical effect on the body, it turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, also thought of as the calm and connect, rest and digest system, and turns down the sympathetic nervous system; it makes [the birthing parent] more relaxed, more receptive and responsive to her baby and helps make more milk.”
While this oxytocin bath is important, it’s not something that all birthing parents will experience in the same way. If your baby was born via c-section or your labor was impacted by pain medication or medication to augment contractions, the lack of oxytocin can make it feel tougher to weather the emotional fluctuations of new parenthood. Birthing parents who had their labor augmented with Pitocin (a synthetic form of oxytocin that causes contractions but does not impact the brain like oxytocin) and those who were separated from their baby at birth are more likely to experience postpartum depression or anxiety than those who had a physiological birth and remained in contact with their baby postpartum. But many people experience these things without any further issues. Regardless, it’s a good idea to have a support system in place before the baby comes, to allow for any variables. Having friends and family drop off meals, come walk your dog or even lining up a therapist just in case, may help you feel less overwhelmed.
Prolactin has one major job: it helps your body make milk. Prolactin levels rise during pregnancy, surge after birth, and then remain high until you begin to wean. While prolactin doesn’t seem to impact many other systems in the body, you’ll likely notice colostrum leaking from your breasts in the days immediately postpartum and then feel your milk begin to increase in quantity 2-5 days post-birth. Prolactin levels stay high while you’re breastfeeding and function to help delay ovulation in many breastfeeding people.
When Will I Feel Normal Again?
With dropping levels of progesterone and estrogen and surging levels of oxytocin and prolactin, your postpartum body might feel pretty unfamiliar at first. Usually, you’ll start to feel markedly less emotional within 2-3 weeks of birth and the physical symptoms of these hormone shifts (like night sweats) will disappear by about 12 weeks. If you breastfeed, you can continue to expect surges of oxytocin every time your baby nurses. And, while each person is different, the hormones associated with exclusively breastfeeding a baby can delay your return to fertility (and its associated hormone cycle) for at least six months.
What Can I Do to Make Postpartum Feel Easier?
While it’s normal for big life transitions like having a baby to feel hard at times, there are things you can do to feel a little better during the tough parts. “Building a postpartum care team is important,” says Dr. Buckley. “It can be difficult to imagine how vulnerable you may be postpartum and just how much your baby will need you. Having help and support during the first six weeks can make a significant difference in how you’re able to heal and care for yourself and your baby.”