As a veteran three-time C-section mom myself, I was introduced to all three of my children via the operating room through booth planned and unplanned circumstances. And although the surgery may have been the same, each birth brought uncertainty about how quickly I could recover and be a fully-involved mother to my newborn.
Each woman will have their own recovery timeline, but there are a few consistent experiences you can expect following your cesarean delivery. I’m using my Cesarean punch card to explain what you can anticipate following your C-section so you can be confidently wheeled into the OR, ready to meet your baby.
Right after the baby is taken out, doctors and nurses will offer you a quick peek, then check the little one’s weight and Apgar score, as well as clean off any vernix or white film on the baby. Once the baby’s all-clear is given, if you wish, the baby can be placed on your chest.
If you’ve chosen to breastfeed, this is an excellent time to do so, barring any complications. There are numerous benefits from skin-to-skin contact after birth and you can absolutely still reap those benefits after a cesarean delivery—it might just look a little different than with a vaginal delivery. One tip? If you know you will have a planned C-section, discuss what skin-to-skin option are available immediately following the surgery so the team can prepare too.
Side Effects from Spinal Block or Epidural
For most C-sections, you’ll receive either an epidural or a spinal block to manage pain and keep you awake as your baby is removed. After delivery, as the anesthetic wears off, you can expect to be a little disoriented for a few hours.
The degree of grogginess will vary depending on the pain management technique used, but it can be helpful to prepare your support person for this phenomenon. My husband was taken off-guard when, while cradling our newborn, I numbly rambled about the Detroit Lions while coming down from my epidural (I have no recollection or explanation of this!).
There’s no way around it—you can have pain in your abdomen after Cesarean delivery, but how long it lasts will vary for every woman. What remains the same, however, is that it’s incredibly important that you take your discomfort seriously and ask for relief the first days after your surgery. I remember grinding my teeth, trying to be heroic by abstaining from the stronger narcotics after my most recent C-section, but I only made myself more miserable by not asking for what I needed to be comfortable.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) advocates a shared decision-making approach to pain management after delivery, which means that the patient and doctor have an open dialogue when developing a plan for which medicines will be given to the mother and how often. You will most likely be given stronger opioids in the immediate hours after surgery and depending on your pain levels, breastfeeding plans, and other factors, be sent home with instructions to alternate Tylenol with Ibuprofen to stay ahead of your pain. (It’s incredibly important to take your pain medication as scheduled, because this will help keep the pain at manageable levels and not get out of control.)
If you find yourself having intense pain that doesn’t seem to be getting better in the days following delivery, or gets worse, be sure to call your doctor ASAP.
After your Cesarean, most hospitals will provide you with an abdominal binder, which is a firm wrap around your incision that will give you the feeling of being “held in” when your lower abdomen feels loose after surgery. The abdominal binder can help you manage the pain in your incision as you ease into increasing your post-surgery activity.
With each of my own deliveries, the binder made a significant difference in my ability to move around and I always asked for extras to take home. (They can get dirty very quickly and the hospital ones are meant to be disposable.) I also found this binder on Amazon to be great for keeping the pressure on my incision for the weeks following delivery.
Getting Around After Your C-Section
Immediately following your major abdominal surgery, you will be unable to get out of bed on your own, so you should anticipate needing assistance getting up and picking up your baby. Once your spinal or epidural has worn off, your nurses will start to gradually encourage you to sit up, stand, and then walk to avoid blood clots forming in your legs. It’s also vital for getting things moving again in the digestive system and reliving all the excess gas that can get trapped through surgery.
Gas pain can build up and even defer to your shoulders, and some moms report gas pain is more painful than the incision pain, so get moving. Even rocking in your rocking chair can help relieve that gas pain. Also, don’t worry if you break wind in front of the nurses—chances are they’ll just cheer you on anyways!
Moving might be the last thing you want to do, but the sooner you get moving around, the faster you will recover. Having said that, it’s important not to push yourself too hard doing sprints around the labor and delivery unit. Your incision will be quite tender and it will need adequate rest to heal properly.
Using the Bathroom
Speaking of gas, using the restroom is perhaps the least glamorous component of any postpartum recovery. With a Cesarean delivery, you can expect to have vaginal bleeding, or lochia, immediately after delivery until about 4-6 weeks later.
After your catheter (which was inserted during surgery) is removed, you can also expect some difficulty urinating. Constipation may loom for the first weeks after your C-section and when your nurse offers you stool softeners to help you as you struggle through your first few stools, heed my advice and just take them.
