You may have been prepared for your Cesarean section, but do you know what to expect after? Our C-section recovery guide will help prep you for everything post-op.
Because I was expecting twins who remained stubbornly in breech position for much of my pregnancy, I knew I was a likely candidate for a cesarean section delivery all along, so I was as prepared as possible for the experience. In hindsight, however, there were many questions I didn’t even think to ask — namely, about the C-section recovery timeline. Don’t make my mistake: Arm yourself with all the data you’ll need for a healthy post-op period with our primer on caesarean section recovery.
Immediately after your surgery (congratulations!), you’ll move to a postoperative area where you’ll remain under observation, with hospital staff monitoring things like bleeding (from your vagina as well as from the site of the incision), blood pressure, and temperature. An IV will deliver fluids and a catheter will collect your urine in a bag, which eliminates your need to get up to go to the bathroom as well as the sensation that you have to go — a huge relief after my always-have-to-pee pregnancy!
At this point, you’ll still be without sensation in your lower body because of the anesthesia, and you may feel a bit shaky and woozy from morphine in your IV that manages your pain.
The good news: Barring complications, you’ll be able to hold and breastfeed your baby right away.
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If there are no complications, after several hours you’ll be wheeled from the post-op area to a room in the postpartum recovery unit. You may be offered ice chips — which will taste like heaven in a polystyrene cup after the stress of surgery and delivery — and then switched to a liquid diet (think broth and juice) until your doctor clears you to eat real food.
Following your surgery, nurses will massage your uterus to encourage it to contract and shrink to its normal size. (Sadly, this isn’t as soothing and spa-like as it sounds.)
You’ll be encouraged to get out of your bed, if possible, on the same day. Yes, you just had major abdominal surgery — but the activity will help speed your C-section recovery.
Your catheter is likely to be removed on the morning of the day following your surgery. This means you’ll be walking — at least to the bathroom and back, and possibly farther.
“After the first day, we recommend increasing activity as rapidly as possible, but do recognize that this may be painful. Increase your activity as rapidly as you can do comfortably,” says Aaron B. Caughey, M.D., a former member of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists committee on obstetrics practice. “Increased physical activity helps with circulation, improves bowel function, and will get you back to baseline sooner.”
You’ll feel like a million bucks if you can manage a shower, too. Don’t worry: Water and mild soap are fine over your incision.
You’ll be wearing a pad for bleeding, which may last several weeks following delivery. (Yes, even after a C-section!) This totally normal discharge is called lochia, and it’s a combination of leftover blood, mucus, and uterine tissue.
After your IV is removed, you’ll be asked about your pain (repeatedly!) and given pain medicine as necessary. Take it from me: Don’t be a hero!
You’ll also be asked if you have passed gas. TMI? Nope, it’s actually an important milestone following surgery. And you’ll hardly feel bashful about it in the face of the privacy-shattering experience of childbirth.
By this point, if not earlier, you’re likely eating real food. Even though I had a complication following my delivery, my doctor still cleared me to eat a proper dinner about 12 hours later — and never did I imagine that hospital lasagna could taste so good!
Although moms who give birth vaginally generally stay in the hospital for about two days, the C-section recovery timeline has you staying in the hospital for approximately four days. (Of course, this is dependent on your insurance coverage and barring any complications). Most likely, you’ll be getting ready to go home now. Before you leave, your doctor will remove your staples, if you have them (sutures will dissolve on their own) and cover your incision with Steri-Strips, which are similar to paper Band-Aids and should fall off on their own.
You’ll be advised on caring for your incision — and keeping the wound clean and undisturbed is your best course. “There have not been any good scientific studies demonstrating that any of the over-the-counter preparations are better than just proper wound care,” says Rajiv B. Gala, M.D., the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ young physician at large.
You’ll also be instructed not to lift anything heavier than your baby, and be told to avoid sex, tampons, and douching until after your six-week checkup; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends not placing anything in the vagina for several weeks to prevent infection.
Other no-nos include driving and walking stairs, so you may want to help your C-section recovery by moving your essentials downstairs if you have a multistory home — or, at the very least, batching your trips so that you climb stairs only when it’s essential.
You’ll see your doctor again around this time for a postpartum checkup to examine your incision, which should not show excessive swelling, redness, or signs of infection. (If you see these signs, or are running a fever higher than 100.4°, call your doctor.) Discuss any concerns you have, and ask for an update on recommendations regarding activity as you continue to heal.
Although you’re only two weeks out from a major abdominal surgery, you should expect to feel tremendously better, and on the road to recovery by this stage.
Because I’d gotten so enormous and so physically compromised in my twin pregnancy, I hadn’t so much as walked down the block in many months — yet by this stage I was walking over a mile a day with my double stroller.
You can still expect to look pregnant at this stage (and much longer, for many people) before your uterus shrinks down to its original size.
By this point, you’ll be moving more swiftly and comfortably, taking longer walks, and noticing your bleeding taper off. But keep your expectations in check.
“Don’t compare your recovery to someone else’s because our recoveries vary as much as our genetics and comparisons will only frustrate those who take a bit longer to recover,” says Shawn Tassone, M.D., an Austin, Texas-based ob-gyn and author of the books Hands Off My Belly! and Spiritual Pregnancy. “Listen to your body, and if things hurt, slow down; if you feel tired, rest as much as you can. And it’s okay to take the pain medications prescribed to you by your provider.”
Good news: You’re likely fully healed now! “Full recovery from an uncomplicated cesarean section can range between four and six weeks,” says Dr. Gala, who notes, “The healthier you are before surgery, the quicker the recovery.”
At this point, Dr. Tassone says, most of your sutures, if you had them, will have been about 50 percent absorbed, your uterus will be back down to its normal size, and you’ll be free to have sex.
“Some women may still have pain if they’re bumped along the incision, but for the most part the wound is perfectly healed at this point, and you can resume all normal activities,” he says.
After six weeks, my C-section surgery wasn’t exactly a distant memory, but I was exercising, comfortably lifting my two sweet babies — and their car seats! — and on my way to feeling like my old self again.
Labor & Delivery: What to Expect in a C-Section
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