At last! You’ve spent nine months battling stretch marks, back pain and swollen feet but now your baby is in your arms and you can finally look forward to getting your body back. Not so fast . . . there’s another side-effect of pregnancy that isn’t often talked about and it usually happens a few months after delivery. For many women pregnancy makes their hair so thick and shiny they could easily star in a hair commercial – it’s one of the positive side-effects of elevated hormone levels.
But then things change –soon after giving birth many women are often in for a nasty surprise as they find that they’re suddenly starting to lose hair at a rapid rate. After their morning grooming routine, for instance, some women will notice a lot more hair caught in the brush.
So what’s going on? It’s a condition known as telogen effluvium (TE). Stressful events such as major surgery, severe psychological stress and medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid gland can all trigger it, resulting in noticeable hair loss. But for women who have just given birth it’s perfectly normal. In fact, it’s thought to affect up to 50% of mothers postpartum.
We are accustomed to shedding hair at a steady rate – the average person loses about 50-100 hairs a day. But during pregnancy raised oestrogen levels will ensure that a higher percentage of hair follicles will be in the anagen (growth) phase of the human hair cycle, which means that less hair is shed, Dr Suretha Kannenberg, a dermatologist at the University of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, explains.
After delivery it’s possible that up to 60% of a woman’s hair that was in the growth stage will at last enter the telogen (resting) phase – as a result, all the normal hair that should have been shed during pregnancy will now start falling out.
But don’t stress – this is completely normal, Kannenberg points out. It’s not so much a hair-loss problem but more a “body-returning-to-normal” condition as hormone levels stabilise. And thankfully the hair doesn’t usually all fall out at once. What generally happens is that hair shedding increases steadily after a woman gives birth, peaking at about three months after delivery, as the body plays catch-up.
“Unfortunately there’s no way to prevent this,” Kannenberg says. “But it’s highly unusual to lose all the hair during TE. So even if the hair loss is dramatic, complete baldness is highly unlikely.” It usually settles around six to 12 months after birth, she adds.
US reality TV star Toya Wright, actress Naya Rivera and SA entrepreneur Mpumi Ledwaba have been open about it happening to them after pregnancy.
The TV personality took to Instagram to share her experience after giving birth to her daughter, Reign, in 2018. “Postpartum alopecia is so real,” Toya (now 35) wrote. “I didn’t know why my hair was falling out. I just noticed my edges and the middle of my hair were getting super thin.”
She discovered that every time she washed her hair she seemed to lose more of it. “I’ve always had full edges,” she added.
“I did some research and found out that new moms are surprised to be shedding more hair than usual in the first few months after giving birth, but it’s perfectly normal. There’s no need to panic: you hair should be back to normal around your baby’s first birthday. That’s way too long to be without edges but it’s a part of the beauty of giving birth.”
The actress has been open about her hair loss after giving birth to her son, Josey, in 2015. “There’s a real postpartum hair-thinning issue, and nobody talks about it because women are so embarrassed to admit they’re losing their hair,” Naya (now 32) said in an interview with Elle magazine. “But it’s a real problem. It happened to a lot of my friends too.”
She says she was disappointed that while pregnant she never experienced the lovely thick hair that so many women talk about. “I was expecting it, and waiting for it, and it never happened. I was like, ‘Where is my awesome part of the pregnancy bargain?’ I didn’t grow some amazing mane.”
But after she gave birth she battled with breakage on parts of her scalp and thinning hair. To cheer herself up she had a mommy makeover, adding blonde highlights but the chemicals just caused her hair to fall out at an even more rapid rate. “I made the problem worse and paid the price for that,” she later shared.
Entrepreneur and lifestyle influencer Mpumi (25) gave birth to her daughter in December 2018. Three months later she noticed postpartum shedding. “It’s easy losing your hair because you made the decision, but when the decision is not yours, that’s another pain,” she said in a video on Instagram (@mpoomy_ledwaba). The shedding began slowly but quickly worsened, lasting three months. ‘My hairline was gone and I had to decide; do I cut my hair and start over or do I fight for my hair? I decided to fight.” She sprayed water and massaged bentonite clay and castor oil on her hairline which helped restore it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Although there’s no way of avoiding it there are steps that new mothers can take to ensure that the condition doesn’t get any worse.
· Avoid tight ponytails, cornrows, hair weaves, braids and tight hair rollers which can pull and stress your hair.
· Use a milder shampoo and conditioner.
· Hair is fragile when wet, so be gentle and avoid fine-tooth combs.
· If you use blow dryers or other heated instruments, keep it on the cool setting.
· Don’t use straightening treatments or chemical dyes as they make the hair brittle and dry, which can worsen the problem.
· Eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables – these contain antioxidants which will help to encourage hair growth.
· Supplement your post-pregnancy diet with vitamin B complex, vitamin C and vitamin E (but don’t exceed the recommended daily dosages).
· Seek medical advice if the condition persists beyond a year or you find you’re going bald. You may need to have tests done to check your hormone levels.