Compression Socks During Pregnancy and Postpartum

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Puffy ankles are a common pregnancy symptom—so common that people often joke about them—but there is a fix: compression socks. If you’re pregnant and experiencing swelling in your legs and feet or have just had a baby and your lower extremities are feeling fatigued from walking that baby all around to get them to sleep, read on for ideas about what compression socks can do for you.

How do compression socks work?

If you have swelling during pregnancy, it’s likely that at least some of it can be attributed to lymph, a colorless fluid that flows throughout the body after draining from organs and tissues, not draining as well as it does when you’re not pregnant. Your body also makes a lot more blood during pregnancy—about 50 percent more—meaning that your veins and arteries are probably at maximum capacity and could use some extra support.

Compressions socks gently apply pressure to the legs and feet, which helps improve blood flow by giving more support to the arteries, which allows them to relax, and to the veins as they push the blood back to your heart. That gentle pressure also helps improve the drainage of lymph. Improving blood flow and lymphatic drainage can decrease discomfort, but wearing compression socks has other advantages, including decreasing the risk of blood clots and decreasing the discomfort of varicose veins.

If you decide to try compression socks or stockings while pregnant, you can wear them all day and take them off at night, or just put them on and wear them for a few hours before bed. If you have swelling after birth or fatigue from being on your feet with a newborn you can wear them whenever you want, but it’s not recommended to sleep in them.

Where can I find compression socks?

Compression socks are everywhere these days. You can order them online or find them in stores, such as Target and your local pharmacy. They come in many patterns and colors, as well as in different levels of pressure, which are sometimes indicated in mm Hg (millimeters of mercury). You can ask your care provider what pressure of compression socks you should get or just start with a low level of pressure 12-15 or 15-20 mm Hg and go up from there. You can start off wearing them an hour or so at a time and gradually work up to wearing them for longer stretches if you find it helpful.

Do These Things in Addition to Wearing Your Compression Socks

If you’re experiencing swelling in your legs and feet during pregnancy, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor or midwife. Swelling is a totally normal pregnancy symptom, but it can also be a sign of a more serious problem. If your swelling increases suddenly or you have other symptoms—such as headaches, dizziness, or blurry vision—that could point to a more serious issue like preeclampsia, it’s a particularly good idea to check in with your care provider.

There are also stretches you can do to help alleviate swelling and fatigue in your legs and feet. One of my favorites is standing on one leg and then switching to the other leg. It might seem silly to alleviate fatigue by making your legs work harder, but standing on one leg activates the muscles and thus stimulates blood flow in a similar way that the gentle pressure of compression socks does. If balance feels tricky during pregnancy, that’s normal. You are welcome to hold on to something while you balance for 20-30 seconds on each foot a few times throughout the day.

You can also lie down—if it feels uncomfortable to be on your back, you can support yourself at an incline with pillows—and prop up your legs. Any height of propping will work, but the higher up you put them, the more effective this position will be in allowing gravity to help your lymph drain out of your legs and feet. I like to recline on a firm pillow that my kids use for climbing and then put my legs up on the wall with my knees slightly bent. I stay as long as feels comfortable.

 

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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