C-Section Recovery: What to Expect

CSection Recovery

About 30 percent of all births in the U.S. are C-sections. Some C-sections are scheduled in advance. A C-section might be recommended if a woman is carrying multiple babies, had a C-section before, carrying a large baby, or if she has any medical condition that might complicate a vaginal delivery. C-sections may also be unexpected.  A woman may plan on a vaginal delivery but need a C-section because her baby is having breathing difficulties or has an unsteady heartbeat during labor.

Expected or unexpected, a C-section is major surgery which requires an incision through the mother’s stomach and uterus to remove the baby. Recovery from the procedure is more complicated than recovering from a vaginal birth. C-Section recovery usually requires two to three days in the hospital and around six to eight weeks of taking it easy at home. Women who have a C-section may experience the same postpartum symptoms associated with a vaginal delivery but must also recover from a major surgery.

Here are some of the normal postpartum symptoms you may experience after giving birth:

  • Vaginal discharge. During the weeks following childbirth, the uterus discharges the mucous membrane lining. The discharge is red and heavy for the first few days but then fades in color.
  • Many women experience contractions during the first days after a C-section, and these contractions feel like menstrual cramps. The contractions often happen during breastfeeding because the hormone oxytocin is released. These are perfectly normal and an over-the-counter pain reliever can help.
  • Tender swollen breasts. Breasts engorge or fill up with milk a few days after birth. If you plan to breastfeed, do so as often as possible. One way to ease the discomfort is to apply warm washcloths or take a warm shower before breastfeeding. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help, too.
  • Hair loss and skin changes. The elevated hormone levels associated with pregnancy make skin glow and hair shine, but after delivery decreasing levels of hormones can lead to hair loss. The skin discolorations caused by higher hormone levels during pregnancy will also begin to fade.
  • Mood changes. It’s not unusual for new moms to experience the baby blues, that is to feel depressed, have mood swings, or experience crying spells. This is also the result of subsiding hormone levels. However, if the baby blues last more than two weeks or are extreme enough to interfere with your life or caring for your baby, it might be postpartum depression. Talk to your doctor about getting help.
  • Weight loss. After giving birth weight takes awhile to normalize. Most women lose about 13 pounds during birth, which includes the weight of the baby, placenta, and amniotic fluid, but it can take a few weeks to get rid of excess fluid.

C-Section recovery usually requires two to three days in the hospital and around six to eight weeks of taking it easy at home. Women who have a C-section may experience the same postpartum symptoms associated with a vaginal delivery but must also recover from a major surgery.

Special cautions for a C-section recovery

During the four to six weeks that follow a C-section, it’s normal to feel extra tired, uncomfortable, and/or in pain. Rest as much as you can. The incision has to heal, so avoid lifting anything heavier than your baby. During your recovery time you may need help caring for the baby or doing housework.

Here’s what you can do to aid your recovery:

  • Don’t rush it. Don’t lift anything heavier than your baby for the first couple of weeks.
  • Hold your stomach when you cough or laugh. The stomach is cut during a C-section so that part of you needs time to heal.
  • Calm the pain. Your doctor may recommend a heating pad or over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Most pain relief medications can be safely taken while breastfeeding.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you are breastfeeding.
  • Keep the incision area clean and check it for signs of infection.
  • Some puffiness around the scar is normal in the early days, but call your doctor if the incision is red, swollen, hurts, or if you have a fever higher than 100.4 F

Breastfeeding may require some adjustments

There is no reason not to breastfeed after a C-section, but it may be more comfortable to hold your baby in a side hold or football hold.

  • With the side-hold you lie on your side and place the baby on his side, facing your breast. You can support the baby with your hand and use your other hand to position the nipple.
  • With the football hold hold the baby at your side and with your open hand, support the baby’s head so he’s facing in the right direction. In this hold, the baby’s back rests on your forearm. You can use a pillow or the side arms of a chair to support the baby.
  • If you have any problems breastfeeding, talk to a lactation consultant or your doctor.

Healing the incision

The C-section incision is usually a horizontal line between four to six inches. If your incision was stapled, those staples will probably be removed before you leave the hospital. If it’s closed with sutures, the sutures will dissolve on their own.

While healing, it’s okay to shower, as long as you don’t scrub the incision. Avoid bathtubs and swimming during the first weeks. The scar will eventually fade, and by six months it may be only a fine line.

Joan MacDonald
Joan Vos MacDonald has written about health and fitness for newspapers, magazines and websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the author of two books on health-related topics, "Tobacco and Nicotine Dangers," for young adults, and "High Fit Home," a design book about fitness and architecture. She lives in upstate New York near her children and grandchildren.

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