Recovery at Home
If breastfeeding is part of your feeding plan, you should know that C-section moms can definitely breastfeed. While your incision is still tender, you may find it more comfortable to use the football hold or, my personal favorite, the side-lying position. You may find it helpful to experiment with different nursing positions, or even pump if holding your baby to your breast is too painful. (Just be warned, feeding directly from the breast is encouraged to establish your milk supply, so make that the priority if possible.)
Breastfeeding moms may experience additional cramping in their abdomen as nursing promotes uterine contractions, which is all the more reason for mothers who have had a Cesarean delivery to have a plan for managing pain.
The advice to rest and “sleep when the baby sleeps” is especially relevant to C-section moms, but it’s also harder to follow. Following my C-sections, I struggled to rely on others for help getting around and neglected to prioritize my own rest because, as a mother, I wanted to feel like I could care for my baby all by myself.
After tearing open my incision after my second delivery, I discovered the hard way that if I didn’t relinquish control and let others step in, my recovery was a longer, more painful journey. Resist trying to do activities like climbing stairs and stepping into a shower on your own, and let your loved ones help if they can.
Sitting up from lying down will be tricky for the first few weeks after a Cesarean. Similar to pregnancy, you’ll want to continue sleeping on your side and back and use your arms to push yourself up out of bed. Sleeping with an abdominal binder may help with some discomfort.
You will also want to put your baby to sleep in a bassinet near your bed to minimize the amount of movement you will have to do during night feedings. Something like the Halo bassinet can be especially helpful for keeping baby close by your bed.
Your stomach will be held together by either sutures or staples after delivery. The sutures will dissolve on their own, but if you have staples, they will usually be removed before you head home from the hospital. Until your postpartum appointment, you should stick to showers and avoid baths. To clean your incision, let soapy water run over your incision site. Resist the urge to scrub it or the scar can become irritated.
Your incision may continue to be tender for weeks after delivery. Along with pain medicine, using ice packs and an abdominal binder can help you to manage your discomfort as you heal.
It’s vital to attend your postpartum checkup after a C-section to address any concerns you have about your recovery. Many practices will set up this appointment before you deliver for 4-6 weeks after your surgery. Your doctor will assess your recovery and clear you for:
In general, you want to give your incision time to fully heal so you can turn your abdomen without pain before you get into the driver’s seat. You also want to make sure you are fully weaned from any opiates you used to manage your pain. And perhaps most important, it could cause significant internal damage if you were to get into an accident in the driver’s seat especially and injure your incision area.
Movement is vital to healing for new moms. The ACOG recently updated their guidelines to encourage strength training and aerobic exercise during and after pregnancy, meaning women should be encouraged to exercise in the postpartum period when they are able.
Talk to your doctor about your specific timeline for getting back into exercise, and consider pelvic floor therapy to ensure your core is healing properly as well. It’s important to keep in mind that even if you didn’t deliver vaginally, pregnancy and birth via C-section can still damage your pelvic floor, so therapy may be warranted.
Although 4- 6 weeks is a safe guideline, many women wait to resume sex until their post-partum bleeding has subsided to reduce the likelihood of infection. Your doctor will give you the go-ahead for sexual activity at your checkup.
When to Call Your Doctor
If something feels wrong, call your doctor. You should reach out if you experience any of the following during your postpartum recovery:
- redness or swelling around your incision
- drainage from the incision
- fever and/or chills
- excessive lochia
- pain that gets worse over time or doesn’t seem to go away
- difficulty breathing
Listening to your body and asking for the support you need are key to facilitating the C-section healing process. Your recovery journey is your own, from how many pain medications you require to how long you want to wear a binder, so it is important not to compare yourself to other moms.
No matter what your recovery looks like, remember to be gentle to yourself and celebrate what your body has done in bringing a new life into the world.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does pain last after a C-section?
The pain you may experience after a C-section will vary between incisional pain, general soreness around your abdomen, and discomfort through your body as other muscles compensate for your abs as they recover. Every woman will experience the pain differently, but in general, the ACOG notes you can expect incisional soreness for a few days after birth. Anytime your pain worsens or you develop new pain, you should call your doctor ASAP.
Can I hold my baby immediately after a C-section delivery?
Depending on the type of anesthesia used and the exact circumstances surrounding your delivery, you may be able to hold your baby after they are born, or even breastfeed. Talk to your doctor about your preferences, and be sure to express your wishes in a birth plan for what might happen if you experience an emergency C-section as well.
How should I sleep after my C-section?
You can sleep however is most comfortable for you after a C-section. Most women find it’s most comfortable to continue using their pregnancy pillow for support and to sleep in a side-lying position. Try to avoid laying directly on your incision until it is healed, and when you get in or out of bed, use your arms to maneuver so you don’t put excess pressure on your abdominals.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…